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The Myth of the Work-Life Balance

More than two decades and countless discussions after the term “work-life balance” entered the workforce lexicon, we don’t seem to be any closer to figuring out how to achieve it. Author Matthew Kelly believes he knows why.

“The question has always been framed in the wrong way,” Kelly told me in a phone interview last week. “The term itself is fatally flawed.”

He says the term implies that work and life should be separate, when in reality, they are intertwined. “Most people spend the majority of their lives working. So when you tell them their work isn’t a part of their life, they don’t respond very well to that.”

In fact, prior to the early 1990s, when Fortune 500 companies started addressing the topic in their employee surveys, Kelly believes employees didn’t give much thought to having a work-life balance at all.  After interviewing more than 3,000 people as research for the book, Kelly and his colleagues found the same holds true today: workers don’t truly care about balance at all. What they want is satisfaction in both areas of their lives – personal and professional – at the same time.

An internationally renowned speaker and business consultant, Kelly has built a career around a core principle he developed as a first-year business school student: “becoming the best versions of ourselves.” Today, as president of Floyd Consulting, Kelly helps organizations and people become the best versions of themselves on a daily basis.

In his new book, Off Balance: Getting Beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth to Personal and Professional Satisfaction, Kelly refocuses this core principle to help others become the most satisfied versions of themselves. When I spoke to Kelly last week, he discussed how employers could use the insights from his book to tap into their employees’ needs and create a more satisfied – and more productive – workforce.

Employers need to take ownership of employee satisfaction
While no one is more responsible for their satisfaction levels than themselves, Kelly says, companies do have a responsibility to help their employees achieve satisfaction.  And a large part of that responsibility lies in defining its culture. “A lot of company cultures are passive aggressive, saying, ‘We care about our people, and we want them to have a work-life balance and satisfying personal and professional lives,’ but there’s an underlying pressure to work a 60- to 70-hour week,” Kelly says.

Companies have an obligation to be honest and open with their employees about what is expected of them. He uses Microsoft as an example of a company that takes on this responsibility well. “At the start up of Microsoft, all these guys were working an 80-hour work week, but they knew what they were signing up for.”

At the same time, however, companies also need to be aware of the higher workloads their people are taking on and extra hours they are putting in, especially in light of the recent “macroeconomic meltdown.” Employees simply can’t withstand that kind of pressure over a sustained amount of time. “It’s okay if we know the fourth quarter is the busiest quarter, but every quarter shouldn’t be like that,” Kelly says.

In addition to defining one’s culture, Kelly says it is of vital importance for a company to have a compelling, clearly defined vision – “something people can work toward” – in order to keep them engaged.

“Highly engaged people tend to have a vision for their life, and there are dreams that they are working toward,” Kelly says. Therefore, in order to increase engagement, employers should find ways to let employees pursue their passions at work – in any way possible, no matter how small.

“If we can nudge people closer to their core strengths so they’re spending a little more time doing something they’re really impassioned about…even if big changes aren’t made in that area, if employees are seeing their employers are interested in that, I think it makes a seismic shift in the culture.”

Help Your Employees Increase Their Level of Satisfaction with One Simple Exercise
In Off Balance, Kelly outlines various ways to increase one’s level of satisfaction. Here’s one you can suggest your employees try today: Suggest they carve out a half hour each week – say, on a Friday afternoon or a Monday morning – and take out a notepad. Then, on a scale of one to ten, rate their level of professional satisfaction and rate their level of personal satisfaction. (Professional satisfaction, after all, can influence personal satisfaction and vice versa.) This exercise will do two things: First, it helps people identify the source of their dissatisfaction. Once they’ve identified this source, they can then begin to work toward changing it for the better. This step is where you come in. Be open to discussing ways your employees can increase their satisfaction at work – whether that means taking on a new challenge or perhaps scaling back in other areas.

Matthew Kelly is the New York Times bestselling author of The Rhythm of Life and The Dream Manager. His newest book, Off Balance: Getting Beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth, comes out today.

It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Is it your responsibility to support a climate of work-life balance, or is is the right focus employee satisfaction?

Mary Lorenz

About Mary Lorenz

Mary is a copywriter for CareerBuilder, specializing in B2B marketing and corporate recruiting best practices and social media. In addition to creating copy for corporate advertising and marketing campaigns, she researches and writes about employee attraction, engagement and retention. Whenever possible, she makes references to pop culture. Sometimes, those references are even relevant. A New Orleans native, Mary now lives in Chicago, right down the street from the best sushi place in the city. It's awesome.
Steve Polinsky
Steve Polinsky

Mr. Kelly is supposedly a "Catholic" author. In his latest book entitled "Off Balance" he throws out three decades of research concerning work-life balance and asserts that people don't want balance, they want satisfaction.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI called for a healther BALANCE between work and rest in his message of the 7th world meetings of Families. Matthew appears to disagree with the Pope concerning this issue. Perhaps Mr. Kelly should do further research about what the Catholic Church actually teaches about balance.

The Cathechism of the Catholic Church states that "(1811) It is not easy for man, wounded by sin, to maintain moral BALANCE. Christ's gift of salvation offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues. Everyone should always ask for this grace of light and strength, frequent the sacraments, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and follow his calls to love what is good and shun evil."

Furthermore, "(1809) Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides BALANCE in the use of created goods. It ensures the will's mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable."

Mr. Kelly's thesis which asserts that people don't want balance they want satisfaction, needs further clarification in light of his perception of a "Catholic" world view. Perhaps the opposite would be more accurate. People are yearning for balance. From a Catholic perspective, if one lives a Catholic Sacramental Life, God provides the graces to persevere in leading a Christ centered and balanced life. It is then and only then that the human heart will be "satisfied."

Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Kelly is short changing his readers by suggesting that you can't have both balance and satisfaction.

For businesses who hire Catholic employees, Christian employees or any employees it's not an either or situation. It's both! Companies should foster opportunities for employees to strive to live a balance between work and rest which will lead to greater satisfaction and productivity for their employees both on and off the job.


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