Tipping the work-life balance toward life

baroque style painting by Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch depicting a woman weighing gold coins
“Interior with a Woman weighing Gold Coin, ” by Pieter de Hooch, c. 1659-1662. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_de_Hooch_005.jpg#/media/File:Pieter_de_Hooch_005.jpg

Many of the conversations about burnout inevitably address work-life balance as a form of prevention, so this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past several months. This notion of work-life balance was especially resonant to me in late summer into the fall semester of last year, which was maybe one of the most stressful periods of work in my life.

One day late last year, I was packing my lunch in the morning before leaving for work, and I found myself doing my usual mental arithmetic about what I would have time to eat. Notice it wasn’t about what I wanted to eat or needed to eat, but what I believed I had time to eat. All of a sudden, this struck me as immensely absurd. Why in the world was I planning a basic human need around what my work would accommodate? Eating lunch a necessity not just for fueling my body but also an important way of giving myself a break during the day, so why wasn’t it given higher priority?

My lunch revelation opened all sorts of mental doors for me. I began to protect open spots in my daily work calendar, believing that just because I didn’t have anything scheduled didn’t mean I was free and available. If I received an email from a committee chair about scheduling a time for a meeting, and the only open time available in a given day was my only chance to eat lunch in unrushed peace, I did not offer over that time. I simply said I wasn’t available that day. I felt so powerful! I was controlling my day. Having this empowered sense of control is so important to feeling like a whole person who happens to work, instead of a worker who is also maybe sometimes a person.

Because the extensive training in paying close attention to language is deeply ingrained in me from earning two degrees in English, I also find myself picking apart the words we use about work-life balance as well. Why is “work” always listed first? It’s like Sonny and Cher or flotsam and jetsam–you never hear the order reversed, or at least I haven’t. Why isn’t it life-work balance, to prioritize life over work? And why do we use the word “balance” anyway? Doesn’t this suggest that each component should be equally weighted? This strikes me as really wrong.

I understand that there’s privilege involved here. I know that this rethinking of how I shape work to fit into my life, and not the other way around, might be considered a luxury to some. I know how fortunate I am to have a job, a job that I have the power and ability to reshape to meet my needs. But the fact that this is an example of privilege also strikes me as messed up and backwards. And I can’t help but think that maybe publicly talking about how messed up and backwards this notion of “work-life balance” is, and questioning its prevalence in these kinds of conversations, might be useful to other people, possibly leading to the kind of internal shift that happened to me.

I want everyone to feel powerful, and human, in the workplace.

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