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Work-life balance is dead—there’s a better way to think about your relationship with your job

Well+Good logo Well+Good 8/13/2019 Kells McPhillips
a person sitting in front of a laptop computer: work life balance © Photo: Getty Images/Westend61 work life balance

The idea of "balance"—once a buzzword in the wonderful world of wellness—has largely been abandoned. Now that the workforce has jumped ship on a restrictive 50-50 approach to juggling life and career, we need a new way to assess our relationships with work. One that doesn't include the "B" word.

A recent global study on this topic conducted by Kisi used metrics that suggest a way of rethinking how the two interact with one another. Taking into account the experiences of people across cities in the United States and beyond, the research looked at criteria you would expect in an assessment of employment (like hours worked per week, vacations taken, and length of commutes) with markers you don't always hear incorporated in the conversation (like access to mental health care, gender and LGBTQ+ equality, amount of outdoor spaces, and wellness and fitness).

On the world stage, Helsinki, Finland (hey, it is a Blue Zone) came out on top thanks to the city's sky-high happiness score, impressive marks for wellness, and overall safety. Within the U.S., San Diego reigned supreme with access to outdoor spaces and high wellness and happiness scores. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Detroit and Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia, represented the lowest scores across all the categories that make your hustle and your life work in tandem.

When you look at the data as a whole, you start to see a pattern: Locations where wellness and interpersonal acceptance gave people the space to not just transition from work to play—but to integrate the two. In a piece that appeared in Time in June, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, co-authors of Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, suggest that thinking of your life in terms of things you love and things you loathe is more useful way to divvy up your hours than just "work" or "life." That way, you can slowly tweak and alter the things that fall into the latter category to fall into the former.

If that seems like an impossible task, the authors can back their claims. "Our research (a stratified random sample of the working populations of nineteen countries) reveals that 73 percent of us claim that we have the freedom to modify our job to fit our strengths better, but that only 18 percent of us do so," they write. So, to be clear here, you're actually creating an imbalance: a situation in which the parts of your life that bring you joy far outweigh the parts that don't. Kind of sounds ideal, right?

"Studies have shown being unhappy with or unfulfilled by work can take a toll on our health, relationships, and even lifespan." —Mental Health America

"Some people think work equates to suffering," says Maggie Mistal, a career coach in New York City. "We define it as a chore—as individuals, as a society. But being at work can be a loving experience where you’re really happy and where you’re expressing yourself." Mistal attributes this perspective—at least partially—to fear still lingering from the fall of the stock markets in 2008, a year during which 2.6 million people lost their jobs, according to CNN Business. We think that staying an extra hour secures our jobs. That working through every lunch will increase our chance of receiving a promotion. That answering emails 24/7 sets us apart from our colleagues. "It’s a fear-based kind of approach, as opposed to coming from a place where you think, ‘Work is where I express myself. It’s my opportunity to be creative and to have an impact,'" says Mistal. Ultimately, however, a career motivated by Murphy's Law doesn't produced our best work.

Statistics from Mental Health America (MHA) make it abundantly clear why. Its 2019 Workplace Wellness Report, which surveyed 17,000 employees across 19 industries in the U.S., found that less than one-third of Americans are happy with their work and half of the work force report having "checked out" of their current professions. "Studies have shown being unhappy with or unfulfilled by work can take a toll on our health, relationships, and even lifespan," reports MHA. "Those in unhealthy work environments tend to gain more weight, have more healthcare appointments, and have higher rates of absenteeism. Stress from work can also impact their family life, mental health, and even increase risks for chronic illnesses and heart attacks."

What they're describing here is pretty bleak, but it does prove that you can't be happy at home, sad at work, and expect that "balance" to make you well. That's why Mistal says that most of her work with clients revolves around brainstorming the "ideal" schedule, then slowly making steps to enact it into everyday life. If you plotted out a perfect work day what would it look like? Would you work out? Take your lunch break in the park next to your office? Schedule all your meetings in the afternoon? As research from both Kisi and MHA illustrates, this polarized approach—this balancing act between work and life—is broken. Our lives should skew toward the pleasurable as much as humanly possible. Clocking in at work shouldn't mean clocking out of the rest of your life. And vice versa.

When you're drafting emails, avoid kneecapping words at all costs. And don't forget to edit for performative kindness

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