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Why it’s wrong to look at work-life balance as an achievement

Traditionally, we view reaching a good work-life balance as hitting a goal. But it may be more of a moving target than we realise

Source | | Bryan Lufkin

Few topics have been so endlessly analysed, glorified and dissected as work-life balance. The quest to attain this somewhat nebulous state has dominated discourse around careers for years – especially for working parents. The concept is often presented as something to achieve, or a goal to reach. And once you’ve reached it, congratulations: you’ve made it; you’re a successful human being of the 21st Century.

But the problem is that we often tell ourselves: “’I’m going to put in eight hours’ worth of work, and then I’m going to put in eight hours’ worth of me time, which will include my family, my hobbies, my workout, my everything’,” says Anat Lechner, clinical associate professor of management at New York University. “I don’t think it’s such a simple formula.”

And, according to new findings, it may not be. Some researchers are now encouraging us to stop thinking about work-life balance as an achievement that you either hit or don’t. Instead, they suggest it may be more of a lifelong process – a continuous, never-ending exercise that requires vigilance, self-awareness and timely tweaks.

Not a one-time fix

Forget reaching that golden goal: researchers Ioana Lupu of ESSEC Business School in France, and Mayra Ruiz-Castro of the University of Roehampton in the UK argue that work-life balance is a “a cycle, not an achievement”.

In their 2020 study, the researchers interviewed nearly 80 employees at two London-based firms – an equal number of men and women between the ages of 30 and 50, all with at least one dependent child – who worked in middle or senior management roles.

Although it sounds like the respondents had a lot in common, here’s what separated them: about 30% of the men and 50% of the women reported resisting working long hours. The other respondents, meanwhile, all worked long hours because they thought that’s what successful professionals should do.

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