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.
The Problem: Lack of Child Care and Elder Care Support
The U.S. is backwards when it comes to federal family leave policies: We’re the only developed country without paid maternity leave. The 12 weeks of unpaid leave provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act just don’t cut it — and what’s more, 40 percent of Americans work for companies that don’t even qualify for that paltry offer.
After scrimping to make it through those first three months sans income, the lack of support continues. In the last 15 years, child-care costs have skyrocketed, far outpacing inflation and income upticks. A 2014 study by Child Care Aware of America highlights that the amount families spend on caretaking often exceeds housing expenses, college tuition, and food and transportation costs.
"Our current system (or lack thereof) was created when 60 percent of households had a single income earner — now we have exactly the opposite situation."
The effects go beyond dollars and cents: A University of Texas study found that most working moms in the U.S. don’t feel supported in their role as mothers because of the lack of federally mandated paid leave. “Paid work is valued in contemporary societies, and the unpaid work of maintaining a home is often culturally invisible and undervalued,” says study author Caitlyn Collins.
Adding to the load is the fact that 65 million Americans are caring for elderly or sick loved ones — again, receiving little to no government help. As baby boomers age, the financial burden will only increase, putting particular strain on the “sandwich generation:” people with young kids and older parents to tend to. “We are a nation of caregivers, but we don’t have any federal infrastructure to deal with that,” Weisberg says.
Unfortunately, women end up bearing the brunt of it: About 66 percent of caregivers are female, as of February 2015. Female caregivers spend as much as 50 percent more time on providing care than male caregivers.
The need to act as caregivers is at least partly why women’s participation in the labor force has been declining. Lacking support, they find it impossible to juggle home and work responsibilities simultaneously. According to the Bain & Company study, 58 percent of women and 47 percent of men believe that managing both work and family commitments slows or disrupts women’s careers.
What Needs to Change
The sink-or-swim system that working moms find themselves in isn’t working for anyone: As women drop out of the workforce, firms lose many of their rising stars. On the upside, “there is growing recognition that paid leave is good for business,” Weisberg says. Case in point: A small number of thriving companies, including Google, Facebook, and Finnegan, are implementing progressive parental leave policies. “But we also need a broader social infrastructure in place,” she adds.
Some wheels are in motion. California, New Jersey, and Washington now require businesses to partially reimburse employees during maternity leave. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced the FAMILY Act, which would create a fund within the Social Security Administration paid for by employers and employees to provide wage replacement for those on family leave. And Hillary Clinton has declared paid family leave one of the bedrocks of her campaign.
Rethinking child care is the other part of the equation. In 1971, President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Bill, which would have provided a national day-care system, and we’re still living with the consequences. “We have to reframe our core beliefs surrounding child care, and see it as a social good rather than a private matter,” Weisberg says. “We all benefit from supporting working parents, because they’re raising the next generation of workers.”
She points out that our current system (or lack thereof) was created when 60 percent of households had a single income earner — now we have exactly the opposite situation. “A century ago, marriage was considered a division of labor: People wed with the intention that one person would support the family financially, and the other would handle caregiving needs,” Weisberg says. “Today, marriage is a partnership among equals. Couples form a relationship with someone whose contributions are similar to theirs, not totally different.”
Since our workforce and our relationships have shifted enormously over time, the infrastructure needs to line up accordingly. On this front, there are signs of incremental change: New York City launched a free pre-K program in September 2014 (joining Alabama; San Antonio, Texas; Michigan; and Minnesota), President Obama has been pushing for the Child Care and Development Fund to help families afford high-quality child care, and there is bipartisan support for increasing the child care tax credit.
And it makes fiscal sense: The lack of decent child-care options costs U.S. businesses $3 billion annually in employee absences. And investments in early education generate economic returns of $7 to $10 for every $1 spent.
“We need to think about this as something that is good for all of us,” Weisberg says. “Start by acknowledging that we shouldn’t have to struggle with the question of how to achieve balance by ourselves. If women feel exhausted and overwhelmed going back to work after having a baby, [women] shouldn’t feel like we failed. It’s a systemic failure, not a personal failure.” We need to admit that the current structure is broken before we can begin to fix it.
The Problem: Out-of-Touch Leaders
From the dress code to meeting etiquette, “workplace culture is dictated by those at the top of the totem poll,” says Weisberg. So if the CEO has zero work-life balance, those below them will follow suit, scarfing lunch at their desk and answering emails at 10 pm.
Adding to the challenge is that many managers are ill equipped to understand their employees’ personal needs. Weisberg points to research out of Northwestern University showing that power diminishes people’s ability to see another’s perspective. So a male supervisor whose wife stays home with the kiddos (or who has a full-time nanny) is less likely to empathize with staffers who have different arrangements and need more flexibility.
What Needs to Change
“In order to give people the permission to lead full lives, leaders must set new norms in the workplace by modeling balanced behavior themselves,” Weisberg says. That means taking their full parental leave time post-baby, using all vacation days, and going tech free when not at work.
Placing more women in executive positions can help turn the tide, too. Research from the University of North Carolina suggests that men with wives who don’t work outside the home disfavor women in the workplace and are more likely to make decisions that deny their professional advancement.
It’s clear that wide-reaching, systemic changes are needed at the legislative and cultural levels in order to have any significant impact. Otherwise, we’re left trying to find balance in a system stacked firmly against us — a world where balance can never exist. ▲