Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Separation of Work and Life

To illustrate complex issues, I frequently draw on the work-life balance as a relevant and timely problem affecting virtually everybody. Usually, conversations are about how to find effective private strategies and good public policies to facilitate an individual and sustainable balance between the two parts of how people spend their time: work and life. There are many different practices applied or perspectives taken, and, for the sake of complexity, I would like to add another question: Is a separation of work and life always meaning- or purposeful (another more logical question would be, if comparing work and life is somewhat similar to make a distinction between apples and fruits…)?

By using the expression "work-life balance", we are implicitly relying on the idea that work and life are something different, something separated from each other. Aside from the logical fact that life includes work, I think it is a worthwhile exercise to question this tacit assumption of a dichotomy between those domains. Quite often, the separation of work and life is regarded as healthy or generally good in an imperative and moral manner. "You should enjoy your leisure time!" or "Could you please stop talking about work during your recreational activities?" are common expressions in this context. I hope that the pressure to enjoy one’s leisure time is not as high as the pressure to separate work and life…

My point is that life and work cannot easily be separated. Do you think that activities like working, living, loving, being a soccer fan, having your friends’ messages on your mobile, chatting privately during work time, having a swim during lunchtime, and so on, are easily separated into the work-life dichotomy? The domains of work and life influence each other and we are not machines being able to throw a lever to shut off life while working.

If the domains of work and life interact, why do we always assume that work negatively affects life? Could it not be that work is positively affecting life, for example by giving meaning and sense through purposeful actions? Many persons define themselves through their professions, while having their personal identities at stake when talking about work.

I think the best way to think about the relationship between work and life is to perceive these two domains as mutually supportive. Bringing in parts of one’s personal skills and knowledge, personalities, even problems, into the work domain enriches the professional environment. On the other hand, there is also a transfer of professional benefits to worker’s private lives. Competencies learned during working time can be used quite effectively in different settings related to the private domain.

Therefore, a separation between life and work does not further the search for a meaningful balance between the two domains. In my opinion, the two domains have to be integrated into a holistic perspective that brings in the best of both worlds under a common purpose. Life will be much easier and more meaningful if we do not have to separate work and leisure time obsessively.

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