Rethinking our Relationship with Work

For any relationship to succeed, it must be tended to, cared for, prioritized, and reexamined from time to time.  This takes effort and constant conversation.  With this in mind, It’s time for us to reexamine our relationship with work and rethink work-life balance.  The digital revolution has drastically changed the way work is accomplished, where work can be done from anywhere at any time, and we can instantly connect with anyone around the world.  Work can infiltrate our vacation time, and researching our upcoming vacation can be done while at work.  A work team can communicate completely virtually yet still function at a high level.  We are in an always on culture, and there’s no turning back.

We are also in the knowledge economy, where the output, or product of work relies on the capabilities of the mind.  This allows people to create an intangible service (knowledge that can be offered anywhere at any time).  There has been a substantial increase in the filing of United States patents in the last 20 years, indicating that the production of knowledge and intellectual capital is on the rise.  These massive shifts in the modern workplace have forever altered how work is done and our relationship with the very concept of work.

The End of Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance is traditionally the term that is used to refer to the relationship between one’s life at work and their life outside of work, which includes time with friends, hobbies, and anything else that one considers to not be work.  This balance refers to a clear distinction between work and life, with an invisible boundary separating the two.  However, separating work and life has a faulty premise.  It implies that work is a detached entity from our lives, which sets a negative precedent for how people should view their relationship with work.  If work is something to simply get through in order to make time for ‘life,’ there is an inherent implication that work cannot play an essential role in the happiness, fulfillment, and meaning of one’s life.  If work and life are separated, then what do we call all of the hours we spend working?  Is this not considered life?  Language is powerful, and the term work-life balance sets a tone about what work’s role should be in the context of one’s broader life.

Integrating Work and Life: A Return to Our Roots

Interestingly, the balance, or separation, of work and life, was not always the case.  Before the industrial revolution, work and life blended together more seamlessly:  People worked in their communities, near their homes, as farmers, craftsmen, and other vocations. When civilization shifted from the agricultural to the industrial economy, the main priorities of work became productivity and efficiency.  Adam Smith envisioned work as large tasks being divided into a series of smaller ones, where each individual would be responsible for one step in the manufacturing process and endlessly repeat this step. Deriving meaning, happiness, or fulfillment from work was not of significance.

As the industrial economy now shifts to the knowledge economy and relies on the complexity of the human mind, with its capacity for intellectual thought, creativity, and imagination, peak performance and innovation cannot be divided into a series of small tasks.  It relies on people to see work as a source of engagement and meaning in their lives, where they feel challenged and have a sense of purpose.  For people to reach their full potential, work must be seen as an integral part of life.  Psychologists Hogan and Hogan wrote an article about work life integration in 2007, and explained it as the following:

“The goal of work-life integration is: to have a satisfying, healthy, and productive life that includes work, love, and play; that integrates a range of life activities with attention to personal and interpersonal development; that fosters the psychological skills necessary for an expansion of energy associated with multiple role engagement; and that permits the construction and experience of a meaningful life defined by reference to unique wishes, interests, and values.”

The concept of work-life integration has been gaining steam in recent years (you can read more about it here and here).  The main challenge we face moving forward is how to harness it correctly.  Our development as individuals depends on engaging with the different roles of our lives whole-heartedly, spiritually, and intellectually.  However, work-life integration gone awry can mean we are constantly working no matter what else we’re doing and constantly feeling burned out and stressed. 

Work-life integration done successfully means fully absorbing oneself in whatever role being engaged in, not constantly doing two things at once.  It can mean allowing ourselves to still be professionally creative outside of traditional working hours and setting aside an hour at the end of the night to work through our ideas.  It can mean not checking our work email when out to dinner with friends so we are authentically connecting with the people we care about.  It is up to each of us to figure out how to best integrate our work with the other aspects of our lives, but we should no longer think of them as separate.


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