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What does work-life balance mean in a changed work world?

March 3, 2023
Borderless Leadership

Amid the vast uncertainty of the pandemic era, one thing is clear: more than ever – and more than anything – people want a healthy work-life balance. In 2021, data from a survey of more than 9,000 UK workers showed 65% of job seekers prioritized work-life balance over pay and benefits. It’s similar in the US: of 4,000 respondents to the FlexJobs 2022 Career Pulse Survey, 63% said they’d choose work-life balance over better pay.

So what, exactly, does this term mean to workers right now? The definition of work-life balance has changed dramatically throughout the past several years, with the demise of strict 9-to-5 hours and increase in remote work.

Yes, flexible schedules are a major part of how workers define work-life balance. But that’s only the start. What workers see as work-life balance has broadened. Increasingly, employees say the idea encompasses a holistically healthy work environment that allows for an open dialogue between employees and employers. This communication enables them to address their personal lives in the context of their careers, and create the life they want.

Instead of simply walking away at 1700, work-life balance now is broader, deeper and more nuanced – and it is no longer a one-size-fits-all equation.

Clocking out, turning off

The idea of work-life balance largely emerged during the widespread take-up of the eight-hour workday in the early 20th Century – something workers fought for through organizing and striking. As workers won the right to an eight-hour workday, work-life balance – even if it was not explicitly labelled as such – was commonly defined as the ability to compartmentalize job tasks and life.

It was a big step – and one that remains critical to the central idea of work-life balance today. Ioana Lupu, associate professor of accounting and management at Paris’ ESSEC Business School, says the happiest professionsals she speaks to manage to “compartmentalize, to disconnect, to switch off without guilt from work”.

Yet for many workers, this cut-and-dry barrier eroded as new technology arose at the turn of the millennium. As the internet, email and eventually smartphones found their way into the workplace, they changed not only the way workers got their jobs done, but also the shape and span of the workday.

“It happened at first when they all got Blackberries,” says Lupu. “Before, of course, you could get a phone call, but most of the time you couldn’t necessarily access your work files or anything, so it was more difficult to take work home. Now people were reachable at all times – during the holidays, during weekends with the family.”

But rather than clawing back for these hard lines, says Lupu, corporate culture took up the mantle of overwork, and wore it as a badge of honour. “It became quite ideological, this idea that, being busy, being constantly available makes you a really good professional,” she says. “We saw the best entrepreneurs bragging that they work 100-hour weeks … There was this idea that long hours would show you were committed and a good worker.”

This emergence of hustle culture led to a de-prioritsation of work-life balance for some employees. But the pandemic shifted this outlook again, especially with the integration of remote and hybrid work. Along with enabling workers to physically set up where they wanted, and with more flexibility, this transformation also meant workers’ personal lives entered their work lives in an unprecedented way – both good and bad. And it spurred workers to become newly re-invested in separating the two.

For some, says Lupu, the already tenuous boundaries between the personal and professional were blurred even more. Pre-pandemic, workers had “different routines that allowed them to separate work and life. For instance, cycling on the way home, or taking the train and reading a book, it allowed them to calm down, get into the parent role or husband role or whatever”. But she says once commuting stopped, and people found themselves working in, or steps away from, their couches, kitchens and bedrooms, the veil between worklife and homelife was lifted.

As a result, says Lupu, workers ceased defining work-life balance as equal time spent in each place, or equilibrium between personal and professional pursuits. Instead, they began to embrace a kind of work-life integration that acknowledges the two are inextricably entwined, and endeavors to make the relationship between the two a healthy one.

If work intrudes on your family life – on your non-work time – why shouldn’t the opposite be OK? – Ioana Lupu
“There was this change where people realized it’s possible to also prioritize family or private life, even during work hours,” says Lupu. “Because if work intrudes on your family life – on your non-work time – why shouldn’t the opposite be OK?”

Workers, she says, now want flexibility that allows them to meld work hours and a personal life together. “There was this shift in the mindset, realizing that they can and should take more time for themselves, and use the flexibility in both ways,” she says. “Why can’t we have flexibility for our personal life, too, and feel entitled to take time during the workday to go to a yoga class?”

Employee-defined ‘balance’

In this new era, workers now see work-life balance as the capacity to bend work around their own, individualized list of priorities – this time, workers themselves are defining what actually constitutes ‘balance’, rather than companies. A balanced life integrates the personal and the professional in a healthy way, supporting an identity that includes the career, but doesn’t necessarily revolve around it.

Employees in the pandemic-changed workplace have not only reformed – and expanded – the definition of balance, but they are also pushing it to the forefront of their values. In a 2022 survey of 1,120 US workers by Forbes Health, which asked employed respondents about their priorities, the only thing that rivaled financial stability was work-life balance, with 90% calling it “an important aspect of their work”.

The pandemic’s widescale shake-up of the labour market empowered many employers to push emplowers for this balance. “There has been a definite increase in the request for work-life balance benefits,” says Patricia Graves, a senior certified professional and HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management (Shrm). “Employees expect employers to give them everything they want. More flexibility, hybrid-work models or remote-work arrangements have certainly increased dramatically since the pandemic.”

And beyond flexibility – which has been shown to increase productivity and happiness – workers are looking for other benefits to help foster a healthy integration of work and life. They expect their employer to foster an environment of empathy and recognition, and offer access to wellness and health resources. One recent Qualtrics survey of nearly 8,000 full-time workers in Asia, for instance, showed close to two-thirds feel their job is the main factor in their mental health.

Yes, “workers want control over their working hours and location”, says Graves – but they also want “communication, empathy and a focus on wellness”.

Because workers have acknowledged that work can’t actually be separated from the rest of their lives, they are seeking new support from employers for their personal lives. Needs vary by individual employee, but according to Graves, some of the other top demands directly enhance their personal lives – think perks such as pet care, fitness stipends and dependent care.

We have evolved to a place where workers themselves define what work-life balance looks like to them as individuals – Patricia Graves
Fertility support is also an increasing request: data from a survey by fertility company Carrot and The National Infertility Association shared that 59% reported fertility and family formation affected their work performance, nodding to the link between work and life. Indeed, 77% of these workers surveyed said availability of fertility support would affect their tenure at their companies, influencing them to stay or search for another job that offered these benefits.

In some cases, Lupu says whether companies can provide the benefits an individual worker needs “becomes like a deal breaker”.

Navigating the future

A key component of the evolution of work-life balance is just how important these benefits are to workers. “Now, many people I talk to they say, ‘Oh, if I didn’t have the flexibility, or the benefits, I’d just leave’,” says Lupu.

Balance and flexibility have become such a priority for workers that many are making career moves based around these standards. It’s been a major driver of the Great Resignation, which in the US alone saw more than 50 million people leave their jobs in 2022, and nearly 48 million in 2021. Data from Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index Annual Report showed more than half of Millennial and Gen Z workers who quit cited either lack of work-life balance or lack of flexibility as the reason.

“In today’s market, employees are quitting to find new opportunities that offer better work-life balance,” agrees Graves. “I think we have evolved to a place where workers themselves define what work-life balance looks like to them as individuals. It has forced employers to offer many of those demands to attract and retain talent.”

But evolution is a continuous process, points out Lupu, and while work-life balance has transformed into work-life integration, it may continue to shift as workers’ wants and needs become even more personalized, especially as they navigate different lifestyles and prioirties.

In the future, even the idea idea of how work and life co-exist could change, too. Perhaps, says Lupu, it’s not exactly accurate to call it work-life balance, or even work-life integration. “For me, it’s more like a work-life navigation.”

By Kate Morgan


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