Integrate, not balance, to enjoy work and life

Rebecca Weitzel
Rebecca Weitzel

You’ve seen it at parks and gymnastics meets. You’ve been dazzled by it at the circus. But if you’ve ever tried walking along a slack line, balance beam or tight rope, you know it takes concentration, control and lots of practice to remain steady and not fall. For many of us, finding balance — whether in the air or life — feels precarious and easily disrupted with the slightest misstep or shift in the wind.

So, what does this mean for the commonly used phrase “work-life balance?” Books and workshops encourage us to seek balance between work and personal life. Is it possible, though, we’re setting ourselves up for failure by shooting for such a tenuous goal? A goal that pits work and life against each other as though they’re enemies? A goal that reminds us if we take one too many personal calls at work or answer an e-mail at home, we’re disrupting the fragile balance and forfeiting our happiness?

What if instead of struggling to balance work and life, we borrow a page from the life of a farmer to integrate it all?

In reality, this is how most of us naturally operate. We pack to work the lingering stress from an argument with our partner and lug home the disappointment of not getting that promotion. We gather the energy born of a good night’s sleep and share it with co-workers at the morning meeting. We collect meaningful experiences at work and use them to build a sense of purpose. We capture ah-ha moments in the shower and insights on vacation that lead to innovations that transform our organizations. Back and forth we go, the same humans with the same thoughts, feelings and needs whether we’re at work or at home.

Employers that account for the way work and life weave together instead of competing can take steps to foster integration and, as a result, increase productivity, reduce turnover and improve morale.

One way to begin is to create more space for life in the workplace. Rather than treating breaks, vacations and personal pursuits as distractions, employers could encourage these practices to increase creativity. Rather than insisting employees simply trade their time for money, bosses could help employees set meaningful goals that resonate deeply and allow for flexibility as to how they’re completed. Rather than dismissing the realities of family life, employers could implement policies that allow team members to adequately attend to loved ones’ needs. Rather than relying on employees to manage their physical and mental health outside of the workplace, employers could bring in health experts, offer employee assistance programs, encourage exercise during paid time, provide access to healthy snacks and implement structured wellness programs. Everyone wins when employees feel cared for and supported at work rather than disconnected and eager to bolt at the end of the day.

Along with infusing more life into work, many employees are comfortable with more work flowing into life, especially if it’s done on their terms. For example, a father might be happy to answer e-mails at 9 p.m. if it means he can pick up his kids from school in the afternoon. A wife might be happy to conduct business remotely if it means she can occasionally go on a spontaneous overnight trip with her spouse. A man might wake up at the crack of dawn with a brilliant idea and choose to dig right in rather than wait for the office to open. A woman might review reports while exercising at the gym. Shift workers might agree to remain on call or take on extra hours if they’re paid a wage that allows them to buy fresh food, dance lessons for their kids and vacations.

By ditching the word balance in favor of integration, some might argue there’s no real difference, that it’s just semantics. But words matter. They produce mental pictures, shift our mindsets and evoke emotions that influence how we feel and what we do. Balancing acts are for the circus. In our lives, they’re exhausting. Integration is connection. It creates flow. It also helps us to better acknowledge the reality of our modern world in which hard lines between work and life no longer exist.

By aiming for work-life integration, we can improve our lives on both ends of the spectrum, better support employees in their wholeness and, as a result, watch our companies thrive.