What Is Work-Life Balance Anyway?

By , Contributor

If the self-proclaimed career experts are to be believed, then the number one consideration for finding the perfect job is the prospect of good work-life balance. In fact, more than a few human resources folks I’ve spoken to over the years have bragged that their companies boast the best work-life balance initiatives in the industry. Clearly, it’s important enough to have made it a priority for businesses.

Exploring the World of Work-Life Balance at Work

There’s just one problem with the idea of working towards the balance between one’s work and life: I don’t think anyone has the foggiest notion of what it means. Worse, some of the HR people I’ve spoken to don’t seem to have a cohesive understanding of work-life balance. I have a sneaking suspicion that most people who work in human resources just use the term to try and prove to everyone that they care about the well-being of their employees.

Among other things, this is how I think some companies attempt to establish a balance between work and life for their employees:

  • Clifbar, a natural foods company, gives its employees access to bikes and a rock-climbing wall in its office.
  • DDB Canada, the Canadian arm of the advertising agency DDB, gives their employees a $250 allowance for “inspiration” (which can be spent on items like cameras, or creative classes).
  • Google, the undisputed ruler of the Internet, reportedly has massage therapists and a game room with everything in it for all their offices, on top of providing employees with gym privileges.
  • JWT New York, another ad agency, has a bar where their employees can unwind from their stressful pitches three nights a week.
  • Edmunds.com, which runs a website focused on car information and shopping, implements a results-only work environment (ROWE), which means that employees have as much free time as they want, as long as their jobs get done.
  • Many companies offer daily free meals and weekly alcohol-based drinks to their employees to keep them happy

Based on these examples, I can only conclude that, for most businesses, creating work-life balance for their employees means providing a fun and/or healthy environment to alleviate any stress caused by the job. In other words, most of them (with perhaps Edmunds and other ROWE adopters being the exception) try to strike the balance between life and work by bringing outside life to the workplace.

The question is, does it work?

Work-Life Balance Defined by Employees

As fun and as awesome as most of the perks mentioned previously are, I don’t think they cover everyone’s definition of work-life balance. Let me use myself and my brother as examples.

I am a writer by trade and, over the years, I have worked both as an employee and as a freelancer. In all that time, I have learned a number of things about how I approach work-life balance:

  • When I am inspired or get into a zone, I focus all my energy and concentration on the task at hand.
  • I separate my work from my family life, which is why my laptop is only used for my freelance jobs and the living room PC is used for everything else, and offices trying to bring life into work unsettle me.

Meanwhile, my brother is a web content editor and manager who also worked as a freelancer and employee for years. Based on my observations, his concept of work-life balance is as follows:

  • He takes on multiple projects and works on them simultaneously.
  • He doesn’t mind having his work intrude on his personal life; in fact, he gets more stressed out if he’s not doing anything for his job at any given time.

In other words, not all company efforts towards striking a work-life balance can satisfy all employees because each employee looks at work and life differently. To me, a balanced work and life ratio requires having time allotted to my work alone or my family alone so I can give each all the attention they deserve. To others like my brother, their work is their life and they can only feel balanced when they’re working on something.

What Work-Life Balance Really Entails

ROWE seems the most promising approach to work-life balance. VoIP phone services like those offered by RingCentral and cloud-based document creators/storage programs like GoogleDocs make it possible for people to generate work results from anywhere, at any time — because you are put in charge of your own time. Many other workplace attempts to balance life and work fall short.

But even then, ROWE alone isn’t the answer. What most people fail to address is the idea of absolutely loving what you’re working on. In order for anyone to really feel like everything is right with the world, they need to feel like they’ve achieved something that they can be proud of. It isn’t about having equal time for work and fun. It’s about recognizing the fact that work itself is a joyous thing.

Work-life balance, at the end of the day, is all about personal satisfaction. No amount of institutionalized fun can make up for that.

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Nancy Perkins, a full-time mommy wannabe, has been a freelance online writer for two years now. She loves sharing information on health, business, technology, fashion, women's issues and motherhood. Nancy lives life to its fullest each day and is dreaming of retiring on an island she will someday own.

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