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Three models of work-life balance

The term work-life balance was first popularized by the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1980s, and though the term has evident visceral power and lived on in our collective imagination since, it is still an extremely nebulous concept.

How we define it matters a lot. What will work-life balance really mean for you in the coming years and decades? Clearly, there are nuances to consider, and every individual and organization will have their own detailed definitions. In this blog, we offer three distinct pillars to map out what each would mean for your work, your life, and future.

It's a match: pairing work with passion

Integrating work-life balance emphazises harmony between work and personal pursuits. The idea is to match talent with work so that an individual’s personal interests are utilized within the working environment. Many professions almost necessitate this kind of approach: artists, religious workers, and athletes, by definition, invest their entire lives in the pursuit of their professional goals, and often see no clear distinction between the two.

Done right, this will produce a level of engagement that is impossible to create any other way; done wrong, it will increase burnout and ultimately produce a culture of excessive demands. It is virtually impossible to manufacture this kind of dedication and attempts to do so risk exacerbating existing work-life balance issues further. Instead, the way to achieve true work-life integration is through a meaning-driven culture which can capture employees’ imagination and a meticulous hiring process that eschews all but the specific subset of workers who want to devote themselves to the work. From an employee’s point of view, this approach is ideal for workers who seek a level of ownership over their work most organizations can’t offer.

A separated work-life balance

Treating work and life as fundamentally separate may be the most intuitive definition of work-life balance: by drawing clear lines between the two, workers can engage with work during the proper hours and then switch off, disconnect, and generally enjoy life free of office-related stress. For some, this is the default ideal – a ‘work to live’ mentality – but it can also make work appear disposable and often meaningless. As flexible work increases, this separation may actually become harder to maintain, and any organization looking to offer this kind of work-life separation should be careful instituting remote work.

While a growing number of countries have adopted ‘right to disconnect’ laws, it is generally difficult to enforce them. Work-life separation requires a great deal of discipline, and leaders should be aware that much of this separation has to be the work of employees; if poorly managed, it can actually cause a great deal of excess stress, as workers are constantly desperate to leave work and get back to their ‘life’.

What organizations can do is be forthright in encouraging a healthy work-life separation, whether that be instituted in their actual company policy or simply through managerial exchanges. A good model for this is simple: employers provide extra room for workers to enjoy their lives – through increased holidays, shorter hours, among others – and demand, in return, a greater level of motivation and engagement during office hours.

Flexibility & work-life balance

An emphasis on work-life flexibility is, in some ways, a medium between the two approaches we’ve already discussed; by emphasizing the freedom to shift priorities when necessary – for example, working harder during important periods but then being allowed more holiday or flexibility when workflows are less hectic – the idea is to build a culture and way of working which puts shifting priorities and puts autonomy first.

There are clearly issues here: for one thing, there is no way to ensure workers won’t forgo their freedom to get ahead, and this may lead to overwork and burnout. Similarly, strong management will be needed to ensure workers don’t take advantage of the flexibility and become complacent.

Organizations looking to create this kind of flexible balance between work and life should focus on clarity and transparency: a culture of openness – where employees feel safe and empowered to discuss their needs and wants – will encourage individuals to take responsibility for their work and enjoy greater freedom and flexibility without devaluing the work they contribute. For workers who are passionate about what they do but don’t wish to be defined by it, this might provide the perfect healthy balance.

Head over to The birth of the workweek for more insights.  

As a global talent partner, we are constantly on the pulse of evolving workplace patterns and its impact to talent management. If you’re a professional looking to make a career-defining next step or client searching for your next business-critical hire, contact us today.