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The Work/Life Balance Myth

Posted by Elaine Varelas  November 1, 2010 08:00 AM

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The Work/Life Balance Myth

by Elaine Varelas

Just thinking about our “to do” list for any given day is enough to keep us up at night (staff meeting, conference call, budget sheets, quarterly report, doctor’s appointment, daughter’s basketball game, vacation reservations, dinner). It’s exhausting trying to squeeze it all in! Adding to the pressure is our quest to strike that perfect balance between our work and personal obligations. Yet, by striving for that balance every day, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.

In fact, achieving work/life balance is a myth. Our lives—both work and personal—are always in flux. Our daily demands are ever-changing and difficult to predict—a project might go awry and we’re at work until late; or a death in the family may keep us from coming into the office at all. “Balancing” these demands every day is virtually impossible—and truly unnecessary. We need to rethink the way we look at balance. Instead of trying to strike a balance on a daily basis, we should instead aim for equilibrium over time. Juggling life’s demands is more like riding on a seesaw. Sometimes it’s up and sometimes it’s down. It’s difficult for two kids on a seesaw to keep it balanced in mid-air (and no fun). Accepting that work/life demands don’t need to equal out on any given day—or even week—can help take the pressure off employees and managers. It’s not that we can’t have it all—we just can’t have it all ALL of the time.

HR managers should determine how much of a priority work/life strategies are for the organization. For some companies, work/life policies are a cornerstone of recruitment and retention. If this is true in your organization, how can you make it work? The idea is to be transparent and look long-term. Here’s how:

Focus on goals
HR managers need to encourage managers to take a goal-oriented approach to managing. The focus should be on completing projects and meeting deadlines. This process requires less micromanaging and more autonomy for employees and groups. Managers must be clear on the goals for the short- and long-term. What needs to get done today? This week? This month? This quarter? Managers should also figure out how best to check in with employees to determine the status of work.

Support managers
Taking a goal-driven approach to work may be a foreign concept to some managers. They may have come up through the ranks punching timecards and docking pay for missed days. Most managers know that just because people are physically in the office doesn’t guarantee that they’re working, but they might struggle with not having more oversight on a day-to day basis. Focusing on goals can require an attitude adjustment. If an employee wants to leave early on Wednesdays during the summer to coach Little League, he isn’t “sneaking out” or “stealing time.” Managers shouldn’t punish employees if the work is getting done. Of course, this goal-oriented management technique won’t work with managers who have a “crisis du jour,” where everything becomes a major issue. Help managers plan out their own workload over the long-term, so every day doesn’t produce a new work emergency.

Step up communication
Employees should meet with managers to have a candid conversation about goals and expectations. It is an ideal time for employees to present requests and schedules (“I would like to volunteer at school on the third Wednesday of every month”) and deadlines. Both the work and personal obligations should be made clear so that the manager and employee can come up with an agreed-upon plan.

Strive for flexibility
Flexibility should be built into this system to accommodate the give-and-take necessary to make it work. Some projects may require multiple late nights in the office (the seesaw is up), and sometimes a sick child may take an employee out of the office for several days (and back down). Employees can’t feel like they can never take any time. On the other hand, managers need to know that the work is getting done, and that they can rely on their team members.

Build up trust
Trust is the basis of any positive relationship and is an intrinsic part of this process. Managers need to trust that work is being done and people aren’t leaving early every Friday just because they can get away with it. Employees also must trust that they won’t be punished for being upfront about communicating their needs or wants for personal time.

Make sure to re-visit
There needs to be a periodic “check-in” meeting between managers and employees to make sure the process is working. If deliverables aren’t being met for either party, the manager and employee need to have another candid conversation to revise the plan.

HR managers, company managers, and employees should stop working so hard to achieve the elusive work/life “balance” and instead work within the natural rhythm of work and life demands—sometimes they’re up and sometimes down. HR managers should work towards balance over time—the give-and-take will even out eventually. If managers can strive for equilibrium for the long-term, employees might actually be able to enjoy the ride!

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career managment company. She can be reached at

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.