Article: Work-life balance is a misleading mirage

Employee Relations

Work-life balance is a misleading mirage

We serve our jobs, our potential for growth and our sense of equity poorly if we denigrate what we do at the workplace in favour of undifferentiated leisure. The true picture is more balanced and useful.
Work-life balance is a misleading mirage

"Time for dinner, Johnny," Mariette called out. "Coming right away," he replied and thus were lost some of the greatest contributions to mathematics, quantum mechanics, game theory and the early design of computers. "But we have all of these," I hear the cognoscenti mutter. And they are right. John von Neuman went on to make seminal contributions in more fields than almost anyone in the last 100 years but he did not respond to his wife’s appeal for dinner discipline. Marietta Kövesi proceeded to divorce him (not because of the fictional meal delay) and the rest, as they say, is (a highly engrossing) biography.1

Apocryphal the story may be but it holds a lesson. No extraordinarily (or even ordinarily) great achievements can come out of a predilection to clock-watch and jealously guard the time spent at home. As Arendt points out, there is grave doubt whether even a normally happy life can be constructed out of labourless leisure. "The blessing of labor is that effort and gratification follow each other as closely as producing and consuming the means of subsistence, so that happiness is a concomitant of the process itself… The right to the pursuit of this happiness is indeed as undeniable as the right to life; it is even identical with it. But [t]here is no lasting happiness outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration…".2

Few simplistic constructs have caused more misunderstanding, talent dissipation and heart-burn than the work-life dichotomy that is seemingly so appealing. As Suzan Lewis (et al) point out: "There is a danger that the construct / metaphor of work-life balance, because it resonates so widely, becomes reified." 3 Beyond their criticisms, there are at least three more problems with this usage.

The first and frequently overlooked emotive shot is fired by placing 'life' (rather than 'home') as the opposition to 'work'. Since the antonym most frequently contrasted with 'life' is 'death', it doesn’t take much guessing to divine the sympathies of the theorizers or experimenters in this domain.

Secondly, setting up such a Manichean opposition between 'work' and 'life' puts them in uncompromising opposition. Time becomes a zero-sum game where minutes allotted to 'work' must be subtracted from 'life' and vice versa. In such a forced choice situation, even the most diligent of us, discover within ourselves, a sneaking sense of sympathy with Paul Lafargue’s lament to laziness: "O Laziness, have pity on our long misery! O Laziness, mother of the arts and noble virtues, be thou the balm of human anguish!"4

Lastly, there are many intermediate and not-so-easy-to-classify pastimes in between work and home. We need to examine them to appreciate why these two poles can bolster each other and produce lives full of achievement and well-rounded engagement. We shall group these intermediaries into three containers: Absorbing, Aiding and Alternating. The first two of these have been referenced in an earlier column which could be a useful adjunct (but not substitute) for what follows. 5 Each container holds three differentiated layers that vary in their position along the work-home continuum. The further activities are from the work pole, the greater the discretion individuals have in their choice and time allocation. However, this does not mean organizations cannot make vital contributions near the home pole. The following three sections will, therefore, conclude with what corporates can do for the Absorbing, Aiding and Alternating activities of employees, respectively.

Absorbing Learning 

Mahatma Gandhi said: "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever." In the corporate context one might add that, in the absence of continual learning, both careers and corporations die sooner rather than later.

The most obvious adjacency to work is, naturally, what we must absorb to meet efficiently the demands of current and future tasks. Almost no one can doubt that this augmentation to effectiveness is necessary even if it takes away from time actually spent on generating output.

Further away from work but more useful for the thrust of this column are the knowledge and skill acquisitions that could help future roles. Among the most heartening stories of Munchausening from humble roles to the top are people who have dedicated every sparable moment (and some that couldn’t be spared) to specialize in a function that made great demands on intellect and skills. Telco (now Tata Motors) was replete with such tales. Our sales director started his career as a stenographer, our legal chief began as an office attendant and my own boss, who could challenge the intellect of the smartest PhDs we had, began as a filing clerk. It was fashionable for some of the MBAs who had started flowing into our portals by then, to sneer at those with humble beginnings but, to me, they were beacons of what sheer learning power could achieve. 6 Telco’s fast-track scheme too attempted to identify generalists and future leaders from relative freshers with an insatiable hunger for learning. 7  It too was a great success and permitted the company to be future-ready without the turbulence highly-paid outsiders could bring in their wake. 8

Even more distant from what might be considered work-related learning is the purely interest-driven acquisition of skills and capabilities for which the organization’s use-case may be so remote as to be virtually non-existent. I recall the time when PCs initially started creeping into corporates – usually as a shared departmental resource – and I managed to inveigle one for my own use. It was the first (and, for a long time, the only) PC to inhabit one of the cabins that Telco had in its headquarters at Bombay House. I have vague recollections of doing some wage and productivity analyses on the Lotus 123 spreadsheets that were then standard issue. My memories of using the device to learn the programming language 'C' are far more vivid. It played no role on my achievements or progress at Telco though it proved to be an indirect benefit when I had to oversee an HR-IT team years later in another company and country. Utilization, far less monetization, is just not the point in this kind of learning. As Gopnik points out in his latest book, in the case of such non-demanded learning, "... what really moves and stirs us is accomplishment, that moment of mastery when suddenly we feel that something profoundly difficult, tenaciously thorny, has given way and we are now the Master of It, instead of us being mastered by it. That feeling … is, I’ve come to believe, the most sustaining feeling. I know how to do this and this is the thing I know how to do." 9 This level of attainment also provides relief as an alternate anchor and we shall pick up that thread shortly.

The Telco that gave me my (non-standard) career start and development opportunities differed from most companies today, because it was open to judging people based on competencies (rather than the degrees they sported or the pedigree of the institutions that bred them) and on taking the risk that not all of the skills it permitted employees to acquire would be to its own benefit. It is from precisely such slack in demanding immediate returns out of learning investments that most people who have bucked the odds, gained. Instead of going overboard on getting AI to answer trivia, should we not prioritize investments – of time, resources and recognition – in learning opportunities for people, whose ability to yoke unrelated learning in unexpected ways has made advances in civilization, culture, science and technology possible?

Aiding others 

Noble as the goal of aiding others is, it has some prerequisites if is to move beyond pious intent, general-purpose homilies and the warm internal glow these bring to the superficial. The one desirous of aiding others must have:

• Substance to share

• Skill to impart it

• Selflessness to be willing to do so

The following classification is related, once again, to positioning on the work-home continuum which, in turn, is directly linked to the object of the aid. Where the object is enhancing the proficiency and preparedness of one’s acquired or professional identity, the beneficiary is usually working within the organization (coaching, functional mentoring) or in a professional body from which the company of the aider can also draw benefits. 

True altruism knows no identity barriers and many employees use their work-acquired capabilities to help the less fortunate regardless of their identity labels. As they climb higher in the hierarchy of these social help bodies, demands on their time are non-trivial. Indirectly, though, these can rub some goodwill on to the organizations or families to which such contributors belong.

At the other extreme from undifferentiated aiding is that focussed on one’s given identity e.g. religion, community or linguistic group. This is not the place to question the morality of such commitments but, when organizations support employees aiding others’ efforts (see next para), they need to be extra careful about who is being excluded or 'otherized' in such activities. 

Salutary as the mandatory 2% spend on Corporate Social Responsibility may be for extracting resources from Indian corporates, I cannot but compare it unfavourably to the far greater outlays India’s more responsible business houses used to make long before the statute. More important than the outlays was the voluntary involvement of senior managers and community work specialists in creating appropriate and efficient vehicles for getting the most bang from the buck. When the responsibility is monetized, organizations think their duty is done after the payment and, even where it is not diverted to the promoters’ pet projects or to a business development goal, there is no people involvement behind the programmes. I am reminded of the telling comment by Michael Sandel: "Economists often assume that markets do not touch or taint the goods they regulate. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark on social norms. Often, market incentives erode or crowd out nonmarket incentives." 10 In precisely the same fashion, companies that pay the 2% feel their Corporate Social Responsibility is fulfilled and certainly doesn’t require to be buttressed by voluntary employee exertion. A tremendous opportunity to develop leaders with hearts is thus lost. 

Alternative anchors 

"The world is vast and our own powers are limited. If all our happiness is bound up entirely in our personal circumstances it is difficult not to demand of life more than it has to give. And to demand too much is the surest way of getting even less than is possible. The man who can forget his worries by means of a genuine interest in, say, the Council of Trent, or the life history of stars, will find that, when he returns from his excursion into the impersonal world, he has acquired a poise and calm which enable him to deal with his worries in the best way, and he will in the meantime have experienced a genuine even if temporary happiness."  11

Not everyone can make intellectual excursions of the kind described by Bertrand Russel to restore equanimity and find new ways of thinking. Many find their escape from burn-out through non-work-home social interactions. While interpersonal pastimes have a valuable place, they are subject to the vagaries of mood in the short-term, misunderstandings as time passes and 'moving on' in the longer span. A stock of solitary pursuits – even if they are not intellectual – have to be essential building blocks of any personal battery recharge kit.

A lubricant that adheres to a single mating surface fails the prime justification for its application: to reduce the friction between and the possibility of stress-induced failure of the component parts. For this reason, the best alternative engagement boats steer clear of both the work and home coasts. The thrill immanent in the of creation of art, literature and music can be as vital sources of rejuvenation as Russel’s Trent and neither usability nor certainty can be the goals for pursuing all these wonderful time occupiers and mind fresheners.

Near the home end are an array of improvement projects which provide diversion to our Western counterparts in far greater measure than they do to us. What provides employment to the neighbourhood mason, carpenter and electrician deprives us of practically useful skills that are not just diverting but keep eyes and hands fit and fettled. 

It seems almost quaint to recall the company-sponsored hobby, dramatics and literary clubs that dotted our non-work lives in the ‘70s and 80s. Such an incredible waste of money, which we started saving once we imitated the MNCs flooding the country after liberalization, isn’t it? 12 Not when you set off against these trifling costs the innovation and productivity gains arising from the sense of belonging these facilities engendered. More measurable were the lower incidence of burnout and attrition such constructive distractions brought in their wake. Of course, people can (and should) find such alternative anchors on their own even today. In such cases, obviously, the company cannot hope to benefit from the cost-effective loyalty increments they used to bring in their wake. 

Home at last

After reviewing this rich panoply of rewarding and refreshing activities that fall under neither the work nor the home classification it should be clear how unjustified we would be to club all of these under an omnibus term like 'life'. Such a misleading begging of the question would obviously tip the balance away from 'work' even though many of the most pleasing of these choices adhere closer to the work end of the polarity and several even more worthwhile ones are equidistant from both poles. 

None of this this to disparage the vital role of quality home-time and joint family activity and conversation. But that cannot include more than a bare minimum of couch potatOTTing or spectating sports – both of which seem to have become binge-rewards for sweating in air-conditioned offices.  

This column has frequently repeated George Orwell’s warnings. It is time to compare them to Aldous Huxley’s dystopia. "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance… As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.'… In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us." 13

For those who still think an abominable abbreviation like IPL or FIFA is the best antidote to work, I can only distort another immortal author:.

If you can fill every spare minute

With sixty seconds’ watching others run,   

You’ll know every match and the sportsmen in it,   

And – which is more – you’ll be brain-dead, my son! 14


 1 Ananyo Bhattacharya, The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann, Penguin Books, 2022.
 2 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 2nd edition, 2018.
 3 Suzan Lewis, Richenda Gambles and Rhona Rapoport, The Constraints of a ‘Work-Life Balance’ Approach: An International Perspective, The International Journal of Human Resource Management 18(3):360-373, March 2007.
 4 Paul Lafargue, The Right to Be Lazy and Other Studies, Charles H Kerr and Company, 1907.
  5 Visty Banaji, Learn – Earn – Return, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 65-102, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
 6 Visty Banaji, People Are Made of Steel – Stretch Them, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 33-37, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
 7 Visty Banaji, Fast Track to Organizational Transformation, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 38-44, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
 8Visty Banaji, Guns for (Corporate) Hire, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 19-25, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
 9 Adam Gopnik, The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery, Riverrun, 2023.
10 Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Penguin UK, 2013.
11 Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, Routledge; 2006.
 12 Visty Banaji, Imitation is the Sincerest Flattery – but the Worst Strategy, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 61-67, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
13  Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Penguin USA, 2005.
14 With apologies to Rudyard Kipling, If, Rewards and Fairies, Alpha Editions, 2017.  His immortal lines are:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
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Topics: Employee Relations, #Wellbeing

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