Work-Life Integration is a Bad Idea
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In a previous post I discussed how higher quality of life is correlated with fewer hours of work, and conversely how longer hours of work are associated with a variety of physical, mental, and emotional health risks. The amount of time people work, what used to be called work-life balance, matters.
Lack of Work-Life Balance is Costly
Lack of work-life balance has negative compounding effects for both employees and businesses. A 2017 Harvard study estimates that workplace stress is responsible for anywhere from $125 to $190 billion dollars annually, or up to 8% of national spending on health care. Professional services firm Aon, estimates that 2023 employer health care costs will increase 6.5% from 2022. Higher premiums not only hit employee paychecks directly, but companies have less money to invest back in their employees in the form of wages, salaries, and bonuses. Gallup finds employees who frequently experience burnout are 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a new job.
Companies understand the costs associated with lack of work-life balance all too well. Increased health insurance costs, turnover, absenteeism, decreased productivity, leaves of absence, turnover, burnout, quiet quitting…it all hits the bottom line.
In response, organizations are increasingly offering a wide array of benefits bundled into corporate wellness programs: coaching and mental health services, flexible work schedules, remote work, 4-day work weeks, unlimited paid time off, paid leaves of absence, unlimited parental leave, fertility assistance, onsite daycare and afterschool programs, lactation rooms, free healthy snacks, cooking lessons, subsidized gym memberships, onsite fitness centers, meditation rooms, onsite yoga classes, massage therapists, reflexology, stress management and resilience training, home cleaning services, free dry cleaning, bring your dog to work, relaxation spaces and nap rooms, even onsite climbing walls, video game arcades, and barbershops.
The list goes on and on and on and on. It starts to make you wonder what the real motivation is.
Many of these perks extend well beyond traditional health benefits. They’re aimed at creating flexible and happy work environments where employees willingly spend more and more of their time, which of course should make anyone suspicious. Ideally, they’re intended to enable employees to meet the demands of work and their personal life. These practices, when properly implemented, can drive better balance, which I applaud.
The problem is many of these organizations are offering these benefits in concert with a philosophy that runs contrary to giving employees their time back. It’s a philosophy that promises to create flexibility and alleviate stress and burnout by helping employees “synergize” their work and personal lives. It’s a philosophy that might even be well-intended. In reality it’s a sleight of hand that masquerades as employee friendly policies, but nonetheless steals their time and, in my opinion, contributes to their stress and burnout.
It’s called “work-life-integration”, and it’s a bad idea.
What Was Wrong with Work-Life Balance?
The Cambridge dictionary defines work-life balance as “the amount of time you spend doing your job compared with the amount of time you spend with your family and doing things you enjoy.” I particularly like the part about “…doing things, you enjoy”, i.e., not your job. My amusement aside, the definition makes sense. Work-life balance equals time. Easy. It’s clear. It’s simple. It’s quantifiable. It’s verifiable. It’s good.
However, never satisfied with simple definitions, the meaning of work-life balance has turned into debating just what we mean by “balance”. Many insist on the nuance that “balance” means something different to everyone, and we shouldn’t be so literal as to think about it as the amount of time we spend at work. Because it’s not really about how much we’re working, it’s about how we’re able to prioritize work alongside other aspects of our life. As long as you’re happy with the amount of time you’re working, it’s all good – you have “balance”. This parsing of the language is as unconvincing as it is unfortunate. We’ve forgotten what’s important: time.
But even this shifting of the goal posts wasn’t good enough. To careerists, “work-life balance” implied work was not a part of life. It signified a zero-sum equation in which life loses out to work, and vice versa. Work is bad and life is good. It suggested your work wasn't more than just a job. Clearly aghast, one millennial careerist writes that the “problem” with work-life balance is, “it even insinuates that less work equals more happiness” (italics mine).
As I shared in my previous post, there’s no insinuation, only data. Less work does equal more happiness.
Immune to data and dissatisfied with the conceptualization of work-life-balance, careerists have made “work-life-integration” the preferred term of art. Work-life-integration is described by UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, as "an approach that creates more synergies between all the areas that define ‘life’: work, home/family, community, personal well-being, and health.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says “work-life integration involves blending both personal and professional responsibilities. Rather than viewing work and personal time as separate entities, busy professionals can find areas of compromise.” Stephen Kohler, CEO and founder of Audira Labs, an executive coaching firm, says: “Work-life balance is focused on keeping your work life and your personal life separate, but equal, whereas work-life integration is centered on the belief that there is no distinction between the two and that both must coexist in harmony.”
Fluffy and vague language aside, the distinction between work-life balance and work-life integration isn’t merely management-speak mumbo jumbo or quibbling over semantics. It’s a material difference about the role work should play in one’s life and whether there should be boundaries between the two. Work-life-balance recognizes the need for separation. Work-life-integration says there is no separation, separation is a “fallacy”.
In an Inc. article titled “Why We Should Stop Striving for Work-Life Balance”, the author nakedly writes: “While a 24-hour respite from technology would probably do us all good, the reality is that most of our lives and jobs now require us to be ‘on’ much of the time. The whole idea of achieving work-life balance today is a bit of a fallacy.”
According to careerists like the Inc. columnist, gone are the days when work and life are things you can or should keep separate. Now, the expectation is that these two things are so deeply intertwined it’s difficult to distinguish where one stops and the other begins. Employees should embrace the fact that technology keeps them constantly connected to work 24-7. It’s a given. In our always on, always connected careerist culture, work-life integration is how you structure your time, your responsibilities, and your life. This is the path toward greater fulfillment. This is the way you can have it all.
But can you really?
The Farce of Work-Life Integration
Companies, consultants, careerists, and “though leaders” tend to put an overly positive spin on the promise of work-life integration. They promote the idea that if you can skillfully “synergize” your work and life, these things no longer need to be in competition and you will, in fact, have ample time for work, family, and play. No longer constrained by rigid boundaries, you attend to whatever aspect of your life you want to focus on when you have the best time and energy to do so. You work when you’re the most productive, and you’re free to tackle personal tasks during work hours and vice versa. The upshot of embracing this boundary blurring is that you’re able to perform better in every aspect of your life. Simple, right?
That doesn’t sound all bad, but how realistic is it really? Practically, what does work-like integration even look like?
Here are some examples from careerist scripture…
Want to get your kids ready for school in the morning and help them finish their homework? Your job understands. You’ll catch up on work in the afternoon, and again at night once the kids have been fed, bathed, and put to bed.
Want to go to the gym with your gal pals for yoga over your lunch hour? You go girl, you can do that! Just munch on your salad and smoothie during your 1pm meeting.
Got laundry to do? No problem, do your laundry while taking a conference call.
Speaking of laundry, do you have other household chores to do? All good. You run errands, clean the house, and care for the kids while your partner works half the day, then you switch for the second half.
Afraid you can’t get away long enough for a vacation? No problem. Take your laptop and catch up on work and emails during your down times. The bonus is you’re already caught up. No fear of being drowned with work when you return from vacation.
I assure you these aren’t strawman examples. They’re too dumb to make up.
It’s a BIG assumption, but let’s assume your job provides you this kind flexibility and autonomy. Even in theory none of these examples sound good.
Be a parent for part of the day then try to do quality work at night when you’re tired, and unavailable to most of your colleagues?
Cram your workout into lunch, then cram lunch into a meeting?
Blatantly multitask during a conference call? News flash: if you can do your laundry at the same time you don’t need to be on the call.
Work a half day then switch off with your partner? I guess you and your partner both have part-time jobs and can make it work on two part-time salaries? And good luck doing productive work after running errands and taking care of kids all morning.
Bring your laptop on vacation?? Aren’t vacations the time you’re supposed to unplug, de-stress and forget about work?
When you’re seamlessly integrating, no, wait “synergizing” work and life, are you really doing anything well? Are you fully present and available to your family and coworkers, or are you constantly distracted? Is any of it even enjoyable?
The Truth About Work-Life Integration
Here’s the truth about work-life integration.
The promise of work-life integration is that it fluidly adjusts to fit each individual’s needs. There’s a problem. You’re on a team. You have co-workers. Teamwork, collaboration and communication will suffer if everyone is individually optimizing their time and schedule to fit their own needs.
It doesn’t make you more productive.
Disjointed work hours, context switching, interruptions, distractions, and multitasking, all lead to fragmented attention and inability to focus, which in term limit our ability for “deep work”. In short, you’re not doing your best, most valuable work at your job, or at home. The lack of boundaries and flexibility that are hallmarks of work-life integration also seem to be culprits for lack productivity.
A 2020 meta-analysis found work-life integration was “…not significantly associated with PR (productivity), possibly due to the ambiguous boundary between work and nonwork domains. One of the initiatives of work–life balance, flexible work schedules, may generate an unclear declination between work and nonwork domains. Some employers may require employees to work additional hours by taking advantage of flexible work schedules. The misuse of flexible work schedules may result in a low PR.”
It’s a recipe for working more hours.
We had a massive experiment in work-life integration during the pandemic when many employees were forced to work from home. The results are in. A large study of over 61,000 Microsoft employees published in Nature Human Behavior found time spent 'on the job' increased by 10%. That’s the equivalent of going from 40 hours to 44 hours, or 50 hours to 55 hours, etc. Similar data provided by NordVPN found that working from home led to an average 2.5-hour increase per day for employees in the U.K., Austria, Canada and the U.S. That’s a 31% increase over the standard 8-hour day. In fairness, other employees in Denmark, Belgium and Spain initially recorded a spike in working hours but returned to their pre-pandemic timetable.
It’s unclear from these data if longer workdays were due to employees working more hours, or if the same amount of working time was spread across a greater share of the calendar day, due to breaks or interruptions for non-work activities. In other words, employees are logged in longer, but they’re not always working. The same amount of work is spread out across a longer day. That could still be a problem in and of itself, but other survey data confirms remote workers probably were working more. According to a 2020 article by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), nearly 70% of professionals who transitioned to remote work said they now worked on the weekends, and 45% said they regularly worked more hours during the week than they did before.
The shift to fully remote work during the pandemic isn’t necessarily representative of all approaches to work-life integration, but remote work is certainly a key pillar. In my view, it was an eye-opening experiment at what work-life integration looks like when adopted broadly. Beyond the hard data, there are more intuitive reasons to think work-life integration causes people to work more. Because work has generously granted you flexibility, you need to prove you’re worthy of it. No one, especially not dedicated careerists, want to be caught not pulling their weight, or appear less than committed. Being available, checking emails, being hyper-conscious of response time, diving into work (even when you don’t “have to”) becomes almost reflexive. Even if it’s shallowly intended just to show that you’re available, that you’re there for work, it’s still time you’re working.
It’s not the solution for burnout.
We know what works when it comes to addressing burnout. It’s called the demand-support-control model and it has over 20-years of empirical support. And…it’s common sense. Here is a quick overview of the model:
Demand: Lighten the load on the person doing the job or redistribute tasks (i.e. less work)
Control: When you can’t eliminate demands, give people the autonomy and skills they need to handle them
Support: Create cultures that make it easy to request and receive help
On the demand side of things, well known Wharton management professor Adam Grant says, “consider if some tasks can be automated, and if overtime work and expectations around availability and email are causing burnout” (italics mine). Control amounts to letting people have more say in what they do and how they do it, but Grant also says, “In some organizations a measure of control can be provided by allowing for flexible hours and/or hybrid work.” To me, these are work-life balance strategies. Flexible hours and hybrid work don’t mean always on, always available, no separation. It simply means working (and not working) on a different schedule and/or providing some remote work opportunities.
It’s not necessarily better for women or their careers.
Especially for women who still bear most of the child-rearing responsibilities, work-life integration seductively positions itself as the way be super-mom and still get ahead professionally. But when work-life integration detracts from work-life balance, the opposite occurs. A 2020 meta-analysis studying Indian women says, “The territories of work and life are completely entangled due to cellular phones, laptops, and tablets. High-connectivity networks and easy availability of broadband are major contributors to the disturbing balance between personal and professional lives…a non-existence of a proper balance derails women’s careers, affects their job performance, intrudes into family space, and degrades mental and physical health, resulting in high turnover rates. Moreover, long working hours, the corporate culture, and inefficient organisational policies has worsened the situation for them.”
Blurred boundaries can increase work-family conflict.
Work–family conflict arises when there are incompatible demands between work and family roles. As one might expect, antecedents of work-family conflict are factors such as longer hours of work, a stressful and demanding job, etc. Work-family conflict is associated with a variety of negative outcomes including stress, burnout, health problems, marital and family dissatisfaction, decreased work performance, and overall lower life satisfaction.
Work-life integration is marketed as a way to “synergize” these incompatible demands by blurring the boundaries between work and family domains. However, the crux of the research from boundary/border theory suggests that while flexibility is good, highly permeable boundaries may actually exacerbate, not alleviate, work-family conflict. For example, a highly flexible boundary means I can work when and where I want. A highly permeable boundary means I can freely deal with personal matters at work, and vice versa. But, a highly permeable boundary also means I can be easily interrupted or distracted by work when at home, or vice versa.
As summarized in an article from the Journal of Organizational Management, Clark (2002a) found that high flexibility and low permeability were associated with the lowest levels of work-family conflict. Desrochers et al (2002) found that greater boundary ambiguity was associated with greater work-family conflict, a greater number of work-family transitions made when doing paid work at home, and a higher number of hours spent doing paid work at home. Hawkins & Miller (1996) found that, compared to office workers, mobile teleworkers reported greater flexibility, and some of their families thrived as a result. However, others "reported that their families struggled because workplace and schedule flexibility blurred the boundaries between work and family life".
You Can’t Completely Compartmentalize Work, but You Can Try
To take the side of work-life integration advocates, I think they would acknowledge many of the pitfalls I’ve pointed out. Most proponents admit that the success of work-life integration hinges on how it's implemented. Their advice is to negotiate and establish the right boundaries and expectations with your job. You continuously assess and reassess what work-life-integration means to you, and adjust boundaries accordingly. The glaring problem with this advice is (back to the demand-support-control model) it assumes workers have more control than they really do.
A 2018 study on “boundaryless knowledge workers” found that, “Individuals often prioritize work demands over home demands, suggesting that individuals have less control. This problem is exacerbated for teleworkers, where in theory it is possible for the individual to ignore work demands in favor of home demands. This does not happen: individuals make work a higher priority, most of the time, with limited exceptions for family time or personal time at specific moments of the working day.”
In their 2022 State of the Global Workplace Report Gallup says, “Emotionally compartmentalizing work, or anything in life, is hard. Even if your boss can’t call or email you after 5 p.m., you probably haven’t recovered from the berating he gave you earlier in the day. It’s almost impossible to leave that kind of emotional baggage at work."
Gallup is famous for these scenarios where every employee is abused and every manager is a tyrant, but stress at work can result in the proverbial “kicking the dog”. But what makes the horrible boss harder to deal with is when they do call or email you after 5 p.m. Having a bad day at the office and then still having to respond to emails, finish work, or jump on a late conference call because you’ve integrated your work and life makes the situation much worse. If you can’t let go of your emotional baggage from work, that’s one thing. It’s a different thing entirely to not be able to let go of work, because there are no boundaries and work never stops.
The solution isn’t more integration, its more separation, and more time back. Most workplace conflict I’ve experienced, even a nasty boss or coworker, is ultimately petty and trivial in the grand scheme of things. After a bad day, if I go exercise, I find the endorphins help those worries fade away. Creating distance of both time and space between myself and work remedies quite a bit. Physical exercise is obviously a great choice, but whatever allows you to unplug and put work in perspective ought to do the trick. Believe it or not, even the dreaded commute can serve as a "transition ritual" to shift from the work domain back to home.
Work-life integration has become the new term of art, but the dark-side of this movement is an always on culture of overwhelmed employees constantly trying to juggle the competing, and often incompatible demands of work and life. It’s a not a remedy. It’s a bad idea.
The goal posts have shifted from work-life balance to work-life integration, causing us to forget what’s important - time
Work-life integration is sold as a way to have it all, but in reality it’s a selfish philosophy that results in less productivity and longer hours of work
Ironically, through it's blurring of boundaries, it's also likely to exacerbate burnout and work-family conflict
Getting back to work-life balance strategies that provide workers flexibility, control, and time is a better idea
Part 10: Coming Soon...