Is the Work-Life Balance a Myth?

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Since the 1980s, the idea of a “work-life balance” has been a popular one. It’s been a pursuit of many a career-minded individual—as well as the subject of many bestselling books. The goal of achieving this elusive balance between the professional sphere of life and the personal sphere has been the focus of countless surveys, spawned many leadership conferences and retreats, and even been the basis of corporate positions and childcare services.

Some people have taken the idea literally and try to work the same exact number of hours on the job as they spend with family and friends off the job. Others understand it as more of a philosophical balance, determined by your ability to handle stress, your priorities, and what resources you have available. Or there has been the related idea that, if one schedules your calendar properly, you can get everything you want without missing out on anything.

Even in recruiting new employees, companies often promote resources and programs necessary for teams to enjoy work-life balance. This can be seen in on-site gyms, health-related incentives, flex hours, and the recent spate of remote work trends that have changed a large portion of the workforce around the world.

However one defines it, and no matter how hard people have tried to manifest it, the question has primarily been: “Have you achieved the balance?”

But the better question should be:

Is there really a balance?

The problem is that balance in life is too often thought of as a zero-sum game. You either have it or you don’t. You’re either winning or losing. And if one area in the life-career juggle is even slightly out-of-whack, then it’s impossible to enjoy what’s going on in another area. Or so it may seem.

The reality is, every main area of life—from your work to your family to your personal hobbies to your wider social circles and beyond—are all reliant on each other. Each one affects the other, and they should not be treated like closed systems that operate purely independently. Stress in one area will impact another, and vice versa. Time devoted to one will be time not available to another. Greater satisfaction in one can improve performance or mood while in another.

So rather than blocking off one side of life from another and measuring to make sure each part gets equal portions of time and energy investments, a more holistic approach can serve far better. Companies can also be intentional in helping their employees accomplish this. In fact, the research by Gartner shows that, “Providing holistic well-being support can boost discretionary effort by 21%, twice as much as companies that provide traditional (physical and financial) programs alone2.”

According to Gartner, 64% of companies offered a new well-being benefit in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while 85% introduced additional mental health support. At the same time, 87% of businesses offer flexible work hours to employees taking care of children or parents.1

Here are a few suggestions for looking at the whole “work-life balance” idea a bit differently:

  1. Embrace flexibility – More so than ever, the boundaries between our professional lives and personal lives have blurred, especially with more people working from home than ever. Don’t overly compartmentalize—instead, if possible, try to add in flexibility with scheduling and time management while maintaining healthy boundaries. Each day may look a little different and will be based on your preferences and work styles.
  2. Personalize your definition of balance – A sense of satisfaction with work will look different from person to person. One family’s weekly schedule will look very different from their neighbors’. And your plans for the future may be vastly different in terms of scope, personal goals, retirement plans, travel plans, resource availability, and so on. If there is any “balance” to be struck, it will be one that’s unique to you, those around you, and your circumstances, so do not pretend that any one-size-fits-all approach will work in the long run.
  3. Focus on what’s meaningful – What will matter most to you in the years to come? How can you allot the limited time and energy you have to what will be most important to you when you look back on how you spent it after a year, five years, ten years, or more? Consider what you may or may not regret doing (or not doing) from a long-term view. This will help you prioritize how you actually live and work and play and grow—and it is a perspective you must keep revisiting every so often, as it will change year by year.

A work-life balance will inevitably look different in multiple scenarios, and it’s less about getting it exactly right and more about the journey along the way. According to research by Harvard Business Review, “Achieving better balance between professional and personal priorities boils down to a combination of reflexivity—or questioning assumptions to increase self-awareness—and intentional role redefinition. Importantly, our research suggests that this is not a one-time fix, but rather, a cycle that we must engage in continuously as our circumstances and priorities evolve.”3

  1. 1, 2. Gartner, “Support Well-Being in 2021 and Beyond,” 2021,
  2. 3. Harvard Business Review, “Work-Life Balance Is a Cycle, Not an Achievement,” 2021,