'Work-Life Balance' Is Backfiring on Employers. Here's Why.

Work-life "integration" is the way to go. But, first, leaders must first understand why a perfect work-life balance isn't even possible.

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By Heather R. Huhman

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Work-life balance is a concept many employers have been attempting to make a reality for employees. Unfortunately, it isn't as attainable as we'd hoped.

Related: The Truth About Work-Life Balance

Jennifer Moss from Waterloo, Ontario, author of Unlocking Happiness At Work: How a Data-driven Happiness Strategy Fuels Purpose, Passion and Performance, believes that the goal of work-life balance has actually decreased employee engagement. And, certainly, engagement is low: According to Gallup's U.S. Employee Engagement study of 3,500 employees, only 37 percent of those surveyed described themselves as engaged.

According to Moss, that alarming statistic stems from the amplified negative public perception of work. "[In the past], most people didn't associate work with their passion, but with a paycheck. This is still very true today," Moss explained to me via email. "Since we spend up to 90,000 hours at work in our lifetime, don't we want that time to be spent well? Work-life balance means we must treat both as separate experiences."

The author continued that we can't ignore the fact that a person's work life and home life overlap. And, because our brains don't bifurcate well, she suggested work-life integration, as opposed to a continued search for balance, as the way to achieve the ultimate balance.

But, before any of them dive into integration, company leaders must first understand why a perfect work-life balance isn't attainable:

Our brains are negatively wired.

It isn't a happy truth, but a truth nonetheless: We're naturally geared toward the negative aspects of life.

Here, Moss cited researchers like social neuroscientist John Cacioppo: "Negativity bias refers to the notion that, even when [different considerations are of] equal intensity, things of a more negative nature have a deeper impact on our psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things," Moss explained.

Unfortunately, negativity perpetuates stress, and this heavy burden requires an intentional effort to fight our biases. "Just like it's easier to skip the gym when we're feeling lazy and tired, so is practicing mindfulness, empathy, gratitude, optimism, resiliency, hope -- all the traits that lead to a happier experience of life and work," Moss continued.

Related: 3 Aspects of Work-Life-Balance You Won't Find in Company Presentations

Tip: Focus on the positive traits each of your employees brings to the team. Show gratitude and optimism when they're doing well, but don't forget to place an importance on both empathy and resilience when moments of negativity and struggle appear.

Employees surrounded by company leaders practicing positivity have the ability to put those traits into practice and lead a happier life.

We're looking at it all wrong.

Many people define work-life balance as having the "perfect job" which transitions into the perfect personal life. This unrealistic definition leads to a great deal of disappointment.

Marianne Clyde, from Warrenton, Va., author of Zentivity™: How to Eliminate Chaos, Stress, and Discontent in Your Workplace, told me we need to look at work-life balance as a state of mind. "It's the ability to juggle all the varying responsibilities at home and work without losing your calm, centered place. I don't think it's a myth; it is a conscious balancing act that we must attend to every day," Clyde shared in an email.

In order to reach this balance, Clyde suggested establishing deeply rooted beliefs and coping mechanisms.

Citing the findings of researchers at the University of Warwick who did work on the topic of happiness in the workplace, Clyde said, "The driving force seems to be that happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality."

In short, employees who feel empowered to do their jobs will feel excited and motivated to move forward with even more quality work.

Tip: Put this positivity into motion with employees who are naturally good at what they do. Knowing their strengths and weaknesses enables leaders to place them in the best-fitting positions. On the other hand, knowing their weaknesses leads the way to learning and development opportunities.

Employees are constantly connected.

If finding work-life balance wasn't already difficult enough, our inability to disconnect from work has made it arguably impossible.

"We tell ourselves that if we just 'meet this deadline,' get through the busy period or reach that next goal, then we will pay attention to our health, well-being and family. Then, we will take care of ourselves. Then, we will have balance," Annie McKee of Elkins Park, Pa., and author of HOW TO BE HAPPY AT WORK: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendship, told me via email.

So, how do we encourage employees to get out of this cycle?

McKee said she believes the key is making better choices about how we spend our time and mental energy. But all too often, that idyllic future never materializes. Instead, there's another goal, another deadline, another project.

"It's important to take stock of what's important to us at work -- and in life. Then, we need to be honest with ourselves: Is how we are working and living in line with our passions and our hopes for the future? If not, why not?" McKee added.

Related: Here's What Work-Life Balance Means to These 20 Founders

Tip: Reflecting on our personal and work lives takes a lot of courage and encouragement. Help employees figure out where their destructive or overworking behaviors stem from. Then, give them advice, resources or step-by-step guidelines to help them reach their goal habits and mindsets.

Heather R. Huhman

Career and Workplace Expert; Founder and President, Come Recommended

Waldorf, Md.-based Heather R. Huhman is a career expert, experienced hiring manager and president of Come Recommended, the PR solution for job search and HR tech companies. She writes about issues impacting the modern workplace.

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