The Enduring Problem With Work-Life Balance

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Dec 01, 2017

The dream of the shorter work week is centuries old. 
So how come “busy” is still code for “important”? 
Evan Williams examines the state of work-life balance.

Are there three words in the English language uttered more yet followed less than “work-life balance”?

Talking to someone about their work-life balance is like speaking with them about their weight: no-one is ever satisfied and they always have an excuse. “Once this project is over, it will get better.” “Once 
this manager leaves, things will go back to normal.” “Once I’m in a retirement home, 
I won’t have to answer emails.”

But it wasn’t meant to be this way; we were all meant to have impeccable work-
life balance by now.

It’s 200 years since Welsh social reformer Robert Owen announced his ideal of 
“eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, 
eight hours rest”, which was eventually realised in the 40-hour week.

What would Owen make of our work lives in 2017? Sorry, we’d have to say, but we decided to use our eight hours of recreation to catch up on emails while catching snippets of Netflix. And those eight hours 
of rest? We might dip into them to update the company’s social media accounts. 
Lord knows what he’d think of our habit 
of referring to activities that aren’t work 
as if they are (see the phrase “life admin”).

We’d also blush in front of British economist John Maynard Keynes while talking about work-life balance.

In his 1930 essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, Keynes predicted that in the future we’d work just 15 hours 
a week. (At this point, I should confirm that his profession was indeed economist, not stand-up comedian.)

Keynes thought advances in technology would help us work less. But technology has made it easier for us to work more.

In 2017, you can’t leave the office. It’s always with you, in your pocket. On a 
beach in the Bahamas? Sorry, you’ll still have to field urgent questions from Ben. “Don’t worry, it won’t take a second.” Ah, the wonders of technology.
While Keynes would be saddened to 
see us working more than 15 hours a week, he would find hope in some countries. In 2016, the Swedish government embarked 
on a bold experiment: the six-hour day. 
Its study of 68 retirement-home nurses 
who worked six-hour days on an eight-hour-
day salary showed they were unhappy with extra leisure time and wished they could spend more time away from their loved ones. Just kidding.

Of course, those nurses felt less stressed and suffered fewer illnesses and their productivity improved. Best of all, working 
a six-hour day finally gave them time to assemble all that Ikea furniture.

Jason Fried, CEO of web-based project-management tool Basecamp, is one of a new breed of tech leaders fighting for work-life balance. He’s made headlines by working only a 40-hour week and allowing his workers a 32-hour week in summer.

“I think people use being busy as a badge of honour that they’re important,” suggested Fried in one interview.

Perhaps we can flip that badge. Let’s give a positive shout-out in meetings to Jacinta, who didn’t work when she was sick; a pat on the back for Michael, who decided not to pull an all-nighter and finish a presentation that could wait a day anyway; and a raise 
for Kristie, who hurled her computer into the ocean because it had too many unread emails on it. (Okay, maybe that’s going too far but you get the idea.)

So if you’re unhappy with your work-life balance, don’t wait to make changes. While Keynes was wrong about the 15-hour work week, he was definitely right when he said, “In the long run, we are all dead.”

SEE ALSO: Are You Overdue for a Workcation?

Illustration: Steven Moore