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Work-life harmony is not a balancing act. It is a strategy for managing your personal and professional goals in a way that is uniquely satisfying to you.
It’s that time of year again when posts about work-life balance are popping up on your timeline – as though this isn’t an idea as old as the Industrial Revolution when the downsides of “all work and no play” first came under scrutiny.
Back then employers weren’t concerned about Jack becoming a dull boy so much as they recognised that a 100-hour work week might make Jack sick and therefore less productive – or that Jack might die and cease productivity altogether. While much has indeed changed in the past 150 years or so, institutional support for work-life balance still hinges on the idea that more leisure will ultimately deliver more labour. In the past decade, the term “work-life balance” has itself lost currency, as it came to denote an extra shift of stress-busting activities you neglected at your peril.
Part of the trouble with work-life balance was “balance” – a word that conjures up a situation where different elements exist in equal or the correct proportion to each other. It suggested that there was an objectively ideal relationship between personal life and career that was beneficial for everyone, and which one was therefore obliged to strive for.
In addition, it differentiated between “work” and “life” as though they did not or could not occur simultaneously.
Work and life were also regarded as being typically conducted in separate locations (at or away from the workplace respectively). In spite of the fact that, in the past decade, mobile technology has nurtured an always-on-and-never-done mindset that threatened to make “work-life balance” just another term for flunking out of your company’s high-performance culture.
The massive expansion of remote working as a result of measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 was supposed to deliver peak work-life balance. We may have gained extra hours from eliminating the commute (and in some cases the need to get dressed and brush our hair), but those hours were more likely to accrue to our employers than to leisure pursuits or spending extra time with the kids.
In the end, it all demonstrated just how hard it has become to draw boundaries between work and leisure, and gave rise to a renewed focus on the challenges of juggling the demands of career and personal life.
The good news is that harmony, not balance, is now the goal.
“Work-life harmony” recognises that work isn’t distinct from but a part of life, and that life isn’t suspended in order for work to take place. It allows that, while you have both personal and professional goals that you want to achieve, your priorities at any stage will reflect whatever combination is uniquely satisfactory to you.
The idea that integrating your personal and professional goals involves some kind of balancing act between work and play is however entrenched in our thinking (and likely in that of your HR department). In order to delink the concept of work-life harmony from work-life balance, and help you introduce meaningful flexibility into your own life, here are four suggestions that do not involve bullet journalling or yoga.
1 Find your tune (and be prepared to change it)
Setting the parameters for your own work-life harmony requires that you determine what is most valuable to you, and the outcomes that reflect those values. At certain points in your life these outcomes may be best served by investing nearly all your time and energy in your career; at other times a different set of values may require large swathes of leisure to recharge your creativity, or explore new places and ideas, ahead of a career or lifestyle change. Personal milestones like relationships or becoming a parent will almost invariably reset priorities, but while for some this is their cue to “balance” parenting time with less time at the office, others may be spurred on by a new set of family responsibilities to strike out on their own and create a legacy. The key? Making sure your work-life harmony stays in tune with your goals.
2 Work-people harmony
Some of us are energised by the company of other people; others find that people drain energy that can only be replenished by long spells of solitude. Finding your optimal work-life harmony therefore often means finding the work-people harmony that works for you. If a long day of remote working leaves you craving company, seek out after-hours activities that involve team sports or Covid-considerate get-togethers with friends. If, on the other hand, co-workers and clients leave you feeling wiped out, your sense of harmony is more likely to be restored by a solitary bike ride or movie-night-for-one.
3 Work-work harmony
When you’re done working, do you relax by doing more work? It’s not as contradictory as it may sound. For many people, the hours spent away from their day job is precious time they can devote to a side-gig where the benefits accrue to you and where you call the shots. It may look like work, but if it aligns with your passion, it can be a great source of pleasure and reward. A passion project enriches your life, and if that is not the entire point of work-life harmony, we don’t know what is.
4 Pleasure matters (but not too much)
One consequence of our decades-long obsession with work-life balance was that in order to justify the pursuit of equilibrium between work and play, play increasingly came to resemble work. The German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno explains that a distinction between work and pleasure trivialises pleasure and isolates it from the “serious” content of life. In order for “work-life balance” to become accepted as a valid goal, the stuff we did when we weren’t working therefore became as serious and goal-driven as work itself, and assumed a significance that it became our duty to deliver.
Reframing work-life balance as work-life harmony is more than a matter of semantics. It removes the pressure to lean too hard on the scale marked “life” in order to achieve an even distribution of weight, and encourages us to organise our lives with less emphasis on how the parts relate to each other, and more on harmony with ourselves.