If "work-life balance" is an illusion, what's the practical alternative? My former colleague Michael Gilbert recently explored this issue in a two-part series that I found compelling. From Part One:
Although I am firmly allied with the mission and spirit of all the professionals and organizations who use the term "work-life balance" as something to strive for, I've come to the conclusion that it's fundamentally flawed, a dangerous trap, an all-around bad idea...
The fact is that work is a part of life, not in opposition to it. The fact is that what we all seek is joyful work-life integration, not some sort of painful detente. The fact is that work-life balance is the sad refuge of those who have decided that work is not worth saving.
I agree--but the response Michael received required further clarification in Part Two:
In regard to this exploration of "work-life balance," what's clear in our discussion is that we have been using the word "balance" when what we really seem to mean is "boundaries." Boundaries keep things in their place. Balance suggests the same amount of two things on either side of a scale. Boundaries keep one of those things from oozing past the edge of its platter and taking over the other side...
Boundaries and integration go together. Maybe it's just the biologist in me, but it seems that good boundaries are what make integration work. Just as functional membranes (letting the right things through and keeping the wrong things out) facilitate the healthy interaction of the cells of our bodies, so do functional personal boundaries facilitate the healthy interaction of the various parts of our lives. Bad boundaries lead to either being overwhelmed or withdrawal. Good boundaries lead to wholeness and synergy.
I still agree--but how do we put these notional boundaries into practice? In my own experience, T-groups have been extremely helpful in allowing me to develop practical skills in this area. It's impossible to participate in a T-group without feeling some frustration and anger. At the same time, it's impossible to NOT feel caring and compassion for the very same people who are making us frustrated and angry. The challenge of a T-group is that the experience compels us to hold on to--and express--both sets of feelings simultaneously.
And coincidentally (or not), this is textbook-perfect practice for learning how to best identify, express and sustain boundaries in our working relationships. If we're doing work that's meaningful to us, we tend to feel caring and compassion for our colleagues and managers--and at the same time, we also feel frustrated and angry with them on a regular basis because of the professional demands that continually pull our lives out of balance.
Standard operating procedure in most organizations is to sweep those negative feelings under the rug until they get expressed in unproductive ways (at work or elsewhere.) That's clearly not helpful--but what's also lost in that process are the positive feelings we have for our colleagues and managers. Note that these oppositional feelings don't cancel each other out. The frustration and anger we might feel at our colleagues and managers is just as real as the caring and compassion we also feel for those same people. We have to hold on to, honor and express both sets of feelings, as contradictory as they might be.
I'm not suggesting this is easy--far from it. It's incredibly hard work, which is why specialized training like a T-group can be so useful (and that's just one reason why I'd love to see T-groups adopted more widely.) But even if you never set foot in a T-group, I believe strongly that there's substantial value in substituting "boundaries" for "balance" in your efforts to make work that you're passionate about more sustainable.