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Work-life balance is a luxury, not a right

Businessman in yoga pose.


Angst about work-life balance is not something that arises in people working two or three jobs at the minimum wage, says Dalhousie philosophy professor Greg Scherkoske, who teaches a course called The Good Life. They don't have the time for such complaints. "It's a luxury of a privileged person that you can talk about work-life balance rather than how flipping tired you are," he says.

Tied into it, Mr. Scherkoske notes, is the balance between meaning and tedium in our jobs. People who value achievement and have meaningful jobs are more willing to lead imbalanced lives. "Many people who are happy lead imbalanced lives," he says, quoting Oscar Wilde: "Everything in moderation, including moderation."

Can philosophers and other academics help us to understand – and cope with – work-life balance better? To find out, I reached out to a few at Canadian universities, and right at the start was told that I needed a better definition of terms.

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McGill University organizational behaviour professor Mary Dean Lee notes that the popular term for discussing this crunch used to be work-family balance: "Work and family are both very greedy, so how do we survive both?"

But corporations argued that the pressures applied to everyone, not just those with families. While that's correct, Ms. Dean Lee is still uncomfortable with the work-life phrase because "it conveys the impression that work is equal to life. But life is this large circle and work is a part of that circle. Work-life balance elevates work to a greater part of life than it should be. Work and family are both part of life, so that's a better term."

Indeed, she also notes there was a time when we talked of quality of life, and that's more what the discussion should focus on than work-life balance. "It's not a balance like a teeter totter or a scale that we're seeking. It's the quality of our life," she says.

Sociologists Peter Meiksins and Peter Whalley wrote a 2002 book, Putting Work in Its Place, which Ms. Dean Lee says sums up what we should be searching for. We can't have equal time between work and home and she's not sure that's what we should be striving for anyway. We need to put work in its place, which will be different for each of us – and will fluctuate at different ages.

Ms. Dean Lee says she likes to have time to nourish the soul – watching the sun go down with a figurative glass of wine in her hand or writing a poem – but those sorts of activities would drive other people nuts. "It's a very individual thing. Our students go into investment firms and work 16-hour days. They don't have balance. But that's what they want."

Scott Anderson, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, goes back to Plato and Aristotle, who also wrestled with notions of balance. Aristotle, after all, well before Oscar Wilde, urged moderation in all things. The two ancient philosophers were concerned with harmony of the "psuche," pronounced "sukee," which was then considered to be the soul, but is now thought of as the psyche. In a well-functioning person, these would be in good order. At the top was reason. In the middle was "the spirited part," or the emotions, which must be controlled by reason. At the bottom were the appetites, which again must be controlled, so that you didn't have too much or too little. It all added up to a balanced life.

Jon Miller, a Queen's University professor of philosophy, looks at balance through the lens of his studies of objective and subjective happiness. Objective happiness looks at the circumstances of our lives – jobs, relationships, hobbies – and whether that should lead to happiness. Subjective happiness is how you feel. We need a balance in life between both forms of happiness.

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If you feel unhappy but your spouse points out that you have a great job, wonderful kids, and you're healthy, that may lead you to change your subjective view. So you need to take into account what people you trust think about your circumstances.

If you feel beleaguered, he urges you to figure out why. If you feel overwhelmed at work, that's an objective fact. Your job may be very demanding now, and you can't quit or scale back. So you can't change the objective circumstances of your life.

"What you can change is your subjective response to the objective fact. Recognize the source of the beleagueredness and reinterpret it. That's under our control," Mr. Miller says. "To an extent, how we feel is something we can determine. We can't determine the world."

That may not help you immediately as you return to the stack of e-mails in your inbox – and a series of appointments all day followed by a round of family activities tonight. But remember, balance is in the eye of the beholder.


If the philosophers and other academics don't fully satisfy you, perhaps some practical advice from marketing consultant Michele Miller might do the trick. She suggests on her WonderBranding blog that if you're feeling overwhelmed, make a list of the demands on your time and energy from work, family, friends and organizations you belong to. Then take three of those demands and say no – not just to yourself but out loud to the person who needs to hear it.

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