Having it all. Finding work-life balance. However you put it, this notion of striking harmony between your career and personal life is talked about like something any of us can attain — if we only try hard enough, manage our inbox better, untether ourselves from technology, or practice mindfulness.
But for many people, this is one of the biggest whoppers we’re being fed. In fact, one-third of full-time employees globally report that managing work and family has gotten harder in the last five years, according to a study by EY.
It’s often an issue of framing: “Part of the problem is that work-life balance has always been thought of as a personal issue. We talk about it in terms of what you as an individual can do to find equilibrium,” says Anne Weisberg, senior vice president at the Families and Work Institute. In reality, “it’s a social issue,” she says. “I know it runs counter to the American ethos, but there is no such thing as a free choice. As the economist Betsey Stevenson says, all choices are constrained to some extent, so you maximize whatever you’re trying to achieve within that context.”
In other words, there’s only so much you can do on your own to achieve balance; your success depends in large part on how the system is set up in the first place. And frequently, the odds are stacked against the possibility of reaching a happy medium.
Here, we delve into the structural challenges at play and what needs to change at a fundamental level before we have a real shot of arriving at both personal and professional fulfillment.
The Problem: Grueling Hours
Working a strictly 9-to-5 job is practically unheard of nowadays: The average workweek has expanded to 47 hours, according to a Gallup poll, and that’s not counting time spent plugging away off-site.
A survey from the American Psychological Association found that more than half of people check work messages before and after work, over the weekend, and while home sick. Forty-four percent stay connected when on vacation. And while 51 percent of office-based workers say digital tools give them more flexibility in their hours, 47 percent also agree that these tools have increased the amount of time they spend working.
“White-collar workers are expected to be available 24/7,” Weisberg says. “Our culture reinforces the idea that the best employees are those who are always on call and don’t have any responsibilities outside of their job.”
After all, the people who show up early and leave late, logging upwards of 60 hours a week and answering emails right away are the ones most likely to move up the ladder. Participants in a study by Bain & Company agreed that one of the most important characteristics for promotion in their companies was an “unwavering commitment to long hours and constant work”; researchers also noted that star employees were “always on” via email or cell phone.
"Your success depends in large part on how the system is set up in the first place. And frequently, the odds are stacked against the possibility of reaching a happy medium."
“Employers proclaim their desire to treat staff fairly and support work-life balance, but they secretly applaud those who come in early, stay late, and go the extra mile,” says Jeff Davidson, founder of the Breathing Space Institute and author of Breathing Space. A study published in Organization Science revealed that some people actually pretend to be workaholics, when in reality they work much less than their bosses think, because they know they’ll be rewarded for burning the midnight oil.
And the more progressive policies in place to help employees simply aren’t working: A study by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company found that although “many” companies purport to offer flexible working schedules, employees are reluctant to use them for fear of being penalized. More than 90 percent of people believe taking the extended family leave their firms has offer will hurt their professional advancement.
What Needs to Change
Organizations need to understand that the number of hours clocked does not necessarily equal efficiency. Proof: A Stanford University study showed that not only does productivity nosedive after working more than 48 hours a week, but employees are also more likely to make costly and dangerous mistakes.
Rethinking the whole game may sound far-fetched, but it’s not out of the question. Recently, some Swedish companies have been experimenting with a 30-hour workweek, where staffers work six hours a day for the same pay, in the hopes that it will boost productivity and morale. While there’s no conclusion yet, early signs are promising, with firms reporting increased revenue and happier staffers.
Companies also need to stop the cycle of rewarding workhorses and punishing those who take advantage of flexible policies. The most productive and creative employees should be promoted over those who just have a smartphone grafted to their palm.
The Problem: Our Offices Are All Wrong
Communal tables, open bullpens, work “stations,” cubicles: Companies these days are allergic to doors. But as bright and airy as these expansive spaces are, they’re taking a toll on our concentration — and our ability to finish our work in a reasonable time frame. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology reported that the elevated noise level and lack of privacy in open settings outweighed the benefits of increased communication between staffers.
“This arrangement is inherently disruptive, particularly when it comes to tasks that require conceptual thinking,” Davidson says. “Yet firms opt for [it] because it’s cheaper to have one huge space and call it an open office than to build individual enclosed offices.”
What Needs to Change
Organizations have to recognize that while a wide-open floorplan might shave money off the budget in the short run, they’re ultimately hurting themselves long-term. If you’re cubicle bound, Davidson suggests maximizing productivity by adding a sound-absorbing cork board or rug, relying on earplugs, and taking your work into an empty cafeteria or unused conference room when you really need to concentrate. “If possible, you can also adjust your hours so that you arrive earlier than everyone else and leave earlier — or vice versa,” he says.
Another option is for companies to let people stay in their pajamas. A study in the Harvard Business Review found that working from home results in about 14 percent higher productivity, plus lower turnover and greater employee satisfaction. “Lobby to work from home once every two weeks — you can focus the way you can’t in a noisy office,” Davidson says. “When you come back with great results, you’ll reinforce that it’s an effective strategy.”
There are balance benefits, too: Not only will you save time by not having to commute, but you’ll also have the freedom to run out for a midday gym session, pick up your kid after school, and generally do things whenever works best for you, rather than sticking to the strict office schedule.