Why you should strive for integration, not balance

“Hi. How are you?”

This is a pretty standard greeting as we acknowledge co-workers in the morning or begin a phone conversation. In fact, it’s become the kind of question that rarely, if ever, requires a serious response. If we do get a real answer, it often feels awkward or even intrusive.

For some time I’ve noticed that the response I usually get when I ask, “How are you?” is “busy,” “crazy,” or “stressed.” It seems like most of us are running in different directions, struggling to manage it all, and striving to make a difference in our personal and professional lives. The common thread is the desire to achieve a greater work-life balance.

While it is something many of us talk about, I want to challenge the notion of work-life balance. Balance suggests equilibrium –– that our work and personal lives are evenly distributed. I don’t think that’s possible or even desirable. On any given week, the facets of our lives are ebbing and flowing. For example, over the past couple of years I have found myself helping to care for an elderly parent. The “life” side of the equation changed dramatically. When I travel for a client engagement, work is fairly consuming.

I think “balance” indicates that our work and personal lives are entirely separate –– that they have nothing in common with each other (i.e., when I go to work I leave my personal life at home and vice versa). This just isn’t true. The boundaries are certainly blurred. In our complex lives, we often need to attend to personal things during the course of a “normal” workday. And, with 24/7 connectivity, we know that for many of us, work easily drifts into all hours of the day and night.

Very early in my career, a vice president of human resources told me he expected employees to leave their personal lives at the door. I can remember thinking that it wasn’t quite that simple –– that we don’t have an on-off switch that allows us to regulate the various aspects of our lives. Plus, by shutting off one segment of our life when we walk into or out of work, we lose part of what makes us who we are.

Instead of focusing on balance, I like the idea of work-life integration. Integration suggests I’m combining the various parts of my life into a whole. Sometimes one area gets more attention, sometimes another. The challenge is to ensure that in the complete picture I call my life, all of those things that are important or meaningful are incorporated.

I’m certainly not alone in talking about integration instead of balance. Many organizations are helping to create work-life integration by implementing flexible schedules, allowing remote work, supporting health and wellness regimes, and encouraging midday energy breaks (e.g., a quick walk around the block, a short meditation, or other options for employees to reenergize during the work day). These ideas help pave the way for a more fully integrated life and lead to happier employees.

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