Everything’s Wrong With the Phrase “Work-Life” Balance

Can you stand ANOTHER essay on work-life balance? The phrase is one of the most written about and studied over the last four decades as post-Feminine Mystique women entered the professional ranks in unprecedented numbers. But I think it is still a jumbled up topic that is too often focused on workingwomen and not often enough on workingmen; too often focused on children and not often enough on the other aspects of a full and a fulfilling life that we’d all like to have.

As recently as June 2016 The Wall Street Journal ran an article in their Management column titled, “Male CEOs Detail Their Work-Life Rules.” The article acknowledges that male executives traditionally haven’t been expected to feel conflicted about missing family time. Some of these men who were interviewed are willingly making accommodations in their schedules to have time for their children; others said they’ve learned the hard way and are now making time for their girlfriends or their second families. Then there was the executive who had designed a chart – maintained by his secretary – that awards him points based on how much time he spends with his family. Arriving at 6:15 p.m. earned 1 point while getting home by 5 p.m. earns 2. No mention was made of what he gets when he cashes in his points (wry sarcasm solely mine)!

Sheryl Sandburg, in Lean In, talked about the gender disparity in sharing housework and childcare when both the woman and the man work (though same-sex couples divide chores more evenly it seems).

The phrase I prefer is Home-Work Balance. Work is part of life for most of us (not being the recipients of large inheritances) and, if we’re lucky, we get more than a paycheck out of our careers. We get a chance to develop our skills, our personalities and our talents. A well-managed workplace is one that allows opportunities for personal growth that we hope translates into career growth.

Home life represents much more than our children. Many of us take care of aging relatives or find a great deal of fulfillment in serving our churches or communities. And try telling a heartbroken pet “parent” who has just lost his faithful companion of 18 years that it was “only” a dog and you can’t take bereavement leave.

I was a junior level employee when my Uncle Ben died. I had two children; my youngest was only 14 months old and I had used whatever limited time off I had dealing with ear infections and sick in-laws and all the other pressures that young families feel. We weren’t even a duel-career family. My husband had quit work when our kids were born and he was their full-time caretaker. But both of his parents were ill and he was being pulled in what felt like 10 directions at once.

There was no official time off for an uncle’s death. My Uncle Ben was the only good, adult man in my life growing up. He was father and uncle and mentor wrapped up into one. He called me “Tootsie Pie” and he taught me to drive. How do you explain to a boss that you need extra time off – beyond what you’ve earned – to grieve?

Articles abound on the Internet arguing that the Millennial Generation needs to buckle down, pay their dues and learn how to work hard. One author suggested that every college-educated young person should have to work in an investment bank for a year; then they would really know what work is! Flip that coin and it is no surprise that the book, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich (2007) spent more than four years on The New York Times best seller list.   Its author, Timothy Ferriss, repudiates the traditional “deferred” life plan, in which people work long hours and take few vacations for decades, saving money so they can relax after retirement.

I believe the answer is more modest than moving to a four-hour workweek.   I think the modern office needs more micro-level flexibility and that flexibility has to start at the top so that employees understand that it is ok for them to adjust their schedules. Research has shown that one of the cultural barriers to increased flexibility is the perception that people who have a flexible work schedule are not as serious about their careers. Men are more likely to say this than women. Managers have to rely less on rules and be clear about performance standards. Work teams have to coordinate so that clients are covered and expectations have to be crystal clear.

The benefits to the employees are evident but the benefits are equally as great to the company and that has been documented widely. For example, check out the article that Meghan Biro wrote in Forbes (August 2013) “5 Reasons Why Workplace Flexibility Is Smart Talent Strategy.”

I offered flextime to my employees. At first only working mothers took advantage of it. But then I started using flexible hours. I commuted from central N.J. I used to come in very early to avoid the rush in the morning, often getting to my desk before 7 a.m., but that’s not so unusual for a CEO. Then I decided I would avoid the rush hour commute home and two days a week I left at 4:30p.m. Once the staff realized that I was using flexibility to make my home life- work life more balanced, men started using it as well. By the time I left, nearly 2/3 of the NY staff used a flexible schedule. We had growing pains: we had to declare Tuesdays and Wednesday work IN the office days so that we could have meetings. Managers had to get much clearer about giving feedback on performance. But our profits were growing and our employee engagement scores were some of the highest in the global network. Our senior men felt free to talk about the little league game they had coached or the time they spent with their sick dad. Flextime was no longer the province of working moms. That felt like progress.


“I think we’re struggling with trying to redefine various positions at this point in history. To allow freedom for women, freedom for men, freedom from those sharply defined gender roles.”

–Fred Ward