Home Articles The damaging work-life balance myth – where exactly is Australia going wrong?

The damaging work-life balance myth – where exactly is Australia going wrong?


Australia. The lucky country. It’s 4:00pm. You look out the window. The sun is shining. You can hear the beach calling. So you pack up your things and head out of the office without a backward glance. Work can wait. There are more important things in life, right? Wrong.

While us Aussies like to think of ourselves as fun loving, carefree types who value family, the outdoors and having a laugh with mates, the sad truth is that where we spend our time is a truer reflection of who we are. And we’re spending a mighty amount of it at work. In fact, of the 38 OECD countries Australia was ranked 30th for work-life balance with 13.2% of our population working very long hours. That may not sound like much, but when you compare it to the 0.5% of the Netherlands, it puts things in perspective.

The work-life balance myth

But wait. What is balance anyway? And why did balance become the thing we are all aspiring to? Well the OECD measure balance by a combination of factors that include the amount of time we spend at work and the time we devote to leisure and personal care. For most of us, this is exactly how we have come to think of balance too.

Work on one side, everything else on the other. We put the two into nice, neat, little boxes, tie them up with string and never the twain shall meet. But we all know this isn’t how it works. Work and life are not separate. Maybe they were once when we went to work in a factory, no devices in our pockets or world wide web to keep us connected 24/7. But times have changed. Work-life balance is a figment of our imagination. Yet somehow we all keep hearing we’re supposed to be achieving it. And it’s completely unrealistic.

Today, not only does our work expect more of us, but we expect more from our work. More and more as humans, we are required to bring all of ourselves to work. It’s what’s in our heads and our hearts that makes us valuable. And with the rise of artificial intelligence and automation, this will only become more the case. Whatever affects those heads and hearts affects our ability to perform at our best. The fact is we do not have a work self and a life self that can be separated as we walk through the office door. Everything that happens to us or that we do both personally and professionally impacts all aspects of us. For most of us, whether we like it or not, work comes home with us – in our heads and on blipping, bleeping devices. And home also comes to work. There is no balance. It’s all intertwined.

New work-life terms replacing ‘balance’

Perhaps this is why we are beginning to see some new terms arise to replace this outdated meme. Terms like work-life blend and work-life integration are two that have popped up more recently, with organisations like tech company Culture Amp even including this as a factor in their employee experience survey offering.

Terms like blend and integration still don’t quite hit the mark for me however, as they’re not particularly aspirational. Where balance is at least reaching for an ideal (however unrealistic), blend and integration are just what is. Our work and life are intrinsically linked, overlapping, boundaryless and murky. Yes, we can blend or integrate them more or less successfully, but to what end? We need to define what ‘success’ actually looks like. And this is where it gets tricky. Success looks different for everyone.

What kind of work-life do we all aspire to?

Rather than accepting whatever term is the new ‘hot right now’ buzzword of the time, we each need to define what we are aspiring to in our work-lives. We need to help our employees define it. It’s only then, we can actually begin to intentionally design our work-lives to achieve that goal. If we go beyond the idea of employee experience and consider people’s work within the context of their whole life, what kind of work-life experience are we seeking to empower them to create?

Perhaps we are seeking work-life harmony – where the different aspects of work and life, rather than balancing on opposite sides of an imaginary fulcrum, are singing together in sweet melody. Maybe it’s work-life flow – where we seek to work with our energy rather than time and create the conditions for ease and momentum. It could be work-life fulfilment, happiness, wellbeing or meaning. It might not even be one thing. But until we start asking ourselves the question about what we really want, it’s all too easy to become focused on an aspiration that doesn’t really meet our ideal scenario or our current working paradigm.

A Work-Life design approach

One way to do this, is to take a design approach. Just as with customer, user or employee experience, we can approach our work-life with a similar process. Work-life design. We can apply the design thinking or human-centred design methods of empathising, defining, ideating prototyping and testing.

First we seek to understand or empathise with our own deep needs and motivations for our working lives (or those of our people) from a holistic perspective – creating insights into what’s truly important. A key point which makes this different from a more general ‘life design’ or ‘employee experience’ approach however, is that we pay particular attention to the intersection between work, life and self. How do the three influence each other? What are the tensions? Then, rather than accepting balance, or integration or anything else as our goal, we can develop key principles which we seek to work towards. Ones that will give us the work-life we truly desire. Once we have this, we can then begin to take steps to get there: brainstorming, prototyping and testing ideas to move us forward from current state to ideal future. We can do this at an overarching level, looking at our whole work-lives, or drill down into something specific. Eg. Our energy levels, efficiency or our relationship with our kids.

Work-life design can transform how we approach all aspects of our lives, because it looks at the interrelationship between all the pieces. As with so much good design, it’s about zooming out and looking at the entire system. But it’s not about moving pieces around to make sure all our time balances out – with just the right amounts devoted to work, family, health, relationships, leisure etc. It’s about deeply understanding how everything works together and the levers we can pull to achieve what we desire.

For example, you might be feeling stressed and overworked, but in the context of your job, taking time off or cutting back your hours (a work-life balance type approach) is just not possible. With a work-life design approach the question becomes, what do you really need to get through this busy time and feel how you want to feel? Perhaps what you really need is more energy. Or to be able to switch off when you do have down time.

Using the classic design question ‘How might we…?’ (or ‘how might I..?’), you can begin to work towards solving for more specific (and realistic) solutions that suit your context. How might I feel more energised, so that I can move through this difficult time with more ease? It might be that you actually need to see a naturopath to help you work with your adrenal levels. Or go for a run in the evening (which actually makes you feel more energised) instead of zombifying out in front of the TV. This is just one simple example, but it illustrates an important point. Trying to balance out our time is not the answer. Our lives are far more complex than that.

Take action

I know many people who have given up on ‘balance’ because they know it’s not achievable. But this is exactly why we need to start taking a different approach. We can’t have you or your people throwing in the towel on creating a better work-life. We need to be fostering a more useful and effective approach. One that actually helps us be who we want to be and feel how we want to feel.

The quality of your work life affects your physical and mental wellbeing, it affects your relationships, your sense of meaning and engagement, your lifestyle, your ability to fulfil your potential, your standard of living and so much more. The quality of your employees work-lives will affect your retention, your effectiveness as a business, your ability to fulfil your mission and it will affect your bottom line.

So let’s cut the balance B.S and start designing the work-lives we want and need to make it in the craziness that is our modern working era.

Kate McCready is a transformational career, work-life and leadership coach, experience designer and co-founder of Work+Life X Conference: an event for people reimagining our work-life experience. Kate works with people to help them align and expand to their highest potential in work and life.