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Work-Life Balance: Differentiate Without Separating

Never I have been a devotee of the concept of work-life balance. It suggests a separation that I am not willing to accept. If something has lost its balance, then it is surely our way of doing business, where work is designed in such a way that it is only bearable with a proper counterweight. So let’s not strive for more work-life balance, but for a world of work worth living in, in which people can unfold their full potential instead of just being human resources. Let us differentiate the various areas of life without separating them.

Gallup Engagement Index Germany 2001-2018: Only work-life balance makes meaningless work bearable
The Gallup Engagement Index for German employees

Every year I am appalled by the results of the Gallup Engagement Index. We simply can’t afford to have 70% of the people in German companies just working by the book. This wastes precious life time on the one hand and creative potential on the other.

The reason for this waste comes from the way we have built organizations and how we operate them. Where people are only used as gears in a huge soulless machine, the logical consequence is working by the book. In this paradigm, human work becomes an annoying evil to be avoided – for the employer as well as for the employee, as E.F. Schumacher aptly explains in his highly recommendable book “Small is beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered” (Amazon Affiliate-Link):

There is universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labor. Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider “labor” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.

E.F. Schumacher, Small is beautiful

In exactly this way of thinking the concept of work-life balance has its origin and certainly some justification. However, it does not eliminate the causes of the problem, but merely cures the symptoms a little bit by creating a separate space for the “proper” life in contrast to the meaningless and lifeless work where individual talents and hopes can be realized.

Differentiate without separating – connect without equalizing

Herbert Pietschmann

But how much more quality of life on the one hand and work results on the other would be possible if we could break this separation and revive work? Schumacher therefore contrasts his sobering analysis with a holistic view of work:

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.

E.F. Schumacher, Small is beautiful

No matter how well balanced, the individual areas of life cannot be separated. They are always an integral part of a single human life. It is only through their harmonious cohabitation that this life succeeds. And organizations bear responsibility not only for their results, but also for society and especially for their employees. So instead of covering up fundamental deficits with a few work-life balance offers, it is time to question the principles of our economy and to make organizations and working therein more humane. I have this dream and am not willing to give it up.

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.

Steve Jobs

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Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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