For the longest time, personal productivity experts have advocated the achievement of work-life balance as the pinnacle of productivity. They argued that work should be treated as a separate space disconnected from personal life. The productive worker, they said, was one who completed their tasks for the day before closing time, clocked out and went home to spend time with their family. Work was not to be touched at home until they returned to the office the next day. This sharp separation of work and personal life was easier to achieve before the advent of the internet when workers were generally unreachable after office hours.
Recently, there has been greater drive towards what has been called work-life integration. The proposition is as more people become active online, the demarcation between work and home are no longer as sharp as they used to. Instead of trying to create an artificial divide between the two, workers are encouraged to expect significant overlap. If you have ever read work email on your phone during breakfast or replied to a request from your Line Manager on the way back home, you understand how work can creep into personal life.
Neither approach can be said to be better than the other. Work-life balance advocates call for a need to see work as a necessary part of life but not one that should intrude into time that should be spent with family or personal interests. Management has paid for a number of hours of a workers’ time each day. They should not expect anything beyond that, especially when they are not willing to provide fair compensation for overtime. It shouldn’t matter if an employee is unavailable after office hours as long as they get the job done during the day.
On the other hand, work-life integration was put to the test during the height of the pandemic when many companies allowed employees to work from home. Suddenly, people were attending meetings while cooking meals, changing a diaper or breaking up a fight between their children. Corporate workers learnt to write reports while waiting for the laundry. Those who had previously demanded a sharp divide between the office and home found it difficult to cope with the new demands on their time.
If you held a gun to my head and asked me to pick a side, I’d fall on the side of work-life balance. I still believe it is wrong to send work emails to colleagues after office hours or on weekends. Neither should you call at midnight to assign tasks for the next day just because you can. It’s quite easy for employers to abuse the privileges gained from ease of access to workers. I believe work should remain something done during agreed upon hours and if after those hours, a person wants to switch off their phone and read a good book, they should have the option to do so. One of the problems facing knowledge workers in the 21st century is burnout. This has gotten so bad in Japan that they actually have a word, Karoshi that refers to “death by overwork.” If employers and employees worked to keep work and life separate, perhaps workers would feel less compelled to work till they dropped dead (literally) of exhaustion.
What do you think? Feel free to leave your thoughts below.