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Exploring Work-Life Integration vs Balance

Oh, the predicament of “Work-Life balance.” If living in a global pandemic has verified anything for me, it’s that Work-Life Balance is a myth and always has been. I get what folks are trying to say by pushing this idea. The gist is to have boundaries, make time for your personal life, and take breaks when needed. I’m all for that. Truly I am.

The rub hits when this lifestyle isn’t achieved. It supposes that there is an inherent split between our lives at work and our lives at home. In psychology, we understand that though temporary compartmentalization of the mind is possible (like during states of dissociation or in response to trauma), ongoing compartmentalizing is not achievable and shouldn’t be sought out as a solution to an underlying problem.

"Work-Life Balance" is asking you to split your mind and live two different lives.

This compartmentalizing can be taxing as it causes stress, dissociation, anxiety, loss of identity, depression, and lots and lots of shame (especially when not achieved). So what’s the answer here? Is there a way to create a balance between our personal lives and our work lives? The short answer is “yes, and…” I present the idea of Work-Life Integration: to resist the urge to separate our lives at all. While there is definitely a need to be “on” at work during certain hours and “off” at others, creating a split in our minds and emotions isn’t effective long term.

For example, if you’re feeling anxious or depressed, turning that “off” at work can actually make you feel less productive, more distracted, and even cause you to seek unhealthy coping mechanisms. It can also just make you feel even more anxious or depressed. If you allow yourself to own your state ("Ok, I feel anxious") and attend to yourself in that state, even at work, you might find more compassion and allowance to care for yourself. Maybe more breaks are needed. Maybe the workload you have can be spread out or reduced for the time being. You’re not trying to deny or ignore your reality. This could be the same for any other state of mind (tired parent, burnout employee, stressed manager, etc).

You’re not trying to deny or ignore your reality.

In a past generation, you were expected to leave your problems at the door. Again, what we’re seeing is that isn’t actually possible long-term. Yes, we can practice composure (and should at times), but through empathy for ourselves and others, we can allow ourselves to show up fully, wholly, and holistically.

When I led Culture at a leading tech company years ago, this is something that I really pushed for folks. In my capacity, I encouraged team members to bring their whole selves to work and to practice acceptance of other peoples' full selves too. This can get complicated really quickly, as it does require a collective paradigm shift toward greater emotional awareness, but with effort, compassion, and empathy it is possible. I was also able to coach managers and leaders to accept their employees with empathy, care, and greater concern for them as people.

What I noticed is that leaders who showed up with empathy had a greater connection with their direct reports, the direct reports were more engaged, and their team, collectively, was more productive.

When I started being more honest with my boss about how I was feeling (in one case both angry and burned out), I was able to set healthy boundaries and receive help. I was lucky to have a boss who could meet me that way, but I was at a point where I couldn’t deny it anyway. This took courage, it took building trust with myself and my boss and creating a culture where different emotions and mindsets were acceptable. One thing I did back then was I talked about mental health a lot (one of my fields of study). Not just about me, but in the culture I was co-creating. This helped to normalize talking about emotions, which is different from just being "emotional."

So, yes, you can create balance, but it's through integration and not compartmentalization.

And…there’s work to do to get there. And that work is integrative. To feel balanced you must feel whole. You must accept the reality of your thoughts, emotions, and habits. You must brave change and create a lifestyle that is conducive to having your needs met while still being productive. Easy? No. Worth it? Definitely.

As a Coach, I help people of all ages, roles, identities, creeds, and backgrounds to identify these blocks and compassionately move through them. Sometimes this involves lifestyle changes, aided by mindfulness and meditation, and other times it involves going to the block itself and understanding where it came from.

If you're ready to begin, schedule a free 20-minute call with me to discuss your path and how we can work together to move you toward where you want to be. Feel free to share my info with folks who could benefit.

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