There’s been no shortage of chatter as to the merits of establishing and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. In theory, work-life balance benefits companies as workers are more relaxed and better able to focus on tackling their assignments. On the flipside, when work-life balance is poor, proponents argue, employees become inundated with stress and fatigue—and therefore are less productive.
Seems to check out, right?
It might not. According to a new study, focusing on improving work-life balance might actually make things worse. Due to the phenomenon psychologists call cognitive role transition, actively focusing on maintaining an enviable work-life balance might actually drain more of our energy.
A cognitive role transition happens when your brain shifts from one domain (e.g., work) to another (e.g., life). These shifts can be brief. Or they could be seriously taxing.
What is work-life balance?
Work-life balance initiatives are designed to designate specific times when employees should be focusing on work and other times when they should not be focusing on work. Don’t check your personal Facebook account during work hours when you’re expected to be working and don’t answer that after-hours email when you’re expected to be living your life outside of work.
Such a dichotomy can be particularly stifling because life isn’t always that convenient. Maybe one of your family members or friends has an emergency and sends you a Facebook message at 2 p.m. Maybe a product launch isn’t going so great and you need to burn the midnight oil to devise a plan of attack to make things right.
It turns out that work-life balance might be akin to a fixed mindset, a world where there are only so many possibilities—not endless ones. I can only work during these hours. Maybe it’s time to nix the notion of work-life balance altogether and focus on integrating the two domains under the guise of a growth mindset. Inspiration can make me work at any hour of the day. There’s no sense in limiting opportunities for productivity after all.
Work-life balance isn’t working
Despite all of the investments made in work-life initiatives, American workers don’t appear to be enjoying many dividends. Consider the following:
- 38% of professionals have missed important life events (e.g., a child’s recital) because of work
- 68% of U.S. workers are not engaged at their jobs
- 57% of employees are either overwhelmed from time to time or consistently overworked
- 70% of workers feel as though there isn’t enough time to get everything done each week
It’s safe to say that whatever work-life balance programs are being peddled—however well-intentioned—aren’t doing what they’re designed to do. So it’s time to switch things up. But how?
Our need for flexibility
Recent research says workers who have less of a boundary between work and life experience more cognitive role transitions than those whose schedules are stricter. Despite that, these transitions are less draining on them. Perhaps it’s because they’ve learned to manage their lives differently and are used to toggling back and forth between work and life all the time.
When these more nimble workers get interrupted by a personal phone call at work, their mind shifts from the “work” to the “life” domain just like anyone else’s. It’s just that they’re used to more of these natural interruptions and know how to recover from them quickly to return focus to the task at hand.
Instead of work-life balance, companies may be wiser to stress the importance of work-life integration. It might sound a little intense, but hear me out. If employees are getting their work done—and done well—does it really matter when they’re working or where they’re working from?
We should be able to do our jobs however they want. Of course, we can’t miss meetings or phone calls or deadlines. But if our performance is solid, does it really matter how we get it done?
Let us do our jobs however we see fit, and we’ll almost certainly become happier and more productive. You don’t even have to spend a ton of money to make it happen:
- Become workspace-agnostic. At most jobs, workers don’t really have to be in the office to have a productive day. So let them work from wherever they want to work. Studies prove remote workers are more productive than their peers who are forced to march into the office every day. They’re also happier. Take remote working to the extreme level, and who knows? Maybe you don’t need to spend a bundle on office space anymore. Use coworking facilities when you need to.
- Embrace flexible scheduling. Aside from specific meeting times and the like, do workers really need to crank out assignments at 1 p.m. on a sunny day when they prefer working at 1 a.m.? Employees should be able to set their own schedules (within reason). Getting the job done correctly and on time is the only thing that matters. Like remote working, flexible scheduling is strongly correlated with happier employees.
- Invest in technology. Employees need to be equipped with the right tools in order to be able to work remotely and flexibly. So companies need to invest in cloud computing, collaboration platforms and mobile devices. This way, workers can tackle their work and access their communications from any connected device. That’s how you get things done.
If employees will ever achieve work-life balance, it’ll be because they’re able to work at their own leisure. They’re called professionals for a reason. They know how to do their jobs. Give them their freedom, and they’ll take their productivity to the next level—with a smile.