WORK, WELL-BEING, AND WORK-LIFE BALANCE
What’s True And What’s Myth?
Sometime ago a USA Today Snapshot (2008), revealed the satisfaction level executives had with their jobs.
Finance – 68%
Human Resources – 65%
Marketing – 63%
General Management – 61%
Sales – 54%
The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index confirmed those earlier findings. They have polled literally millions of adults since 2008. They discovered that Americans feel worse about their jobs than ever before. Their poll was not gender, age, or ethnic specific. The participants were also from all income levels.
These kinds of findings may sound like a frill in light of our current economic downturn. In reality, employee unhappiness leads to apathy and detachment from the tasks at hand. This lack of engagement hits the bottom line to a staggering $300 billion in loss production annually (Gallup).
So what can be done? Of all the events that engage people at work—and thousands of these events were analyzed—they found that the most important was “making progress in meaningful work.” Second place wasn’t close. Unfortunately, when over 600 managers from a variety of companies around the world were asked to rank five employee motivators in priority of importance, 95% of these managers ranked “supporting progress in meaningful work” as dead last. There is an obvious disconnect of what motivates employees and what their managers think motivates them.
Life is never balanced. Life is not a set of perfectly leveled scales. But the myth leads us to picture ourselves walking through life with two trays—one in each hand. On one tray is our personal life and on the other is our work life. The “successful” person heroically keeps both trays level, and we admire this mythological creature. We strive to be like them. In reality the trays only become balanced for that fleeting moment when they pass each other on the way up or down! And ironically, in our hurried state, we miss THAT moment as well!
So here’s the question. Even if work-life balance were possible, what is balance without meaning? Life is messy and has several moving targets. Pursuing balance becomes meaningless without the right targets in our scope. The targets that produce a sense of well-being are achievement, happiness, significance, and legacy. They are never perfectly balanced and they don’t neatly divide up everyday, week, month, or even yearly, into perfectly matched quadrants. But they are the targets that must be kept in range.
The problem named is the problem solved, and balance isn’t the problem. So what’s the REAL issue behind all this work-life balance chatter? Three things: Autonomy, sufficient resources, and learning from problems. These are the catalyst that organizations provide for their employees that enable them to make progress.
Focusing on work-life balance puts the employee into a victim mentality. Our lives are “out of balance” because of someone else—a parent, an employer, a spouse, a kid. The so-called remedy is also shallow, leading to the trap of “quick fix solutions”. When it alludes us, we feel that somehow we’re just missing it. After all, maybe it’s right around the corner. I just need to keep trying.
In reality, what we really want when we focus on work-life balance is a sense of control. Life ebbs and flows in its demands. But when we are leading our lives we are better equipped to handle the never ending juggling. I’ve often said that my gravestone will be inscribed with the words, “Organized At Last!”
Since working adults spend most of their waking hours at work, it shouldn’t be a place that kills the human spirit. It might not be perfectly balanced, but it will be ennobling. The older generation has failed at work-life balance. The new generation (Millennials), just does life—and that includes work. But they want—no—demand– meaningful work.
As leaders, helping provide autonomy (that sense of control), sufficient resources (the ability to get the job done), and learning from problems (increased capacity to lead), makes progress in meaningful work a reality.
Balance is a bad analogy and does not lead to meaningful work. As the “scales” fall off our eyes, we begin to see that. We discover that a sense of personal control leads to meaningful work.
As leaders we would do well to support people in this effort. Promoting worker’s well-being isn’t just ethical. It makes economic sense. Promoting positive inner lives will require leaders to continually articulate the “meaning” in the work for everyone in the organization, and then giving a sense of control in pursuing that meaning.
An attempt at balance is not a bad thing. It’s simply an allusive concept that never delivers. It’s not a bad strategy, but it’s definitely not the best. Rather than creating a culture of balance, a more important strategy is to create a culture of well-being.
Well-being, not work-life balance, is a predictor of longevity and good future performance.
Our jobs, rather than getting the best of us, should represent the best in us.