Talent B.S.

Work-Life Balance Is Not Possible

But successful work-life integration is—if you dodge these longstanding stumbling blocks.

By Monique Valcour, Ph.D.

The struggle—performing well at work, maintaining health and relationships at home—is real.

The go-to solution—do more and do it faster—is real too. Real bad. 

Changing the way we work isn’t feasible or practical. We may dream of being more intentional and strategic, but operating in continuous crisis mode seems like an immutable part of the business culture. 

Deep down, we know that staying focused on the most important, high-value work and doing it without interruptions would increase productivity and reduce stress, but making this shift feels like a pipe dream. How could we ever stem the relentless flow of urgent, but ultimately unimportant demands? Could we really disconnect from work—mentally and electronically—on the weekend and recharge?

Could we learn to track, boost, and respect our team’s capacity rather than regularly exceeding it? 

I’m here to tell you that it’s possible to crush it at work and do an even better job at home. Unfortunately, there are a few pervading myths that prevent us from making real change. Let’s dispel them for good.

Work-Life Balance Myth #1

We can segment work and personal life and not have them affect each other

Employees are whole people, and work and personal life are two parts of a whole—not separate spheres. As much as you think you can walk through your front door after a day at the office and forget about your work stressors, your brain doesn’t possess those kinds of barriers. 

When work is energizing and uplifting, we carry positive emotion and increased capacity to perform into our roles as parents, partners, family members, friends, and community members. But when work is exhausting and demoralizing, the resulting stress takes a toll on our ability to perform outside of work.

Similarly, personal stressors affect the energy, focus, and emotional reserves available to us at work.

The sooner we appreciate our colleagues’ non-work commitments, the more open we’ll be to looking for ways to create mutual work-life gains. 

One of the most important things leaders can do to set the right tone is to present themselves as whole people who have commitments outside of work. By serving as role models who work hard while also finding ways to meaningfully engage in and uphold duties outside the office, leaders will send a powerful signal that employees’ personal lives are valid and valued. 

In particular, leaders should be open about their desire and commitment to be healthy and present in the lives of their families, and share how they navigate the challenges of doing so. This will help humanize leaders and make them relatable.

Work-Life Balance Myth #2

Employees who prioritize work over personal life are more committed and valuable

The problem with face-time norms and other displays of work devotion: They’re poor proxies of performance, contribution, and value to the firm. But professional work is notoriously tough to assess, whereas time spent in the office and availability are observable indicators, so they persist. 

We lament the “ideal worker” template, but we don’t do enough to actively reject it and develop one that’s more supportive. The template won’t go away on its own.

A few years ago, I taught a course on interpersonal skills in a master of science in finance program. Most students were focused on securing jobs in investment banking or related fields. When we did an exercise on using values in career decision-making, many expressed their belief that suffering was inevitable: “We want work-life balance, but we know it isn’t possible.” 

One concluded, “I’ll get in and work for a few years until I burn out, make as much money as I can, and then have the life I want.” 

Leaders who visibly commit to living a full life can become powerful change agents by challenging outdated norms of what it means to be a valued contributor. My most effective organizational interventions include coaching with senior leaders to help them develop new assumptions that facilitate innovation and progress.

Time management, mindfulness, and stress management are excellent tools to support work-life integration, but they must sit on a foundation of vision and commitment to new ways of working.

Work-Life Balance Myth #3

Really, this is just lip service directed toward working mothers

It’s true that the earliest work-life programs focused on helping mothers meet caregiving responsibilities. But when these initiatives are seen as tools for moms, organizations reinforce gender stereotypes and the tensions that come with them.

Even when management believes that work-life programs are for everyone, patterns reveal that their use is only seen as legitimate by mothers. For example, providing maternity leave but not paternity leave—or offering paternity leave but not getting any takers—indicate a corporate culture that believes fathers aren’t supposed to be as engaged with their families. 

Organizations will facilitate employee work-life integration to a much greater extent when they embrace each employee as a whole person with interests and commitments outside of work. This is especially appealing to millennials, who see their partners as equals professionally and as parents.

In fact, a Care.com survey found that 83 percent of millennial employees would change jobs for better family or lifestyle benefits.

Work-Life Balance Myth #4

It’s a luxury that firms can’t afford in hypercompetitive markets

Leaders take as gospel that we must get faster, smarter, and more agile. Yet they rarely consider their employees’ and teams’ capacity as an important variable. When we think of the marketplace as a battlefield where only the fittest will survive, we may feel that employee well-being and work-life balance is not a priority. Instead, we look for ways to have our employees work more. 

Even the widespread push of mindfulness training is often pitched as a way to increase focus and productivity. Employees should be mindful so they can handle the way we work—not implement new ways of working.

My research has found that employees are much more satisfied with work-life integration when they have control over their work. Leaders can foster a sense of control by clarifying desired outcomes and giving employees autonomy over the means, timing, and location of their work, while keeping an eye on progress, contribution, and need for support. 

Micromanagement drains the energy and self-efficacy that promotes thriving and performance, while clear expectations, trust, communication, and autonomy boost it.

Work-Life Balance Myth #5

It’s the employee’s problem

Organizations that leave employees to figure out their own work-life solutions are abdicating responsibility for a problem that they have a major part in creating. 

When employees are left to fend for themselves, inequality grows. Employees with rare and valuable skill sets can often access customized work arrangements, but employees with less valuable roles cannot.

Work-life integration is a systemic issue. While people’s own skills, attitudes, and coping strategies affect how they deal with the demands they face, work-life conflict is influenced by leaders’ mindsets, expectations, and behavior as well as by a host of job, team, and organizational factors. 

Making significant and sustained progress requires being willing to examine leaders’ mindsets, how teams work and communicate, and how employees manage time and stress. For leaders who believe that success of their organizations is tied to the well-being of their employees, sustainable work-life integration is entirely possible.

Monique Valcour, Ph.D., is an executive coach, management professor, and keynote speaker. She specializes in work-life integration, working with individual and corporate clients to create and sustain fulfilling, high-performance jobs, careers, workplaces, and lives.