The concept of "work-life balance" has been the dominant paradigm for integrating our personal and professional lives for decades.
Based on my research, personal experiences, and coaching women leaders, I have come to realize that balance may not be the most optimal or significant approach when it comes to managing our time between work and family responsibilities.
Although balance typically suggests an equal distribution or comparison of different elements, true integration often does not lead to perfect equilibrium. It's better to shift our focus from pursuing balance to cultivating harmony, where all the elements coexist in a way that promotes cohesion and unity. By shifting our perspective, we open ourselves up to a much more comprehensive approach to life. We come to realize that true harmony often requires a constant interplay of dynamics and adaptability, rather than being stagnant in a state of equilibrium.
Where did balance come from?
The term "work-life balance" gained popularity in the 1980s, largely as a response to increasing demands of both work and parenting roles. It framed integrating responsibilities as a balancing act - weighing one area against another to maintain equilibrium. However, balance implies an accomplishment of precise measures that is often unrealistic given life's unpredictability. Constantly trying to balance different balls only leads to stress and a feeling of never quite meeting expectations.
Why harmony is a better goal
Harmony suggests a flow and compatible blending of elements, rather than an equal distribution or weighing. While balance puts work and personal life at odds, harmony recognizes their interconnection and how fulfilling one supports the other. It allows for natural shifts and rhythms over time rather than a fixed formula. With harmony as the goal, an "off-balance" period is seen as a natural flow rather than a failure of balance. This framing takes pressure off and reduces guilt when scales tip in one direction for a period. It recognizes our lives are artforms with many movements, not an equation to continuously solve.
Interestingly, balance as a concept has masculine connotations aligned with measuring, weighing and distributing. In contrast, harmony has feminine roots associated with fluidity, interconnection and natural cadences. Could adopting harmony's feminine framework help alleviate stress felt by all genders in trying to meet unrealistic balance expectations? Framing integration as an art of harmony rather than a test of balance may empower individuals and organizations to structure work and personal responsibilities in a more flexible, compassionate manner.
As work and personal lives rapidly evolve, both organizations and individuals stand to gain from embracing a shift from work-life balance to work-life harmony. Acknowledging the interconnectedness of responsibilities can promote a more holistic, sustainable, and stress-reducing approach. While balance has its merits, harmony may offer a more meaningful, mentally healthy, and attainable goal for modern times.
Adopting a harmony mindset in practice includes allowing flexibility in how and where different responsibilities are fulfilled over time. It means checking expectations that domains should constantly be in equilibrium and instead embracing ebb and flow. Setting boundaries is still important for recharging periodically. But viewing different commitments as accompaniments in a unified life composition, rather than separate items to juggle, can cultivate greater calm, creativity and fulfillment overall.
Invitation to join the conversation
I invite you to share your perspectives on this topic in the comments. Do you find the concept of work-life harmony to be a useful framing, based on your own experiences? How could adopting this mindset impact how you approach integrating your various responsibilities?
An open discussion can provide valuable insights into how we can all structure our lives and work in a way that feels flowing, balanced and nurturing of well-being.