As technology consumes our lives, nudging us to respond to Slack messages at midnight and email pings on weekends, the concept of “work-life balance” increasingly feels like a myth, created to tease fresh college grads, torture parents, and plague us all with perpetual productivity anxiety.
Workplace activists like Randi Zuckerberg, author of Pick Three: You Can Have It All (Just Not Every Day), argue that full-fledged work-life balance simply isn’t possible. Success, Zuckerberg says, is learning to be “well-lopsided” instead. That’s relieving to hear, but also easier said than done.
And what about those of us for whom work truly is life? While many people cringe at the idea of working on weekends, some of us would rather do nothing more. It’s easy to presume one side is crazy, lazy, or straight-up wrong. In reality, the key to personal and organizational balance is understanding the differences between these personality types and respecting their different needs.
Are all workaholics created equal?
“I love work,” says organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant, on his TED podcast WorkLife. “In college, my roommates complained that I wasn’t fully present for their parties because I was too busy writing my thesis. Before I met my wife, my idea of a fun Saturday was working from 7am to 9pm. And the thought of leaving an email unanswered causes me physical pain. I’ve been called a workaholic. Is that so bad? And if so, should I be setting more boundaries between work and life?”
According to another Wharton professor, Nancy Rothbard, a leading expert on how people manage the boundary between work and life, Grant’s love affair with working isn’t horrible, nor does it guarantee his eventual burnout. On an episode of WorkLife, Rothbard explains that Grant is a classic “engaged workaholic,” which differs from being an “unhappy workaholic,” who, per Rothbard’s research, have higher risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
People who love their work because they’re engaged in it and find meaning in it tend to be buffered from those kinds of risks, Rothbard says. They don’t necessarily need “recovery” from their work—recovery being, say, a weekend totally unplugged—because for them work is a joyous endeavor. “It’s like saying, you know, ‘I’m going to go to the movies and then I need to recover afterward,’” Grant jokes. “Why would you do that? You went to the movies because you were excited about it, it was fun.”
Good for those people. For the rest of us, breaks and vacations are absolutely necessary.
“Integrators” and “segmentors”
Another, less contentious way to describe engaged workaholics, says Rothbard, is to think of them as “integrators.” Integrators are people who like to blend work and life. Having grown up surrounded by a family furniture-making business—the warehouse and accounting issues were daily dinner-table conversation topics—Rothbard says that the idea of work bleeding into home life “was as natural as breathing.”
In grad school, she began researching work-life balance, and realized that people have widely disparate beliefs about whether work-life blurring is positive or negative.
“People who really, really have a very strong desire to integrate the two, to keep them more blurred, and to have a lot of easy transitions between the two domains are integrators,” Rothbard explains on the podcast. On the other side of the spectrum—and that’s what it is here, a spectrum, not just two poles—are “segmentors,” people who prefer very clear boundaries between work and life.
For segmentors, mixing work with life outside of work feels inappropriate or distracting, says Rothbard, noting that she’s met some segmentors who even keep separate key chains for work and home. “People who are extreme segmentors will also not have pictures of their family in their office. They won’t bring their family to the company party,” she says.
One strong segmentor she studied was a firefighter:
“When he would go home after his shift, he would wear flip-flops because he didn’t want to wear his firefighting boots and take them into his house. And when he would get home he wouldn’t touch or hug his kids or his wife until he had taken a shower and changed his clothes. So he physically wanted to detach from work before he felt like he was literally clean to enter the home… It wasn’t a germ thing at all. It was a completely symbolic recognition that he was shedding the difficulty of his job before he would enter the sanctity of his home.”
It’s not a competition
Employees and organizations should know that neither integrators nor segmentors are better, or more committed than the other, simply by nature of their work-life preferences. According to Rothbard, what’s more important, especially for managers, is to honestly discuss where each person falls on the integrator-segmentor spectrum, so as to most efficiently capitalize on individual strengths and avoid unnecessary tension.
Beyond everyday manifestations—like who’s okay with emailing after hours, and who needs radio silence on weekends—integrator-segemtor personality differences can alter team dynamics in unexpected ways. For example, in one study, Rothbard learned that while onsite childcare made integrators more satisfied and committed to their organizations, segmentors had a strikingly different reaction.
“If they have access to on-site child care, that actually bothered them—even if they weren’t using it themselves,” Rothbard told Grant. “I think it was a representation of the company’s values. The fact that other people were using this and bringing their children to work seemed to them to be a violation of what they wanted and what they thought was appropriate. And so it was a signal that the company’s culture was not congruent with their beliefs and values.”
It’s not that segmentors feel it’s their place to force other people to similarly segment work and life (and leave their kids at home), it’s that they find integrators’ willingness to mesh work and life surprising, and often bothersome.
In her study, integrators were found to be more accepting of segmentors than vice versa.
We all need some boundaries
Importantly, one’s identity as an integrator or segmentor is not fixed.
As technology invades our work lives, all of us are being pushed toward integration, and all of us ought to think more critically about establishing some semblance of the boundaries that come so naturally to segmentors. “I think I am a reformed integrator who is now more of a segmentor,” my Gen-X editor said when we discussed the topic. “I’m actually not sure whether I’m an integrator or segmentor,” I responded, confounded by my own simultaneous tech addiction and tech-free fantasies, in classic millennial fashion.
Serious integrators like Grant might find it helpful to establish clear priorities, with themselves and the people around them, if they want to set boundaries between work and non-work, which is exactly what Grant says he did, determining who, when, and how he would help.
“Who to help? Family first, students second, colleagues third, everyone else fourth. When to help? At designated times that didn’t interfere with my goals. And how to help? In areas where I had a unique contribution to make,” he explains.
“Now, when people reach out with requests that stretch beyond my wheelhouse or my calendar, I refer them to relevant resources: an article or an expert.” But it takes discipline, and a lot of practice, to not dive in himself. Says Grant, “I think that’s what improving our work and our lives is all about: practicing, trying out new ways to work and setting boundaries for everything we hold dear beyond work.”