Is "work-life balance" just a myth?

Posted 10 June 2020 by
Sherrie Haynie, Director of US Professional Services, The Myers-Briggs Company

The conversation about work-life balance in modern society began in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. In the centuries since, the discussion that helped establish the 40-hour work week has evolved into a multi-million dollar industry rife with consultancies and scientific articles, begging the question: after so much time and money spent, how do so many companies still get it wrong?

Striking a balance: time vs. fulfillment

When we talk about work-life balance, the conversation is often boiled down to the simplest factor in the equation: time.

If employees have the time to raise their families, pursue their hobbies and rest when they need it, they should be happier. While this line of thinking clearly isn’t all wrong, data shows that depression is on the rise in all age groups. While it seems counter-intuitive, balancing the time employees spend on work and life isn’t enough to secure a real work-life balance. Why? Because while it’s the most obvious, time isn’t the only factor.

It’s time for us to change our perspective.

While a focus on the time we spend at work was invaluable in getting us to where we are now, the real goal isn’t finding the perfect amount of hours, but making sure we are all fulfilled in our work and personal lives. After all, fulfillment in life isn’t something we can achieve once and set aside, and it isn’t something like a doctor’s appointment that you can schedule around. It’s an ongoing pursuit, and won’t always require you to spend the same amount of time in or out of work.

Leveraging personality 

Of the four preference pairs that make up the Myers-Briggs framework, the middle two – Sensing vs. Intuition and Thinking vs. Feeling – are the most telling when we want to make career decisions, with many occupations seeing an overabundance in particular personality types.

For example, we can see in this research sample that 50% of nurses showed preferences for both Sensing and Feeling, with preferences for Sensing/Thinking, Intuition/Feeling, and Intuition/Thinking making up the other 50% of the population.

For many people, happiness at work can be as simple as building their career around those two preferences.

After all, those parts of our personalities dictate how we interpret and interact with the world; it makes sense that we would perform and feel our best when our work takes full advantage of them. Unfortunately, it isn’t always quite so easy.

If you find that you’re primarily using your preferences at work and feeling unfulfilled, it may mean it’s time to start developing the opposite side of your personality – what experts call “flexing” outside of your preferences. So, if your office job takes advantage of your Intuitive Thinking preferences, try to find a new hobby or work task that will let you strengthen your Sensing and Feeling muscles.

Relationships with co-workers

Another framework that can help comes from the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation (FIRO) assessments, which evaluates how three types of interpersonal needs interact with one another: Inclusion, or the need to belong; Control, or the need for influence; and Affection, or the need for intimacy.

As every relationship (along with the parts that make it up) is a two-way street, FIRO looks at both Expressed and Wanted behaviors; in other words, the way that we handle Inclusion, Control and Affection in our relationships with others, and the way that we would like others to handle them in their relationships with us.

By identifying and understanding our orientation towards interpersonal needs, we can evaluate whether they are being met, both in and out of the office. If you find that you aren’t able to exercise as much control as you’d like to in your work relationships, for example, it could be time to have a conversation with your supervisor about adjustments you could work together to implement that would allow you to feel more fulfilled, and less stressed, at work.

Even though it likely won’t net you any more time out of the office, the balance between how much energy you spend on work and the rest of your life will shift in your favor.

So, is the idea of a perfect work-life balance really possible? In a complicated world where every person, employer and career path has different needs and expectations, the answer isn’t a clear-cut yes or no.

If we focus on fulfillment, however, and try to balance where we spend our energy instead of our time, it becomes much simpler.

Our personalities and interpersonal relationships define who we are and how we do things. If we can find balance around the way we navigate life through those lenses, we can build foundations that will make fulfillment a real, attainable goal.  

This article originally appeared in Tech HR Series.