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Work/life balance is actually about work and love

The balance between work and life has become a tug-of-war that none of us can win. The two are intertwined like a bowl of spaghetti and there will always be a carry-over of the effects of stress and concerns from one to the other.

Even if we are putting 51% of ourselves into our work and 49% into the rest of our lives, we still feel guilty.

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From a functional perspective, when someone has stresses or worries that occupy their mind, that can drive a system of decline. The worries lead to mental distress and conflict at work. Employees may then struggle to deal with their workload, and their effectiveness decreases.

Employers sometimes help by creating a system of renewal, offering support through the workplace to deal with the root causes of worries. For example, if stress is the root cause, then employees may benefit from mindfulness sessions, stress management, and resilience training.

But we can also look at this challenge on a more philosophical level. Forget about work/life balance for a moment and look at Sigmund Freud’s comments in this regard. Freud described work and love as the two cornerstones of our lives, asking: what else is there? 

There is nothing else, but they are very different concepts. Work is usually linear and success often means finding the most efficient route to complete a task.

Love, by contrast, is a meandering process. For example, we wouldn’t measure our love for a child or a partner by their productivity or give them a spreadsheet to complete.

Human beings need both to be fulfilled and achieve a happiness equation that is much more meaningful than trying to balance up the time we put into work and into life.

Operationally, work provides us with food and a roof over our heads. Just as importantly, if employees have purpose in their work, they feel that they are achieving something positive.

By measuring outputs (what we achieve), rather than inputs (how long we are in the office or online at home) we can reconnect with our sense of purpose and give our work lives meaning.

Having a job that enables us to work with purpose is only half of the equation, though. People need to experience love too, and companies must recognise the importance of both love and work in employees’ lives.

That could mean enabling people to pick up their children from school sometimes, or ensure that their working life is manageable, so they can spend good quality time with partners and friends.

It is rare that we are equally successful in work and in love, but we all need to be able to experience both. Boards, leaders, line managers and everyone at work must look beyond the input of being present in the workplace, to the output of what people achieve.

To enable this, line management practices have to evolve, and managers need to know their staff as individuals. It does not mean being intrusive, but knowing enough about someone’s circumstances to understand the interaction between their personal and professional lives.  

Some of Freud’s theories have fallen out of fashion, but he did get this particular point just right. We are all on a work/love quest, not simply fighting for a work/life balance.


Wolfgang Seidl is a partner at Mercer and leads Workplace Health Consulting for UK and Europe