We think we know what people mean when they say they need better work life balance. But if we analyze the term too closely, we realize that the term is flawed. Is it actually possible to balance work and life? As many people have suggested, isn’t work part of life anyway? Do we really understand what people mean when they say they need better work life balance? It’s very unlikely they want to spend 12 hours at work, and 12 hours on their life each day. They might instead mean things like:
- I need not to work so hard.
- My relationships are suffering.
- I’ve lost contact with my creative side.
- I’m feeling out of touch.
- I’ve lost interest in my work.
- I’m tired all the time.
- I want to feel more fulfilled.
- I love my work but it’s hurting me
Balancing with Positive Psychology
What can the research of Positive Psychology offer if we want to help a friend with a work life balance problem? The first thing not to do is have a philosophical argument about whether the term makes any sense. A much better response is to ask our friend to describe the concern specifically. It’s in the finer details that we find out what’s bothering people. Armed with all the knowledge we have of Positive Psychology (and other relevant fields such as Positive Organizational Scholarship and Appreciative Inquiry), we can begin to consider what can bring more satisfaction to our friend’s life.
A great starting point is the Life Satisfaction framework, such as the one described by Peterson, Park, and Seligman, which starts to tease out different components of happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment. Other related frameworks and theories help to broaden the knowledge and research that we can bring into the conversation.
It may not be a simple matter of identifying our friend’s real underlying problem and offering what might seem to be the obvious solution, according to Positive Psychology. For example, consider the case of someone who has lost passion for work. The answer is not necessarily to identify what gives him meaning and purpose so he can find a job that gives him passion. The problem may reveal itself to be lack of sleep! As Marie-Josee points out in an earlier PositivePsychologyNews.com article, sleep really matters to well-being.
Consider another case, where what the person needed was not a re-balancing of work and life, but just an honest conversation with her spouse. She loved her work and found flow in it, but it sometimes involved working long hours. Her job satisfaction contributed to overall life satisfaction. The couple had a constructive conversation about how work life balance, if that meant her working less, would mean less attention to the work which she loved so much, with some unintended consequences. The couple came to a happy compromise, and the wife is now able to work the occasional long hours without a sense of guilt.
It’s not simple
Work life balance is not a simple topic with simplistic fixes. However, using the increasingly rich, diverse, and interesting results coming from research about what makes life worth living, we can have conversations that delve into the finer complexities of what really lies behind a person’s needs when he or she says something odd like “I need better work life balance.”
Beneviste, J. (2008). Work-Family Flow. PositivePsychologyNews.com.
Britton, K. H. (2009). Psychologically Healthy Workplace Conference Report 2. PositivePsychologyNews.com. Includes a paragraph and figure about a conversation by Dr. Michael Grawitch about work-life balance.
Baltes, B. B., Clark, M.A., & Chakrabarti, M. (2009). Work-Life Balance: The roles of work-family conflict and work-family facilitation. In P. A. Linley, S. Harrington, & N. Page (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work (Oxford Library of Psychology) (pp. 131-142). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life.. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25–41.
Vella-Brodrick, D. A., Park, N. A., & Peterson, C. (2008). Three ways to be happy: Pleasure, engagement and meaning – findings from Australian and US samples. Social Indicators Research, 90, 165-179. Abstract and full-text preview.
Why I don’t believe in work-life balance, part 1.
Marsh, N. (2010). How to make work life balance work. A TED talk.
Photos by Amanda Horne
Amanda – my experience is when people talk about lack of balance they are actually saying they are dissatisfied with life – in particular work. Give them more time to do what they want and they would still be dissatisfied – this was effectively what some research I saw many years ago (sorry have lost the article)suggested.
I too have had that experience with clients. And on the flipside, just a couple of days ago I met someone who said they had work life problems: they loved their work, but they’d let their exercise regime slip i.e. their passion for work took them away from their health. This emphasises the need to dig a little further when someone says they have ‘work life issues’.