From the outside looking in, Emily appeared to have it all: a challenging and promising career, a supportive spouse, two beautiful young boys, a gorgeous home in a desirable neighborhood, and a close knit group of friends.Emily managed to make time to accomplish a ton every day: up at 4 a.m. to hit the gym, home to eat breakfast with the family, off to work for the day, and back in time to read the boys a bedtime story.
Her friends thought she was superhuman, but Emily was barely holding it all together. Appearances can be misleading. If you had the opportunity to talk to Emily, she would openly report that she was overwhelmed, exhausted, and sad. She felt as if her life was out of control, like she wasn’t really succeeding in any one area. She was desperate to find some kind of balance, but was not sure how she could fulfill all of her responsibilities any other way. Emily was trying to figure out what a flourishing life might look like for her, but she just didn’t know where to begin.The question is an age-old one: How do we find the right balance between work and the rest of our lives?
Is that the right question?
I don’t think so. Balance, as I understand it, often requires that people make trade-offs, compromising satisfaction in one or more areas of their lives to fulfill responsibilities in another. Stew Friedman found that compromising in this way can leave people feeling inauthentic, disconnected, and stressed.
In response to this problem, he proposed an alternative approach with his model of work-life integration. The idea is that we can be the agents of own lives by actively engaging in what matters most to us. According to Morris and Madsen, “integrated individuals have greater opportunity for coherence, unity, fulfillment, happiness, maturity, health, and wellness,” because they do not compromise their values for the sake of any one area in their lives. I believe that by effectively integrating all life domains, individuals empower themselves to flourish.
Looking for 4-Way Wins
Friedman outlines an approach to integration that emphasizes the importance of creating four-way wins at work, home, community, and self when making decisions in any one area. The process requires that we purposefully explore how the different aspects of our lives connect and relate to each other. The challenge then is to identify opportunities in our lives where mutual gains across domains can be created and realized.Friedman finds that producing four-way wins is possible for anyone who is willing to practice being real, being whole, and being innovative. Being real means acting with authenticity. The authentic individual knows what is important and behaves accordingly. Being whole means acting with integrity. The whole person views life as a system, recognizing how life domains both work together and differ from each other. The innovative individual experiments with behavior to most effectively and confidently adjust to new circumstances. When effectively combined, being real, whole, and innovative enable us to enhance our own well-being.
Beyond the Zero-Sum of Balance
Making the psychological shift from the zero-sum game approach of work-life balance to one of integration may seem relatively straightforward, but its actualization is hardly simple. As with any change, integration requires commitment, determination, and hard work. Yet with an open mind, creative spirit, and adequate support, change is possible.
Work-life integration was the subject of my capstone study, in which I described 18 leadership skills with multiple specific activity recommendations for helping people work toward work-life integration. Of course, part of being real, authentic, and innovative is selecting the recommendations that work for you, as Emily did. Here are a few examples of the leadership skills I included in my capstone:
- Align actions with values
- Convey values with stories
- Envision legacy
- Embody values consistently
- Help others
- Clarify expectations
For Emily, the key was letting go of the minutia of her life in favor of embracing a much bigger picture, the flourishing life that she had envisioned for herself. By purposefully acting in alignment with that vision, Emily was well on her way to becoming her best self.
Comtois, K. (2012). Positive Psychology and work-life integration: The mutually satisfying relationship. Capstone for the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree at the University of Pennsylvania.
Friedman, S. D. (2008). Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.
Morris, M. L., & Madsen, S. R. (2007). Advancing work-life integration in individuals, organizations, and communities. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 9(4), 439-454.