The Deception of Work-Life Balance

Work-Life Balance.  It’s a popular concept.  Many business magazines and other publications have lists of recommendations to improve a person’s work-life balance.  The idea is that the time and effort put into work has to be balanced with life.  It’s a strategy to avoid becoming what used to be called a “workaholic.” It sounds positive.  But the concept is fundamentally flawed.

What the concept of work-life balance misses is that work is part of one’s life.  The work we do has the potential for providing fulfillment in our lives and provide us with a sense of meaning.  Even when we hate our jobs or find them boring and routine, the work we do or the people with whom we work may enhance our lives in other ways.  Work-life balance is based on a dualism that assumes work is negative and life is positive.  The concept misses that work is a part of life and can be fulfilling in itself.

At the same time, many workplaces view employees not as individuals but as something like drones fulfilling tasks for the benefit of the company.  In this situation, workers are interchangeable widgets who perform tasks.  There’s been a substantial amount of press about warehouse supply centers for mail-order products, call centers, and even major chains of stores having this approach to employees.  This same critique can be made throughout the service industry today as well as among professional workplaces.  The value of the person is obscured for the sake of corporate profit.  This occurs despite years of research which shows that people are more motivated by an intrinsic sense of value than by external motivators like rewards.

When the work we do is given nothing more than utilitarian value, the result is a deadening of the human spirit.  It increases our sense of life’s futility, the experience of boredom, and feelings that life — our individual lives — are worthless.  Rather than attempting to change the workplace ethos, the concept of work-life balance reinforces it by insisting that a person’s sense of value needs to come on “their own time” outside of the workplace.

The predicament of people finding that the value assigned to them is merely utilitarian is not new.  It’s as old as the stories found in the Hebrew Scriptures — stories collected about four thousand years ago.

The paradigmatic story of the Hebrew Scripture is the exodus of the people from Egypt to the Promised Land.  One dimension of the story speaks to human dignity and work.  As the Biblical story recounts, the Hebrew people were enslaved in Egypt.  In their enslavement, their task was to make bricks from mud and straw.  These people, a minority group, only had value for their utility: making bricks.  When the government sought to increase repression, they did so by restricting the supplies needed to make bricks while maintaining the workers’ quota.

It’s into this context that Moses was sent to convince the Hebrew people that they had worth and value not because of their work but because of who they were.  Because of who they were, they would be delivered to a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.  But to enter that Promised Land, they needed to understand their identity in a different way.  They needed to move from a self-understanding of having value only for utilitarian work to a self-understanding of personal worth and value as the chosen people of God.  Coming to this new self-understanding didn’t come easily for them.  The stories of the Exodus convey many instances of the people wanting to return to Egypt, both literally and in their mindset.  The identity they developed in Egypt was so ingrained that it took two generations of wandering in the desert to come to a new sense of identity.

What does this ancient story have to say about work today?  Indeed, workers have always been reduced in value to the utilitarian functions they perform.  Today, there are ways it is more pronounced.  With policies on intellectual property, copyright, and patent ownership all remaining with corporations, even the creativity of employees is not their own.  Personal value is lost for the sake of corporate profits.

The sacred story of Exodus stands as a reminder that our worth as individuals is far greater than we usually imagine.  There is something Divine in us that sparks creativity and engages us in ways that touch our spirits deeply.  This can be experienced through work.  Rather than focusing on work-life balance which implies that work should be unfulfilling, we need to reimagine how work can be an expression of human dignity and worth.  After all, when people lead fulfilling lives, the quality of work improves.  Work that inspires us with meaning and purpose leads us to more balanced and whole lives….as well as better work and greater productivity.


Photo by Digitalnative on / CC BY-NC-ND

© 2018, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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