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The myth of the work-life balance

As both a former international banking COO and a Church of England priest, Roger Preece has a unique perspective on the balancing act we perform between the different areas of our lives.

The reopening of offices and the debate about how much time to spend commuting to work and for how many days is causing many people to question their balance between work and the rest of their lives. Home working has been great for many but has created difficult and blurred boundaries between our public and our private selves.

Dealing with a complex work life alongside the complexities of home life is causing many people to question whether they have the right work-life balance. But is it “work-life balance” that we really want? I believe we need to think differently.

The opposite of life isn’t work - it’s death

The phrase ‘work-life balance’ is in itself problematic. When people think about balance, they’re usually considering mutually exclusive opposites: balancing sales growth versus operational excellence, balancing profitability with customer service, balancing time at work with time for leisure. But work and life are not mutually exclusive.

The opposite of life isn’t work - it’s death. Do some people feel that when they’re at work, they’re not fully alive? Do they believe that the fullness of life that they strive for is something outside work? And do they need to reduce work in order to have life?

Hard work can be life affirming

Most senior leaders can look back on times when their work has had to be all consuming and that seemed the right balance in that moment. As a former management consultant, I can remember numerous projects where we burned the midnight oil in order to achieve, together, the goal that we’d committed to. The exhilaration came from the successful completion of a significant project that required an almost obsessive dedication for a period of time. And although there was no balance, it did feel life-giving.

The pursuit of work that has a real sense of purpose leads us to feel valued for our contribution. When we find the sweet spot where our talents are deployed in service of something we value, we might be able to say, like my colleague: “I am not working I am living”.

Too much of a good thing

Work can be meaningful but pursued obsessively to the detriment of everything else, excess leads to a darker side of executive life that potentially leads to burnout and breakdown. Of course, all of us can probably think of times in our lives when the work we’ve been doing hasn’t been life-giving. When the work is particularly toxic, we may talk about our work environment as being soul destroying – an emotive phrase to describe work that diminishes our very selves.

Indeed, it may well be the case that some jobs are inherently meaningless. David Graeber, the former LSE anthropology professor, struck a nerve in 2018 with his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. This contends that more than half of societal work is pointless, both large parts of some jobs and five types of entirely pointless jobs.

Many people look forward to retirement. Yet a retirement, with no meaningful work, can easily lead to boredom - even loneliness. As a friend of mine said: “The trouble with retirement is that there is no work to create the contrast.” A life without at least some purposeful work may not be happy or fulfilled.

Make a balanced life your goal

Instead of discussing work-life balance, I think we need to pursue a balanced life: one full of meaningful work that from time to time may require significant investment in time and effort. This work may be paid or voluntary. But it’s something that we can give to and receive from.

This work needs to be balanced with rest, holiday, sleep, fun, friends, family, exercise and spiritual practices. These, too, are all part of the fullness of life and are essential for a real sense of balance.

Unleashing your best self

So, to be the best version of ourselves and to unleash our strengths as leaders, we need to have a sense of balance in our lives and recognise that it’s a dynamic process. Think of a tightrope walker. Their stability as they walk across their rope is achieved through continual adjustment in the moment to find the point of balance. Where’s the point of balance in your life? Consider where you’d like it to be, as we all change gears again in our patterns of work and life.


Andrew Dyckhoff
Andrew Dyckhoff

Roger makes some powerful points that provoke reflection. I particularly like "the opposite of life is death"'s a timely reminder that life is precious and therefore we need to make the most of it. Work consumes that majority of most people's time and it is all too easy to let habit of work squeeze out our true passions and ambitions.

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