Work-Life Integration v. Work-Life Balance: Are We Missing the Point?

There has been a lot written in recent years about Work-Life Balance v. Work-Life Integration. The words “balance” and “integration” have been dissected to the point that they simultaneously feel like synonyms and antonyms. What is it, though, that we are really trying to get at?

The concept of Work-Life Balance entered into my psyche for the first time around 2004. I was early in my law school career, and all around me my peers were asking the law firms they were interviewing with whether or not they supported “work-life balance”, and if so, how? Simultaneously, I was working as a law clerk at the firm that I was a paralegal with prior to starting law school, and ultimately would stay with for a number of years after graduation. While law students were asking about work-life balance, the attorneys at firms were scratching their heads, wondering what in the world were these law students talking about? There is no balance at the beginning of your legal career – there is only work-work balance, and “life” gets the scraps that are left over when you are exhausted and have nothing to give. That’s how they did it, and if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for the next generation.

Fast forward to my years working within the technology start-up sector. Not only was Work-Life Balance a term relegated to the past, but we had to come up with a new phrase to signify how it is that we approach managing work and personal life. Enter….”Work-Life Integration”. With the technological advances of email, smart phones, mobile applications, etc…we as humans are more accessible than ever, and so is every part of our life. We live and die by our calendars, creating separate ones for personal/social, work and even our custody schedules. We share them with others so they know where to find us, and when. We have our work email on our personal devices and our personal email on our work devices so we are at the ready for anything, at any time. Hence – we have integrated. There are no boundaries between work and personal. We can work at soccer practice, and we can watch a live-streamed school play from the comfort of our offices when in the midst of a high pressure transaction.

But…is this the zenith? At this point in my life and my career, I find myself full of questions with very few answers. Each question begets more questions. My children want to show me what is important to them, without the ping from my phone interrupting the attention they are receiving. When I am working on a deliverable for a client, they want to know that what they are paying me for has my full attention.

How can I have it ALL? CAN I have it all? What does it even MEAN to have it all?? Is this where we want to be? Or, have we lost touch with what it means to be a fully and wholly integrated person walking through the many avenues of life? There are so many facets to who we are as individuals. Yes, of course, we have our professional aspirations. We have our personal lives that could include partners, children, hobbies, friendships, exercise, spiritual practices, etc. But, is it necessary that they continue to be defined separately? If we are one person, is it possible that we could bring the aspects that make us most productive in the work setting into our homes? And the aspects that make us the most fulfilled in our homes into our work settings? What if we offered our co-workers, our friends and our families the best of all aspects of ourselves.

In addition to this, what would it mean to truly be present for each moment in our lives? To not bifurcate and watch our niece’s play in a live stream, but to actually be present for it and not touch our cell phone come hell or high water until it is over? Or to be present for the deal in the office that needs our full attention and go ahead and outsource soccer practice that night to someone who can be present for that?

We have come a long way in this conversation. But, perhaps we still continue to miss the point. Work v. Life. Balance v. Integration. Whole v. Separate. Where are you?

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