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This is the first in a three-part series on “Balance”. If you’re not already getting this by email or to your RSS feeder, you might want to get the Aliventures RSS feed or sign up for posts by email (in the right-hand toolbar).

I’m going to hazard a guess that you’ve heard the phrase “work/life balance” quite a few times. It was coined in the 1980s, and gets trotted out by corporations all the time.

There are various definitions, but essentially, work/life balance is about having sufficient leisure time outside your job, and having time to take care of non-work commitments. It’s a concept you’re much more likely to come across if you’re working for a boss rather than being self-employed.

And I’ve always found it pretty dubious. Here’s why.

Work is PART of Your Life

Drawing a line between “work” and “life” implies that they’re two separate areas. “Work” is the place you go to between 9am and 5pm every day; “life” is what you do in the evenings and at the weekends.

The thing is, work is part of your life. If we could behave as two separate beings – the “work” person and the “life” person – then we’d all go for whatever job gave us maximum money for minimum hours. The truth is, though, that if you’re miserable at work, you’re going to be unhappy in the rest of your life too:

Considering how much time we spend at work, it is hardly surprising it can have a huge impact on our mental wellbeing.

(Paul Farmer, Mind’s chief exec, quoted in Guardian article, Workplace stress: why the Sunday blues are ruining our weekends)

I think there’s a real danger in not admitting that work is a fundamental and important part of your actual life and happiness. When I graduated from university and got my first full time job, I went with something which seemed to offer a good “work/life balance”. The job itself didn’t require much creativity; the company was small and willing to be flexible about hours; I thought I could do my work each day and enjoy the rest of my life.

I slowly realised that it doesn’t go like that. Work is a fundamental part of who you are, and if your work doesn’t feel anything like “you”, it’s going to make you unhappy.

Work/Life Balance Favours Employers

The other thing which bugs me about the “work/life” concept is that it’s focused on benefits to the employer – not to workers. Now, even in my most socialist and idealistic moments, I recognise that companies are not charities … but does business really need to be done in a way that implies people are simply another resource?

Picking up where traditional training and work life benefits leave off, 5 Steps to Better Work Life Balance boosts productivity by teaching people how to attain a higher level of Achievement & Enjoyment everyday, both on and off the job.

With our work life balance program, performance, accountability and commitment go up and negative attitudes, stress and turnover go down.

(From http://www.worklifebalance.com/)

I’m sure lots of companies have adopted policies on work/life balance. That might mean flexitime, remote working, an on-site crèche, even game rooms at work. I wonder, though, whether these really meet the needs of employees – and whether the focus is more about squeezing a little extra productivity out of people. Having a company gym might encourage your employees to stay a bit later and do some unpaid overtime before heading for their evening workout. Allowing kids to be brought into the office might make parents feel obliged to cart their kids into work rather than work remotely even when childcare falls through – even if that’s not great for their kids (or for the focus of everyone else in the office).

Settling for Second Best?

The “work/life balance” reflect a cultural mindset which pushes us towards settling for second-best in our work. We all too often believe that all we can really hope for from a job is that it pays the bills, doesn’t take up all our time and energy, and allows us to switch off from work in the evenings and at the weekends.

I strongly believe that’s not the case at all. Yes, of course circumstances sometimes mean that we settle for something less than ideal. But I believe that should be the exception, not the rule. I think it’s shocking that only 39% of young workers (under 25) are even “satisfied” with their jobs. (Americans hate their jobs more than ever, MSNBC).

What’s wrong with our world? When did we tell ourselves that this is “normal” and that expecting anything more from our work – from our life – is, at best, wishful thinking, and at worse, dangerous self-indulgence?

I want to make it clear here that I have nothing against employment. I know there’s a bit of a trend in my corner of the blogosphere for people to rail against bosses (read Steve Pavlina’s 10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job if you want an example). There are all sorts of callings and passions which need a corporate structure in order to be fully realised.

Whatever your dream is, whether you want to be a writer or an actor, or a lawyer in a huge firm, or a bank manager, you shouldn’t feel that it’s unrealistic or unattainable. Don’t settle for a job which isn’t you, which leaves you feeling vaguely unsatisfied in your free hours because you spend most of your time just recovering from work.

The big economic powers – business and government – have a considerable self-interest in encouraging you to work more and to consume more. Don’t assume that talk of “work/life balance” is all about companies becoming nice and warm and touchy-feely.

Cheering cos you think I’m right on? Shaking a fist at your screen cos you think I’m totally wrong? Let’s have it in the comments…

Second part in the series: Balancing Work and … Work