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Work-life ‘balance’ vs ‘integration’

The Conversation this week has Melissa Wheeler and Asanka Gunasekara suggesting that we should forget work-life balance in favour of what they call “integration”. Following a proposal made by Stewart Friedman in the 1990s, they reject the notion that we need to make trade-offs between work and other aspects of life, claiming that we can “integrate work and the rest of life in ways that engender ‘four-way wins’ between work, home, community and self”.

Integrating work and life and finding synergies between them sounds superficially appealling from the point of view presenting oneself as a whole person rather than separately as an employee or a home-maker or a community member, but the commenters on the article are not impressed. For a start, what synergies might be found between, say, working in a mine and playing with children? What sort of software engineering challenges might I discuss with dinner guests who have no knowledge of software engineering? And, perhaps most notoriously, how do worker-home-makers escape expectations that they be on call for work at any time of the night or day?

By coincidence, David Taylor explained some of the practical difficulties in integrating work and life over at the ABC in the same week. For Taylor and the researcher (Jim Stanford) that he speaks to, working at home risks being neither a synergy nor a trade-off: “work follows us around”, eating up time that we might otherwise spend on the other aspects of our lives.

I suppose that Wheeler and Gunasekara would argue that being followed by work might be okay so long as home is able to follow us to work as well. This is more or less what happens in some of their examples, such as workers bringing children to the office. Taylor, Stanford and the commentators, however, fear that employers won’t allow this, or will at least reward workers who are available at any time of the day more than they reward workers who spend time on other aspects of their lives.

From this perspective, the basic trouble with Wheeler and Gunasekara’s proposal might be that our work is pushed along by powerful external pressures to satisfy employers, compete against other workers, and make a living, whereas there are few if any comparable forces to push along the other aspects of our lives. This is one of the reasons that labour regulations set standards for the number of hours worked in a week, for example; without them our family, friends and community would have no way of claiming time from work.

All of that said, I do integrate my work and home life to the extent that, on most days, I switch between “work” tasks and “home” tasks, and I sometimes socialise with work colleagues. But I don’t bring my hobbies to work meetings—meetings run for long enough already—I avoid talking about computers at all outside of work—my previous blog was called I Don’t Want to Be a Nerd, after all—and I don’t answer work e-mail after hours or on weekends. I’ve been fortunate to work in places where most people have similar patterns of work and I’ve had managers who’ve explicitly encouraged staff to get out of the office once in a while.

This sort of integration requires a certain amount of structure and discipline: take a break from work every two hours, ignore the e-mails that come in after five p.m., don’t buy into Microsoft vs Apple debates, and so on. The traditional work week is arguably a fairly crude sort of structure; the challenge for proponents of integration is to come up with a better one.

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