Last week I had the opportunity to speak on a panel at the Inventures Conference, an innovation-focused gathering that was held in Calgary. The topic was “Bigger Ideas for Building Impact-Driven Businesses,” structured around three limiting beliefs commonly held in business – one of which was that our work-selves and home-selves should be separate. As I spoke, I was caught off guard when one comment got an audible reaction from the room.

“Work-life balance is an idea that should be permanently retired.” 

I was surprised by the strength of the reaction. On the surface, balance sounds great – calm, responsible and measured. But judging from the response in the room, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Let’s talk about what’s wrong with this picture:

Life isn’t balanced. If we learned only one thing during the global pandemic, it was that there are elements of life that we can’t control, no matter how organized we are and what planning philosophy we ascribe to. Balance implies a binary view of life, where work responsibilities are on one side, with life responsibilities on the other and that the goal is to keep those two things in check – but this is an inherently flawed idea.

When our measure of success is a balanced scale, it limits our freedom to bring our whole selves everywhere we go. This doesn’t just impact our personal wellness, but our ability to be creative, innovative and passionate about our whole life.

Who hasn’t had to call out because their kid won an award at school, the basement flooded or a beloved grandparent passed away? And who hasn’t had to work late nights to meet a deadline or travel because you got an incredible opportunity to pitch your idea? I love my work. I find big ideas exciting and investing in social impact gives me purpose. Equally important to me is my marriage, my sons, my garden, the books I read and the friends I love.

It puts pressure on the employee to make it OK for everyone. Life isn’t always balanced (see above). When we place the emphasis on balance it creates a dynamic where the employee is responsible for serving both work and their personal lives equally – something that can be exceedingly difficult to do when you’re facing personal stress or challenges. We saw this play out firsthand during the pandemic as women quit the workforce in droves. For many working parents, the balance was tenuous during ‘normal’ times and when childcare disruptions, illness and work from home challenges were thrown into the mix, it created an impossible situation where they were forced to choose.

We are all responsible for putting our best foot forward and doing the best we can. But what if workplaces created cultures where we acknowledge that life comes with challenges? And what would it look like to put supports in place that help people be successful?

We don’t do our best work when we show up in pieces. As my fellow panelist, Charlene SarJenko said, “Broken leaders make bad decisions – whole leaders make healthy decisions.” When we silo our home and our work selves, we don’t allow ourselves and our employees permission to do the things that keep us well and help us to be our most creative, productive selves. Years ago, I had a miscarriage, a deeply personal and emotionally painful experience. At the time, I was working in a high-pressure environment during a very busy time of year and I felt compelled to hide that experience and show up as my ‘normal’ self. The result was disastrous. I felt distracted and alone, making simple mistakes that led to significant challenges. I felt as though I needed to back burner myself to come through for the team – but it only left me feeling resentful and like I was failing. Why couldn’t I just ‘push through?’

These things happen to all of us – miscarriages, marriages, divorces, promotions, kids starting school, a death in the family, health challenges. When we acknowledge the challenges and allow ourselves and our teammates the grace to be fully human, we create an environment where people feel supported. And when people feel supported, it leads to a trusting team environment, space to innovate and healthier organizations.

Let’s throw away work-life balance – but what’s the alternative? 

I believe the answer is to shift the focus. Instead of work-life balance, let’s focus on work-life integration and wellness. Let’s acknowledge that we can’t simply check ourselves at the door and that separating our home and work selves don’t build healthier people – or healthier businesses. When we allow ourselves the space to be human, I believe it unlocks creativity and allows us to lean into both our work and our lives in ways that bring greater meaning to both.

This is great – but what does this look like on a practical level at my organization? 

Different strategies will work for different organizations, but here are several practical strategies that can support this practice at your own organization:

    1. Ask your employees what they need.
      We’ve all heard the jokes about the ping-pong tables and beer in the breakroom. Creating a fun office environment is great – but how can you engage your employees to find out what they really need? Just as community voice is important in marketing, program or product efforts, it is just as critical among your own employees. Try sharing a survey or a series of focus groups to find out what your internal team needs right now. It may be flexible, hybrid work options or it may be greater access to mental health or wellness services. It could look like weekly meditation sessions – or it could look like a ping-pong table in the breakroom. Every company’s needs will be unique, but starting with your employees is a great place to start.
  • Build it into your check-in processes.
    One of the most meaningful weekly processes I’ve ever engaged in started at a previous company where I worked with a single question at the end of weekly one-on-one meetings. “This week, would you rate yourself in the comfort zone, the growth zone or the panic zone?” The answer was open and could relate to either work or home challenges. People could share as much or as little as they wanted, but it allowed for open dialogue in a clear, non-confrontational way. No one had to schedule a special meeting or share more than they were comfortable with – but it allowed a gauge on how individuals were doing and how they could be better supported on a weekly basis.
  • Trust your people.
    Ultimately, I believe that workplaces need to have greater trust in their employees and build relationships that lead to transparency and trust. This is especially important to Millennial and Gen Z employees – often called the ‘Founder Generation.’ More than ever, employees are looking for positive environments where they can manage their work and bring their whole self to the equation. Many employees seek purpose through their work and will reward companies who promote whole-life wellness with long-term loyalty.
  • Partner with nonprofits.
    Focus on creating an honest and supportive environment that embraces self-care through a range of expressions such as meditation, teambuilding and wellness activities. This is an area that nonprofits can frequently support. At Next Stage, we experienced the benefits of this firsthand when we partnered with Youth Meditation last fall. After an extra challenging year, we engaged with this nonprofit for eight weeks. Our partnership emphasized breathing and meditation techniques, but also deepened our level of understanding about ourselves, each other and the ways we show up at work.

For many workers, work-life balance is a concept that is very quickly shifting. I can’t help but compare my own experience from ten years ago with my more recent experience coming out of the pandemic. Like many people, last summer was an extremely challenging time following a year full of disruptions, virtual schooling and ever-changing childcare. It was the perfect storm of stress and anxiety that closely mirrored the feelings of distraction I mentioned earlier in this post – but my experience this time was totally different.

Our team had the relationships and transparency to be honest about what we needed and the grace to cover when needed. We didn’t have to share every detail with each other – it was enough to be honest where we were and the support we needed to regain wellness (not balance!). What could have been a stressful, mistake-ridden experience was instead met with grace and trust that it was a temporary situation that deserved our individual attention and investment. The result for all of us was a stronger, happier team that has each others’ backs – and makes us want to stick around the Next Stage office for the long haul.

Written by: Janet Ervin