Work-Life Balance: Differentiate Without Separating

Never I have been a devo­tee of the con­cept of work-life bal­ance. It sug­gests a sep­a­ra­tion that I am not will­ing to accept. If some­thing has lost its bal­ance, then it is sure­ly our way of doing busi­ness, where work is designed in such a way that it is only bear­able with a prop­er coun­ter­weight. So let’s not strive for more work-life bal­ance, but for a world of work worth liv­ing in, in which peo­ple can unfold their full poten­tial instead of just being human resources. Let us dif­fer­en­ti­ate the var­i­ous areas of life with­out sep­a­rat­ing them.

Gallup Engagement Index Germany 2001-2018: Only work-life balance makes meaningless work bearable
The Gallup Engage­ment Index for Ger­man employees

Every year I am appalled by the results of the Gallup Engage­ment Index. We sim­ply can’t afford to have 70% of the peo­ple in Ger­man com­pa­nies just work­ing by the book. This wastes pre­cious life time on the one hand and cre­ative poten­tial on the other. 

The rea­son for this waste comes from the way we have built orga­ni­za­tions and how we oper­ate them. Where peo­ple are only used as gears in a huge soul­less machine, the log­i­cal con­se­quence is work­ing by the book. In this par­a­digm, human work becomes an annoy­ing evil to be avoid­ed – for the employ­er as well as for the employ­ee, as E.F. Schu­mach­er apt­ly explains in his high­ly rec­om­mend­able book “Small is beau­ti­ful: Eco­nom­ics as if Peo­ple Mat­tered” (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate-Link):

There is uni­ver­sal agree­ment that a fun­da­men­tal source of wealth is human labor. Now, the mod­ern econ­o­mist has been brought up to con­sid­er “labor” or work as lit­tle more than a nec­es­sary evil. From the point of view of the employ­er, it is in any case sim­ply an item of cost, to be reduced to a min­i­mum if it can­not be elim­i­nat­ed alto­geth­er, say, by automa­tion. From the point of view of the work­man, it is a “disu­til­i­ty”; to work is to make a sac­ri­fice of one’s leisure and com­fort, and wages are a kind of com­pen­sa­tion for the sac­ri­fice. Hence the ide­al from the point of view of the employ­er is to have out­put with­out employ­ees, and the ide­al from the point of view of the employ­ee is to have income with­out employment.

E.F. Schu­mach­er, Small is beautiful

In exact­ly this way of think­ing the con­cept of work-life bal­ance has its ori­gin and cer­tain­ly some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. How­ev­er, it does not elim­i­nate the caus­es of the prob­lem, but mere­ly cures the symp­toms a lit­tle bit by cre­at­ing a sep­a­rate space for the “prop­er” life in con­trast to the mean­ing­less and life­less work where indi­vid­ual tal­ents and hopes can be realized.

Dif­fer­en­ti­ate with­out sep­a­rat­ing – con­nect with­out equalizing

Her­bert Pietschmann

But how much more qual­i­ty of life on the one hand and work results on the oth­er would be pos­si­ble if we could break this sep­a­ra­tion and revive work? Schu­mach­er there­fore con­trasts his sober­ing analy­sis with a holis­tic view of work:

The Bud­dhist point of view takes the func­tion of work to be at least three­fold: to give a man a chance to uti­lize and devel­op his fac­ul­ties; to enable him to over­come his ego-cen­tered­ness by join­ing with oth­er peo­ple in a com­mon task; and to bring forth the goods and ser­vices need­ed for a becom­ing exis­tence. Again, the con­se­quences that flow from this view are end­less. To orga­nize work in such a man­ner that it becomes mean­ing­less, bor­ing, stul­ti­fy­ing, or nerve-rack­ing for the work­er would be lit­tle short of crim­i­nal; it would indi­cate a greater con­cern with goods than with peo­ple, an evil lack of com­pas­sion and a soul-destroy­ing degree of attach­ment to the most prim­i­tive side of this world­ly exis­tence. Equal­ly, to strive for leisure as an alter­na­tive to work would be con­sid­ered a com­plete mis­un­der­stand­ing of one of the basic truths of human exis­tence, name­ly that work and leisure are com­ple­men­tary parts of the same liv­ing process and can­not be sep­a­rat­ed with­out destroy­ing the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.

E.F. Schu­mach­er, Small is beautiful

No mat­ter how well bal­anced, the indi­vid­ual areas of life can­not be sep­a­rat­ed. They are always an inte­gral part of a sin­gle human life. It is only through their har­mo­nious cohab­i­ta­tion that this life suc­ceeds. And orga­ni­za­tions bear respon­si­bil­i­ty not only for their results, but also for soci­ety and espe­cial­ly for their employ­ees. So instead of cov­er­ing up fun­da­men­tal deficits with a few work-life bal­ance offers, it is time to ques­tion the prin­ci­ples of our econ­o­my and to make orga­ni­za­tions and work­ing there­in more humane. I have this dream and am not will­ing to give it up.

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be tru­ly sat­is­fied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep look­ing. Don’t settle.

Steve Jobs

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