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Work/Life Balance: A Career-Killing Phrase?

Sometimes words have more baggage than they should.
I was reminded of this recently when reading about a new Robert Half Management Resources survey. The company asked 1,400 financial officers from firms with more than 20 employees about the greatest challenge facing them these days. Some 38% -- the highest amount -- said "time management given competing work priorities.” This was a more popular answer than "staying current with accounting regulations,” which strikes me as pretty important.

Only 13%, however, chose "achieving work/life balance.”

I find these results fascinating. To me, "time management given competing work priorities” and "achieving work/life balance” mean exactly the same thing. If we're trying to manage our work priorities, it's so they don't consume the entire 168 hours we have each week. In other words, so we can have a life. Perhaps even a balanced one.

Unfortunately, though, to many people, "work/life balance” has come to mean something else. Namely, it's become a code phrase for women wanting to scale back and work part-time.

Yes, yes, this shouldn't be the case. Work/life programs are for men too. And no, they don't have to involve fewer work hours. The best work/life programs aren't programs at all, but cultures that encourage people to work wherever, whenever, as long as the work gets done well. One recent study from Brigham Young University found that when people could work from home sometimes and set their own hours, people could work 57 hours per week before a quarter experienced work/life stress. Those stuck in offices during set hours could only work 38. In case anyone has trouble with the math, 57 is more than 38. A full 50% more.

But that kind of culture would involve such radical change for many managers that it's easier to create part-time mommy tracks and assume that you've done your duty. Of course, a side effect of this pseudo-solution is that "work/life balance” becomes synonymous with such tracks. Anyone who wants to be seen as a go-getter will avoid using the phrase "work/life balance" at all costs.

And so, we say "yes” to time management and "no” to other words that describe the same thing. I can't decide if that's sad or silly, but until more workplaces treat people like grown-ups, it's probably wise to watch our mouths.


Photo courtesy flickr user, John Maddin