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The students flooding into Terri Boyer's course on work-life balance at Rutgers University have mostly never worked full-time. But the students are struggling with their own issues of balancing everything on their plates – many do hold part-time jobs – and are worried about what faces them upon graduation. They are looking, in advance, for tips.

The course may be limited to just five classes, but even tackling the issue is a rarity for academic courses. Prof. Boyer had been teaching gender equity, and the course evolved out of concern for women with children in the labour force, but she pushed for a class that would reflect work-life balance as an issue for everyone, not just women. The classroom she was assigned accommodates just 45 students, and registrations fill the space quickly.

The students are introduced to three forces that have changed all our lives, driving imbalance. The first is the lack of unpaid labour in the home, as women's participation rate in the labour force has soared in recent decades. "The June Cleavers of the world don't exist," she said of the housewife in the Leave it to Beaver television show. The second factor is technology, which means we can connect to work at any time. The third is globalization and the more competitive workplace, which increases the pressure to work longer hours, dealing with customers around the world and trying to gain an edge to keep our jobs.

Often we focus on just one of those issues, because it seems most obvious in our own lives. But those three factors are intertwined in creating the pressures so many of us feel these days. And their impact is expressed in the image of the ideal worker. "The ideal worker is totally available to the boss – no hobbies, no family, and no other interests," she said. "In the past, if you had a wife at home, it was more achievable. Now it's not. You can't even be sick, or take vacation."

The research she examines with her students shows that the so-called ideal worker is anything but ideal. Turns out workers are actually more productive when they can balance the stresses of their life with the stresses of their job. They are more productive when they feel valued, are engaged in their work, and develop loyalty, wanting to stay with the company. But it's hard to convince business executives their image of the ideal worker is misguided, particularly when they are concerned with the short term, perhaps only the next quarter or certainly no more than a couple of years.

At the same time, she advises students that some people want to work 80 hours a week. That's when those souls feel energized and fulfilled. Indeed, for them, that's a balanced life, whether they have family or not. She labels that perspective a "psychological construct," where the individual's focus is inward, and compares that with a "social construct," where the individual places a greater value on the role of other people and things in their lives.

The research does not offer an easy answer to which is better. "There will always be individuals who want to work long hours but that's not everyone. Which should we make the standard of our policies?" she asks.

At a personal level, it boils down to alignment. The model we choose must fit the idea in our minds of the life we want to lead. The students seeking tips are not in the right class, she says. But she does ask them to create a balance sheet, summarizing the average time people in the United States spend on different activities, using available studies. That demolishes their notion that when they graduate they will work only 40 hours a week, commute a mere 20 minutes a day, and have ample time for all the other activities they relish. It reminds them that children may come into their lives, and they're a time suck. "It's an eye opener. Many never thought of the issues of child care," she said.

Also an eye-opener is devising policy changes for government or organizations to accommodate work-life balance for individuals who seek fulfilment outside work too. The students work in groups, assigned to a different milieu where policies might be improved. She tells them: "You need a reason to change the situation and it can't be, 'I'll be happier.' It has to meet the bottom line – how does it help the economy or make the country more productive?"

Often the students will make the case for government to offer paid family leaves, mirroring the Canadian situation, and paid or subsidized child care leaves, like Quebec has. She asks them to think beyond their group, university students who will hold professional posts, to individuals in low-income, precarious jobs. Otherwise, work-life balance efforts will only make privileged people more privileged, as they can access them, while low-income folks lose out because they need every available hour of income.

For organizations, the students look at the success of Costco, which pays higher wages and is more concerned about work-life balance than its chief competitor, the Wal-Mart-owned Sam's Club. "We talk about how it drives productivity and profitability," she said.

In five weeks, before they will grapple as full-time employees with the modern reality of work-life balance, her students get a wide understanding of the factors driving it, the role of individual psychology, and the complexities of addressing the problem. "Work-life balance is way bigger than professionals trying to figure out how to get their kids to soccer practice," she said.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter