Beyond the Myth of Work Life Balance 

By Kashmir Birk

We need to move beyond work and life balance to where work is our life and our life is the work that matters, driven by meaningful values.

People working in essential services such as healthcare, high tech, security, money, energy, grocery retail, logistics and transportation are having to work harder than ever, as they put their lives on the line.

Those who are working from home are missing the exhausting hustle and bustle of rush-hour travel but after a year, they are feeling the stuckness of being hostage to the screens of endless meetings all day.

And then, there are those who are seeking to work in either of these realms.

We live in times when work defines us more than our mother, our culture or our name.

What does this word “work” mean? There are three definitions in the dictionary.

  • Work is mental or physical effort that creates a valuable or meaningful result: “I did some work today”.
  • Work is a place where I sell my time and effort to others for money. “I went to work today”.
  • Work is when something functions properly, for example “My cell phone works right now”.
Work and life balance is a legacy of the industrial age when "work" comes from the second definition of work. It assumes that we “go to work here we clock out our life as we clock in our existence to an ‘employer’. And during that time of “work” our life is on hold. We only get our life back when we clock out and go home.

For duration of the shift, our life belonged to the employer, we were human “resources” to be used. Our life would be given back at the end of the shift for us to live our life, with the time that remained.

This absurd definition of work has only existed for a couple of hundred years. Before the industrial age, the work people did was aligned across all three definitions, effort, place and proper functioning were all aligned.

Think about the idea of ‘hiring people’. We use this phrase without a second thought. Where does it come from? What does it mean?

The notion of ‘hiring an employee’ comes from the same source as hiring a car. Pause. Think about this for a minute before you rush off in search for meaning. Stay with this thought for a moment.

A resource is an object that we pay to use temporarily and give back once we have finished with.

Gabriel García Márquez wrote:

“We have three lives, a public life, a private life and a secret life”

  • Our Public Life is composed of the multiple roles we play in and with institutions, in the community as neighbours, citizens, volunteers and even as strangers in the public and online world.
  • Our Private Life consists of the multiple roles we play in our intimate relationships, such as being a parent, a guardian, life partner, lover, friend, sister, brother, son, daughter, uncle, aunt, niece, cousin, etc.
  • Our Secret Life are the ever-changing relationships we have with ourselves. Our secret life is the voice in our head, the unspoken needs in our heart, the tantric intelligence our sacred bodies.
The integration of these three lives into one is the measure of fulfilment.

The more our values are aligned in our public, private and inner life, the more in-flow we feel.

The trade-off question of “work and life balance” is replaced with a deeper and richer inquiry, regarding the wholeness of our being.

Are your values the compass you use to navigate through your life or an afterthought?

Our values in-action vs. values inaction ratio is a measure of the quality of our life.

Here is a simple (but often painful) exercise:
  • What are your values? Write them out on a piece of paper right now. Do it.
  • How do these values shape your private, public and secret life?
Replace work and life “balance” with “fulfilment” of the integration of our three lives through our values.

How much of your day is spent in alignment with your values (values in action)?

How much of your day is spent without any regard to your values (values inaction)?
What is your values-in-action vs. values-inaction ratio? Ask yourself, right now:
  • How do my values define my will my private life?
  • How do my values define my public life?
  • How do my values define my relationship with me (my secret life)?
When our values integrate our three lives into one, we are fulfilled. We no longer live a lie.

Therefore, leaders who understand this, lead through their values. They make visible the line of sight between the work that is being done and the impact that is having in people’s lives.

Is there any business or enterprise that is not making a difference in people’s lives? Leaders make this link clear so that the work people are doing (value they are creating) is in the place where they are doing it (the organisation they work with).

Leaders align the values of the organisation. They know instinctively that this humanizes the organisation because the people doing the work see how its effecting the lives of the people they are serving. A value driven culture increases in trust, collaboration and engagement translates directly into efficiency and productivity.

This attracts the best people because they want to do the work that matters, and it retains the best people because why would they want to leave to join a soulless organisation?

The one proviso about values driven organisations is ethics and service. The Nazi’s had a very clear sense of their values. They used this to rally a nation to rebuild itself. But in the end, their value were not ethical, so it ultimately resulted in self-destruction. It always does.

The values of your organisation need to be built on ethics and a sense of service (seva) or they will hypnotise people into doing things that destroy both society and themselves.

In a value driven organisation there is not work and life goes beyond the duality of needing to balance who you are and work you do for a living.

In a value driven organisation, work and life are one. This is the truth. This is their True North.

Values are not the answers. Values are the questions we never stop asking to shape the actions that align our public, private and secret life.

This is the ‘work’ that leaders do because this is what great leader are.


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