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The shift from work-life to life-work balance: What leaders should know

life-work balance

Work-life balance has been an employee mantra for decades. Its meaning has become engrained in our culture, as it’s brought up in discussion in ways like, “Make sure you have a good work-life balance and take time to spend with your family without working too much.”

But a change is underway that further upends the way work is viewed. Life-work balance is a new term that reflects a shift in how employees perceive the role of work in their lives. The conversation is becoming, “Family and life outside of work comes first. How can you create a work schedule that fits your lifestyle?”

Simply put, the current workforce places the highest value on flourishing in their personal lives. They are scrutinizing whether work positively impacts the equation. But this holistic revolution didn’t happen overnight. 

Why is work-life balance gone?

Prior to the pandemic, people were used to going to the office all day, every day. Everything needed to do one’s job was found within someone else’s brick-and-mortar building. The line was clear here: Work was done at work. There was no way, structure or reason to do it anywhere else.

Then, advances in technology and cultural changes altered the face of the workday, and the line between work life and home life blurred.

To keep on top of increasing workloads, people brought work home and fielded calls from the office. Work encroached on evenings and weekends. Yet, paradoxically, the ability to work at home was still considered a privilege.

As work-life balance became a bigger topic of conversation, the notion that the workplace should be a more comfortable and relaxed place, like home, was an attempt to address burgeoning stress levels. Perks found their way into the office, with tech giants like Google and Microsoft leading the way. Beanbag chairs, foosball tables and free lunches appeared.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and working from home became non-negotiable. What used to be a perk for a few was now mandatory for the masses. Employees and their bosses collaborated to make the transition happen quickly.

Many workers not only functioned in their new home environment but thrived. They celebrated their newfound freedom. This is where the sweeping movement in favor of life-work balance gained momentum, leaving work-life balance behind.

What is life-work balance?

Life-work balance is the belief that wellbeing takes precedence over everything. It’s a slight change in mindset, but the impacts are significant.

Work-life balanceLife-work balance
I will take vacations and spend weekends with my family. I will plan time off, so I don’t miss things.Work will not interrupt the small moments of day-to-day life. I will move my work schedule around, so I don’t miss things.
I will work from home three days this month because I have someone doing work on my house.I will work in the office a few days this month for our team building event and quarterly staff meeting, otherwise I don’t need to come in.
I like going out to lunch with co-workers weekly to build my community and network. We spend most of our time together, after all.Social activities at work aren’t as important to me anymore. Although, I do like connecting on occasion. I find my community more in social circles outside of work.
I’m feeling burnt out, so I need to try to prioritize my mental health by requesting some time off next month.I’m feeling burnt out, so I am going to prioritize working for a company that values my wellbeing and doesn’t make me feel this way.

Why is life-work balance taking over?

1. Burnout was already well underway

Despite efforts from business leaders to prioritize work-life balance, burnout levels skyrocketed. Employee burnout rates became so alarming that the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled it an occupational phenomenon in 2019. According to Gallup, WHO went so far as to define it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Unfair treatment, heavy workloads, and poor communication with management impacted employees’ mental and emotional health. Corporate leaders were on the hook to fix the problem their cultures had created.

2. The pandemic changed employee values

The timing of the pandemic created a perfect storm. It accelerated a movement where the shift from work-life balance to life-work balance became impossible to ignore. The pandemic watered seeds that were more than ready to sprout.

The ongoing Great Resignation is the bellwether of this sentiment. Workers seemed to arrive at life-work balance sentiment collectively.

According to Pew Research Center, the top reasons people leave their jobs are:

  • low pay
  • a lack of opportunities for advancement
  • feeling disrespected
  • child care issues
  • no flexibility over working hours
  • wanting to relocate
  • working too many hours.

What’s this have to do with life-work balance? The reasons people are leaving to find new jobs are directly related to what a life-work balance culture includes:

  • support of family needs
  • flexible work hours
  • remote work opportunities
  • less focus on hours worked and more focus on work completed

3. Preferences of a younger generation of workers

As more Gen Z workers enter the workforce, this life-work shift may be a foregone conclusion. Younger workers grew up having technology at their fingertips. They, too, are less attached to physical locations and more to convenience. Creative and energetic, they love freedom and embrace the spirit of entrepreneurship. They may be the first generation to view work not as a place but as a mindset.

4. Business leaders are supporting the transition

Another another reason life-work balance is taking over is because leadership is supporting it. Leaders are actively looking for ways to improve their employees’ wellbeing. and discover how to motivate, engage and retain employees effectively.

Employees kept asking, and leaders listened. Flexible workplaces and schedules have become mainstream. Proactive companies are now witnessing glimmers of increased engagement, reduced stress levels and improved employee retention.  

Challenges with life-work balance

1. Distractions

If work-life balance means being a remote employee, there are new distractions that workers don’t normally find in a traditional work environment. Distracting households and below-average workspaces can make the transition to home problematic, and the balance that’s trying to be achieved might actually be unstable.

2. Isolation

Workplace culture can become diluted, and cohesiveness can suffer if employees are working at different times due to flexible schedules. Even the nature of being siloed and not having organic conversations makes a difference in working relationships.

3. Not adapting quickly enough

Companies slow to perceive, identify and address their employees’ desires may suffer from a diminished workforce. A willingness to change is key.

The traditional question of how to mold an employee to fit into the organization is disappearing. A better question is, how does the way we do business fit into the employee’s life?

There is no playbook and no one-size-fits-all solution. Life-work balance means different things to people. Nap pods and pool tables don’t entice people as much as they used to. Perks should be fluid and morph with the employees’ circumstances and phases of life.

What are the benefits of life-work balance to employers?

1. Recruiting and retention

Employers who embrace life-work balance can use it as a recruiting mechanism. Once leaders identify what perks resonate with their talent pool, they can expand recruiting efforts geographically. Eliminating the requirement that employees must be located within 20 minutes of the office opens up candidate pools nationally and internationally, granting employers access to a broader swath of talent. 

2. Potential cost savings

With more working from home, less office space needs to be rented. Employers who downsize or shutter buildings can realize significant cost savings and reduce their carbon footprint.

3. Increased engagement

Acceptance of employee values can pay off by lowered turnover and increased engagement. The goodwill created by listening and responding to needs is an easy way to bolster loyalty and employee satisfaction.

Summing it up

Work is only one piece of a fulfilling life. Increasingly, employees see their mental and emotional health as a priority.

It’s people who keep the company going. Humans are necessary for any business to survive. Every human yearns to be heard and understood. As the workforce changes, companies must care to support the complexity of life-work balance while getting what they need from their team.

Need help navigating other changes that impact your workforce? Download our free magazine, The Insperity guide to managing change.