One could argue that the concept of work-life balance originated way back in 1817 when Welsh manufacturer and labor activist Robert Owen suggested dividing the day into three equal parts – eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation, and eight hours of rest.
Of course, there wasn’t much balance before the Industrial Revolution as people worked an average of 65 hours per week. Farmers lived at the farm. Shop owners lived above the shop. Most of the modern barriers between work and life didn’t exist.
During the Industrial Revolution, people would go to manufacturing plants and work the same long hours or more. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Henry Ford took the 9-to-5 workday mainstream after years of pressure from labor unions.
For decades, there was a clear, physical distinction between work and home, which many believe has been an obstacle to work-life balance. This dynamic, along with the emergence of mobile and cloud technology, has led to an increased push for work-life balance during the past 20 years.
Although people were clamoring for work-life balance prior to the pandemic, I don’t think the phrase was clearly defined or understood. The only thing everyone seemed to agree upon was that flexible scheduling and the ability to work from home were essential to achieving work-life balance. More than anything, it was an aspirational catchphrase that was probably ahead of its time considering the issues we face in a post-Covid world.
What Are You Doing with Unprecedented Freedom and Flexibility?
If you look at where we stand today, post-Covid, we’ve come full circle. People are back on the farm or in that apartment above the shop. The barriers between work and home have been removed. More people than ever have the freedom and flexibility that they had been seeking for years.
You would think the perfect work-life balance has been achieved since people are able to spend more time at home than ever. The irony here is that the opposite is happening. Most people have less work-life balance than when they commuted to an office each day.
Many people who have chosen to work remotely have all the flexibility in the world and, frankly, they’re not sure what to do with it. They’re not sure how to shut down, come in from the farm, or come up from the shop. As a result, many people working from home are more stressed and exhausted than ever. I’m concerned about the mental health problems that this situation may create.
Shifting from Work-Life Balance to Work-Life Well-Being
As stated previously, work-life balance in the traditional sense focused on flexibility when the ultimate goal should have been to create a healthy work environment. Since Covid, more people have embraced the advantages of working from home, but a healthy work environment could mean having the structure of going into the office each day. It depends on the individual.
The problem is that flexibility does not automatically create a healthy work environment. It doesn’t automatically reduce stress and the downstream mental and physical health problems created by burnout.
This is why we need to shift the focus to achieving work-life well-being. Are you healthy? Are you happy? Are you productive? What steps need to be taken to improve your well-being by taking full advantage of the flexibility to work remotely or in an office? What type of work environment and activities will support your efforts to optimize your health, happiness, and productivity?
You may fall into the group that would feel and function better by simply returning to the office, and that’s okay. Ultimately, the formula for achieving work-life well-being is different for each individual.
The Role of the Individual
The pandemic has shown us in a relatively short period of time that the ability to work from home does not equal work-life well-being. You have to work at it. An employer can provide the flexibility, but it’s incumbent upon each individual to create a healthy work environment, whether you choose to work in an office or at home.
For example, have you created a dedicated workspace that not only allows you to focus on work and be productive, but also allows you to detach yourself from work so you can focus on other things?
Have you replaced the social interactions of the workplace so you don’t become isolated?
Are you using the flexibility you have to eat healthier, exercise more, and take better care of your mind and body?
Are you able to shut down your devices when you’re at the dinner table, your child’s soccer game, or a family gathering?
Are you spending your personal time in a way that’s enjoyable and fulfilling for you and your family?
These are all personal questions that can’t be mandated one way or another by your employer. Personal responsibility is essential to achieving work-life well-being.
The Role of Leadership
There is only so much that can be done through policy. In fact, it’s virtually impossible for leadership to create a policy and structure that are effective for an entire team when people have the flexibility to choose their own work environment and schedule.
At Prager Metis, we shut down for the entire week of the 4th of July to try to force structured time off. Not surprisingly, the world did not come to an end.
Some of our partners had doubts about shutting down because they felt like they were the ones who would have to be responsive to clients since nobody else was available. However, these same partners are concerned that their team is exhausted. You can’t have it both ways.
Although the right policy and required time off are helpful, the greatest long-term impact can be achieved by building a culture that prioritizes work-life well-being. If you fail to respect boundaries or discourage your team from disconnecting, practicing self-care, and spending time on non-work activities, you’re not supporting their well-being. You’re simply offering people the ability to choose where and when to work, which doesn’t go far enough.
Leadership can also support this culture shift by providing resources to help teams create a healthy, productive work environment. This can involve everything from meditation and nutrition counseling to coaching on best practices for remote working.
While organizational leadership is responsible for creating a culture that emphasizes the health of their team, each individual ultimately has control of their day. That control comes with responsibility.
Individuals bear some of the responsibility for choices made as a result of workplace flexibility. One of the silver linings of Covid is that the opportunity to achieve the balance people have sought for years has accelerated. Now, it’s up to all of us to take advantage of this opportunity and create a structure that supports our own well-being.