Defining Work-Life Balance: Energy is the Missing Ingredient

Defining work-life balance today is no easy task. Digital integration encourages an “always on” culture blurring the line between work and personal life. Modern work-life balance may need to look beyond balancing time to balancing energy.

What is Work-Life Balance?

Defining work-life balance involves looking at how working people manage time spent at and outside of work. Time outside of work may include managing relationships, family responsibilities, and other outside interests and hobbies. The methods an individual uses to juggle all their work and life demands constitute their work-life balance. The definition is simple, yet working professionals everywhere struggle to define it for themselves, let alone achieve it. Those in pursuit find a complicated landscape with thousands of articles and claims to getting there. With many people feeling stressed and not “balanced” it’s time to take a look at how we conceptualize work-life balance and the ways in which it will need to evolve for professionals today.

A Brief History of Work-Life Balance

It’s the late stages of the Industrial Revolution and people are overworked. In the United Kingdom, it’s common for the average worker to work 14-16 hours a day, 6 days a week. These long hours had social and health costs, especially for young children who were also working. Labor reformers drew attention to this until the United Kingdom agreed to fewer hours for women and children.

Around the same time, the US begins tracking the hours worked by its workers and discovers that, on average, its workers performed more than 100 hours a week. These hours worked posed serious health and safety risks for the entire country.  On October 24, 1940, after decades of worker movements, the US officially amends the Fair Labor Standards Act and adopts the 40-hour work week. This was the first move in giving workers back more time.

The actual term “work-life balance” first appears in the U.K. in the 80’s as a plank in the Women’s Liberation Movement. The movement advocated for flexible schedules and maternity leave for women. But while men were socially unencumbered to pursue their career goals without worrying about housekeeping and family-raising, working women were expected to work and maintain responsibility for housekeeping and family rearing. In the 80s a frequent refrain pointed out this obvious work-life imbalance asking could women in the workplace really “have it all”. Despite voicing these needs, women experienced little relief or movement towards work-life balance.

Defining Work-Life Balance Today

Today, work-life balance has shifted to incorporate both the issues and strategies aimed at effective time management for employees. It has also expanded to include burnout prevention and stress management. Employees today want better time management skills to spend time with their families and on their personal interests. And, unlike the 80s, there is increasing emphasis today in making work-life balance more gender neutral. Work-Life balance should be attainable and evenly distributed across genders. (2015 EY Global Generations Survey).

Even with these strides, there is still a disconnect on perceived work-life balance levels between employees and HR professionals. According to a February 2015 study by Workplacetrends.com, 67% of HR professionals reported that their employees are achieving work-life balance, while only 45% of their employees reported the same.

One common and popular way that employers help employees achieve work-life balance is through flexible schedules. Instead of a strict 9am-5pm workday, employees have the flexibility to shift their schedules. Perhaps work 10am-6pm or 7am-3pm with little advanced scheduling or approval. Of course, there are downsides to this. Some argue that this approach simply shifts time units, and doesn’t address a deeper need for quality time. Others have noticed that flextime, though attractive for recruitment, can lead to disadvantages for younger workers in the form of lower wages, role stagnation, and even termination.

Still, digital integration threatens the freedoms gained from flextime by blurring the lines between work and life. Often, employees find themselves using their flextime to stay digitally connected to work. It’s increasingly difficult to know where work ends and life begins. And the more tech savvy one is, the more difficult it is to draw a line between the two. Since technology and our “always on” culture isn’t going away anytime soon, the conversation on work-life balance needs to evolve.

The Evolution Toward Work-Life Integration

So, what is the next step? Many professionals are calling for work-life integration in lieu of work-life balance. They argue that by removing the boundaries separating work and life, the two domains can be integrated seamless.y. While someone who focuses on creating work-life balance may set a time where they stop working every day to ensure they have enough time for life’s pursuits, someone focusing on work-life integration may leave work early to go to their child’s softball game and reply to work emails between innings.

Could this be the answer? It seems that this vision can only be conceived by employers and realized by entrepreneurs. Work-life integration is too narrow a lens to re-imagine this as work-life balance. It’s still based on the idea of two separate domains — work and personal lives —  and a time tradeoff. The only material difference between work-life balance and work-life integration is that with integration, the two domains are expected to intermingle and increasingly overlap. In fact, work-life integration may fuel the sense of imbalance even more because employees feel as if they have to be “always on.”

Unlocking Energy with Purpose

The workforce is now shifting with more focus on meaningful work. Measurements of workforce productivity and growth are subject to new inputs like purpose, creativity, engagement, and presence. In this landscape, work-life balance is also subject to these inputs and allocation of time no longer suffices as a measurement of good work-life balance.  Removing “balance” or “integration” from the equation and focusing on how we spend our energy instead of time can help lessen these tensions. It’s important to recognize that we all have important things to spend our energy on, but how we choose to use our energy and generate new energy is something we can have control over, and it is crucial to our efforts of defining work-life balance in the future.

So how do we maintain and even increase our energy throughout the day? Simple: purpose. A landmark study in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health found that setting a work purpose is a surefire way to stay energized throughout the day. Our own proprietary Kumanu data also shows that having a sense of purpose does wonders in creating energy. In fact, Kumanu users with a high sense of purpose have 34% more energy than those who have a low sense of purpose.

purpose relationship to energy

Defining work-life balance in the future can look like a worker and their employer sharing a belief that purpose at work and in life is paramount. In this future, work can even start to provide us with energy to fuel and attend to our personal interests rather than depleting it. Conceptualizing work-life balance in terms of energy opens up the opportunity to have a source of intrinsic motivation that you have control over, instead of a fixed source like time.

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