Work/Life What? What's In a Name?

Work Life Balance or Work Life Integration

What do you call that thing we mean when we talk about managing work and all the stuff outside of work?

Here at Bright Horizons, we've been having a lively and friendly debate on the subject. And now we'd like to know what you think.

This ever-elusive thing goes by many names. In fact, here are fifteen terms for work/life balance, complete with definitions. A whole bunch of thriving and entrepreneurial working moms recently tackled the topic over on A Cup of Jo.

But we're no closer to a consensus here. And to complicate matters further, of course this topic inevitably leads to the always hairy "having it all / not having it all" conversation, which then will lead someone to bring up the question of "leaning in" or "coming full circle." And then what have we decided?

Work/Life Balance? Integration? Or Something Else?

Some see "work/life balance" as acceptable shorthand - a turn of phrase that might be inelegant but gets the point across and ensures a shared language. Many, including some in our office, believe that the whole idea of work/life balance is a falsehood. There is no balance to be achieved and maintained just as there are no scales to be tipped. There is sometimes a juggle. There might be integration; but no balance. It's even been suggested that continuing the use of any term focused on "balance," something many will never attain, is actually devaluing caregiving and so holding us back from moving towards a fully-supported caregiving economy.

Here's what my fellow blogger, Lisa, had to say about balance:

I kind of think of it as work/life satisfaction. Or work/life happiness. It's not really balancing - it's really the question of, does everything fit together in a way that makes you happy? Some people actually prefer more time at work...that's what makes them happy. And it doesn't imply that work isn't a part of life. That seems to be the biggest objection to work/life balance - the separation of work and life, as if work isn't a part of life. Work/personal life balance or work/out-of-work balance seems to be more relevant. It's just not nearly as catchy.

Work/Life Equanimity

I liked Lisa's comments so much, I was inspired to suggest we coin the phrase, work-life equanimity. Think #worklifeequanimity will catch on?

Because there is no balance, no magic scales weighing your work and your life outside of work, some have gone all in on the term, "work+life fit," or the very similar work-life flex. These folks believe there's a fit to be found between the work and the personal, and that because work and life are always changing, it's about finding the right fit in any given moment or stage of life.

And work-life integration might work for some. But a surgeon or a retail store employee can't very well integrate non-work into work. Can you imagine a heart surgeon taking a call from the school nurse regarding her sick child...while you're on the table? Or a retail employee bringing her child to work when school and daycare are both closed? Where does that leave them? Are they balancing it all?

Work/Life for Everyone: Another Perspective

Here's what my colleague LaDonna had to say about "work-life integration" and why she feels most comfortable with "work-life flex:"

I have found myself struggling lately with work-life "integration" because there's something unnatural sounding about it...and I think it's hard to adopt. I like both terms, but especially work-life flex. For someone like me (no children, not married, renter, no pets, no caregiving...in many ways obligation-free), flex is appealing because it captures my reality of how work and life interact - that work is a significant part of what I call life, not something I need to integrate or fit in. "Flex" somehow eradicates guilt about doing more work than life and vice versa.

Still others, including some within our walls, believe that the very idea of any term that differentiates between "work" and "life" is inadequate. Isn't work part of life? My colleague Jessie had this to say on that side of the matter:

I actually think any term with work/life suggests that work isn't part of life, whether it's followed by "balance," "integration," or anything else. "Work life" without the slash suggests one's life at work (as in "his work life is going really well"), but the way the term is used definitely implies that there's work and that everything that's not work is life. You wouldn't say chairs/furniture, or main course/dinner, because in these examples the former is a subset of the latter. So why work/life if work is a part of life?

In Search of the Perfect Phrase

The issue is that it is such a widely used term that it's difficult to get the meaning across using anything else. I prefer to use terms like personally and professionally, as in "helping employees thrive personally and professionally," or "at work and at home."

While I grant that work is part of life, I haven't been able to come up with another term that elegantly describes all the stuff outside of work the way that people understand these work/life terms to do. Even though we spend more time working than anything else, life still means to me all the stuff outside of work. For me, that's the husband, the kids, the cat, the house, friends, maybe even some fun and entertainment.

So...what do you say at home? What do you say in the office? Do you talk about your employees' needs for work/family fit?

Written by: Bright Horizons Blog Editor

About the Author

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The Bright Horizons Blog Editor frequently posts on the real solutions that meaningfully support employees, advance careers, and drive the world’s leading brands. The Editor curates the latest news, trends, and challenges facing HR pros because your time is scarce. Follow the Bright Horizons Blog to receive this insight in your inbox.