Why we can no longer separate work from life (and shouldn’t)

Boundaries between work and life no longer need to be so defined.
Boundaries between work and life no longer need to be so defined.
Image: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
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“Work creep” is often portrayed as hazardous to our health.

The average workweek for a full-time employee in the US is 47 hours, according to a Gallup poll, and, according to another study, 40% of US employees work on weekends at least once a month. This has led to concerns that professionals are taking on too much stress.

But throughout the last decade, I’ve noticed a shift in thinking. More people are suggesting that the ways work and life overlap might not all be bad.

Back in 2009, when I was a 26-year-old employee at EMC Corporation, I had the opportunity to sit down with the now former EVP of HR, Jack Mollen, to ask his opinion on work-life balance. He said, “The line is gone between work [and] life, so we need to make sure that our people can do personal stuff when they are on the job, because I know they are doing work things when they are off the job.” More recently, I spoke about work-life balance with Sir Richard Branson, the Founder and Chairman of the Virgin Group. He reinforced Mollen’s sentiments, telling me, “There should be no difference between somebody’s life at home and somebody’s life at work. If at home, you feel that the environment is important, it should be important in the workplace. If at home, you’ve got friends, you should have an equal number of friends in the workplace.” While on the surface we may view “work creep” as negative, it can be our greatest asset if we manage it properly.

The days of convincing ourselves that we can separate our work and personal lives are over, and I think we should embrace this change. Mostly because, if we don’t, it will negatively impact our productivity. In a multilevel study of 619 employees, several professors observed that when employees changed behavior between work and life, they performed worse at their jobs. When their behavior was the same between both work and life, they maintained higher levels of job performance.

Instead of putting pressure on ourselves to achieve a great utopia of work-life balance, we should start focusing on work-life integration: our ability to ensure that our personal and business interests are incorporated into our daily lives and routines.

One way companies can encourage this integration is to offer some level of flexibility by supporting flexible schedules, telecommuting, job sharing, and extended leaves of absence. Others include supporting Bring Your Own Device policies, so employees can message family and friends at the office, and promoting social activities at work, such as office parties, employee resource groups (for women, minorities, age groups, etc.) and sports teams. Since we spend so much time at work, the relationships we have with our management and co-workers can make or break our experiences as employees.

Individuals also have a responsibility for integrating their work and personal lives. The way I achieve work-life integration is to make a checklist of my top three work and personal priorities. For instance, in a single day, I could meet with a client, finish a research study, and have a strategy session on the phone with my business partner about an upcoming event. For personal activities, I could list going on a run, lunch with a friend who works nearby, and a date that evening. By logging these activities, I have created a new habit that enables me to maximize my day.

Creating authentic relationships with co-workers can also make for better work-life integration. You can do this slowly, moving from “what do you do?” to a discussion about your hobbies and then deeper into your personal life, when both parties are comfortable. When we have strong relationships with our teammates, we bring that happiness back to our personal lives.

The more we have honest conversations about flexibility with our managers, the more functional and better our work experiences will be. By embracing flexible work arrangements, companies can attract top talent, while preventing employee burnout, which leads to high turnover.

Follow Dan at @DanSchawbel and at his website.