THE BLOG
11/02/2014 03:53 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2015

Work-Life Balance? We Don't Have Time for That

OKRAD via Getty Images

Owed to the end of Daylight Savings Time, many in the U.S. (with some exceptions) woke up this morning with a magical extra hour added to their day. I always hasten to point out how easy it is on that morning to notice, and pause for a moment to consider, two things:

One: Our experience of time stands in as a simple metric for our sense of well-being -- from relief and anticipation (TGIF) to malaise (Monday Blues).

Two: Simple changes in time can have an immediate impact on our ability to cope (an extended deadline) or fall apart (delayed flight). At the heart of the joy and pain of each of these events is one of the most powerful aspects of our lives: Time.

For this reason and more, anyone truly concerned about the wellness of employees, colleagues or oneself must stop talking about work-life balance (or any other term used to refine the failed conversation about "balance") and refocus on time. Don't get me wrong: The work-life conversation has raised important issues around time and work and it has given us a language that signals our critical concerns. However, it is the wrong language to use as a vehicle for more fundamental changes.

The phrase itself has been co-opted as a stand-in for employer regard, seen as a benefit or a special perk. So the on-site athletic centers, dining and child care services are all lovely (and are a wonderful way of attracting talent), but they are also clearly in the service of work.

In contrast, talking about time gets to the heart of overwork and general quality of life. It's also a relatively straightforward metric already being measured in diverse (although not politically neutral) ways for everyone from the minimum wage earner to the executive.

Take the issue of the lack of regular schedules that prevent many minimum wage earners from planning more than a week ahead. Changes to this time-related policy would be a huge benefit.

Two other, often interrelated, time-related issues are staffing shortages and time off. Staffing shortages leave fewer employees to accomplish more in less time. This directly impacts the pace of work and contributes to a second problem: increasing the number of consecutive days worked. In both cases, revised policies on staffing levels and days worked would pay off for the company as well as employee. Employee exhaustion and sleep deprivation and burnout degrade the customer and client experience as well as the work itself. This includes problems with backlog, long lines or depersonalization, as well catastrophic work accidents (such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez) where exhausted employees made mistakes, many of whom had worked long shifts often for consecutive days.

Another miraculous thing happens when we talk plainly about issues like time off and consecutive days worked: non-paid labor gets included in the discussion. This gives voice to the needs of parents and adult children who primarily care for others as a way to support their families. Work-life seems like a ridiculous label for this segment of the labor force, but when the conversation shifts to time it becomes clearer (hopefully to both caregivers and those around them) that everyone needs regular downtime for personal renewal.

The perennial discussion of work-life balance is also classist, privileging individuals already earning a living wage. It may come as no surprise that in our study where employees across income levels were asked about their experience of work-life management, employees earning the federal minimum wage had no idea what the term "work-life balance" even meant. This leads to another example where a discussion about time is a more plainspoken way to effect change: hourly wages. When individuals must work multiple jobs to support themselves, what value is a discussion about work-life balance?

In addition to helping the employee, better hourly wages also save companies money because of reduced turnover costs and the ability to attract and retain higher quality talent. For instance, the average store manager at In-N-Out Burger (where the minimum wage is $11 an hour) has worked for the company more than 14 years. In-N-Out also extends paid vacation and sick time to their employees, two additional time-related policies that respect their basic human rights to physical and emotional rest and recovery.

These are clearly the more costly, perhaps more controversial, and challenging issues to tackle in the short term, compared with "work-life programs." Nonetheless, these are the right issues to address if we wish to have a real long-term impact on the vitality of employees and their
organizations.