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Quest for Work-Life Fit Isn't Self-Indulgent!

02/20/2013 06:03 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2013

Of all the reasons given about why U.S. workplaces shouldn't worry about work-life issues, this one is probably the most simpleminded one I've heard in a while:

Being a workaholic is good for your career and life.

Yes, a Harvard Business Review article last week titled "Embrace Work-Life Imbalance" took pot shots at the whole work-life concept by making the case that working your butt off is a great thing and only people who hate their jobs are complaining and want work-life balance.

This from the piece by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, which has been among the most-emailed and most-commented stories on the Review since last week:

Most of the studies on the harmful effects of excessive work rely on subjective evaluations of work 'overload.' They fail to disentangle respondents' beliefs and emotions about work. If something bores you, it will surely seem tedious. When you hate your job, you will register any amount of work as excessive -- it's like forcing someone to eat a big plate of food they dislike, then asking if they had enough of it.

This statement actually illustrates the flaw in his own argument. The word "forcing" is important here, because when you force someone to do something, then they no longer have control. And while Chamorro-Premuzic, the Vice President of Research and Innovation at Hogan Assessment Systems, may feel he has control over his work schedule -- whether he decides to work 24/7 or not -- most employees do not.

"It's all about control," said Ken Matos, Senior Director of Employment Research and Practice for Families and Work Institute.

"The assumption that ALL people have the control to change their jobs and careers, or set their schedules without significant career and financial risks is false," he noted. "Many don't have that option due to poor economies, job markets that require relocating away from family and friends to change jobs, inflexible workplaces with unrealistic expectations or other reasons."

Chamorro-Premuzic's article is based on the assumption that if you love your job then you won't worry about work-life issues, but loving your job can be predicated on whether you have control of how you do your job.

A recent study in the American Sociological Review titled, "It's All about Control: Worker Control over Schedule and Hours in Cross-National Context" found that across all 21 countries studied, control over one's work schedule is positively related to job satisfaction and organizational commitment for both women and men."

But there were gender differences:

"Importantly, we generally found across countries that hours excess (overwork) is linked more strongly for women than men to all three of the micro-level consequences, suggesting that lack of control over work hours has greater negative consequences for women, both in terms of the impact of work on their lives outside of work and their attitudes about their jobs and organizations."

Even though the negative effects of a lack of control appear to be greater for women, FWI's research shows that men are not immune and many are finding it harder to meld work and their personal lives today. Based on studies done in 1977 and 2008, FWI reported an increase in work-family conflict for fathers in dual-earner households from 35% to 60%.

Matos isn't arguing that work-life balance is attainable. On the contrary, he maintains what many other work-life experts are saying. There is no "work-life balance", because life and work can't be cut up into a neat 50-50 split. Instead the real goal is work-life fit, where people find an arrangement of work and life that is compatible and complimentary, even if the division of time in each domain is unequal. And he acknowledges that for Chamorro-Premuzic and others who love what they do, and who have the ability to pick and choose when and how to do it, then it may be satisfying to do a bit more.

But the Chamorro-Premuzics among us may live in a rarified world of work happiness that's unknown to many employees out there struggling with work-life issues, because they have few choices and control when it comes to the parameters of the job and the organization for which they work.

"If he has a method for ensuring that everyone has reliable access to the careers they want and the living wages and conditions to care for themselves and their families while working in those careers then I'd love to hear it," Matos explained. "Without such a method his perspective of overwork is simply an example of rationalizing away responsibility for how we impact each other's lives."

To that end, Matos pointed to a comment from a working father on the Harvard Business Review article that he felt poignantly summed up the realities employees face in today's workplace:

This article is a catchy, but narrow perspective. I'm no expert, but I resent this perspective because it isn't really about "work-life balance," it's simply about whether or not you are engaged in your job, and whether or not you should move on. Dr Camorro-Premuzic mis-defines and then dismisses a problem that is real, and should matter to people who don't envision the ideal society as one that operates like an ant colony. The balance between work and life outside of work is more than just the emotional state that he tries to boil it down to. It isn't just the state of your psyche and the relationship between you and your work! When my work and life outside of work become out of balance, I don't perceive it as an affect for some time away, I see it when my son's eyes turn to the floor when I answer, "yes, buddy, I need to go back up to the office right after dinner." I feel it in my own heart when I learn something new about my daughter's life that I should have known a long time ago. I see it in the amount of fatigue and stress on my wife's face, the result of week after week of raising our children and managing our household without much help from me. It doesn't begin with me hating my job, it is the result of my unending passion and engagement in my career. The effect that this has on my emotional state, and the effect that this emotional state has on the relationship between me and my work, has nothing at all to do with the work I'm doing or the employer I'm doing it for. It has everything to do with the souls of the people I love when my career takes more than its fair share of the hours in the passing days. So the assertion that "Overworking is really only possible if you are not having fun at work." is bogus (unless you prefer the ant colony), and that invalidates the rest of this article in my mind.

Dr Camorro-Premuzic's premise would have some validity if we lived in a workplace utopia where employees were consulted about their working hours. This month, an Australian politician proposed taking some first steps towards that way of working by giving workers more power when it comes to their schedules.

This from SmartCompany.com, an Australian business publication:

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten confirmed yesterday any business which makes changes to rosters or working hours must "genuinely consult" with the affected employees about how the changes would affect their personal lives.

Shorten's statement also confirmed and outlined announcements made earlier this week by Prime Minister Julia Gillard about extending flexible working rights to more workers.

"Helping families with work and family balance, changes to parental leave to provide more flexibility to new parents and a requirement for employers to consider the impact of major change on employees' family and care responsibilities - these are the signature changes we will soon bring before the Parliament," Shorten said.

Ultimately the goal of this and other non-governmental efforts, like When Work Works, is to create ongoing opportunities for employees and employers to collaborate on defining how, when, and where work gets done so that both employees and employers can be successful.