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Let's talk about work/life harmony

The idea that ‘work’ competes with ‘life’ ignores the more nuanced reality of our humanity

There exists a fundamental misconception about the ‘cost’ of success. Many believe that to achieve great things it takes brutal sacrifices. It becomes a zero sum game where success in work means ignoring everything else – self, family, society. This kind of binary thinking is revealed by the term ‘work/life balance’.

This is a misguided term. It forces us to think in trade-offs instead of the possibilities for harmony. The idea that ‘work’ competes with ‘life’ ignores the more nuanced reality of our humanity. ‘Life’ is actually the intersection and interaction of four domains: work or school, home or family, community or society, and the private self (mind, body and spirit). You can’t ‘have it all’ – complete success in every quadrant at the same time is impossible for anyone. What we can achieve is greater alignment and harmony.

Conflict, stress… these aren’t inevitable. That’s why I believe we should talk about work/life integration or work/life harmony instead. This is why, in 1991, I called our University of Pennsylvania initiative the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project.

I’ve found that the most successful and happy people are those who manage to harness their passions and powers to achieve ‘four-way wins’ – positive impact in all parts of their lives. These people make sure their actions flow from their values. They strive to do what they can to make things better for the people who depend on them and on whom they depend; not only at work but at home, in the community, and in their private selves.

Pursuing harmony makes it possible to lead the life you actually want. It means taking incremental steps, and bringing others along with you as you move in a direction you choose. It starts with three principles: be real, be whole and be innovative.

To be real is to act with authenticity by working out what matters to you most. To be whole is to act with integrity, recognising how the different parts of your life affect each other and mesh, or don’t mesh. To be innovative is experimenting with how things get done in ways that are good for you and those around you.

Achieving wellbeing in all areas relies on having a sense of meaning. Interestingly, contemporary psychologists and neurophysiologists identify two very different kinds of wellbeing. Eudaimonic wellbeing results from helping others. Hedonic wellbeing is the constant pursuit of immediate happiness. We need both. That blend of meaning and happiness is the good life. And the good life brings an inner serenity in a chaotic world.

To achieve harmony in our lives we have to provide value to others through our work, and be conscious of how this is part of our identity and essential to our sense of purpose. However, while working to be kind and generous we also need to create boundaries that allow for a feeling of coherence – our own identity distinct from everything in the world and yet very much a part of it. Harmonious connection demands meaningful separation.

My research has shown that there are different ways for everyone to achieve professional success without always having to sacrifice their personal lives. I’ve found the opposite is true: sustainable professional success results from meaningful investments in the rest of life. The trade-off mindset produces poor business outcomes long term.

Our broken world needs people to live the life they want, focusing on sustainable change that is good both for them and those around them. HR practitioners need to strive to create the work environments that encourage and allow for this meaningful integration of work and life. We need to put to rest, once and for all, the canard that you can’t achieve greatness in work without forsaking the rest of your life.

Stewart Friedman is practice professor of management at the Wharton School and author of Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life