Why I Strive for Work-Life Integration and not Work/Life Balance

Working from home and homing from work–the new normal.

 

Even as a boy, I felt there was something not quite right about hardly knowing my dad’s fellow partners and their families at the ‘big four’ accounting firm he worked at. Of course I knew a couple of the names and faces but that was about it. I felt they could organize some social events and such to intentionally bring their families together but hey, what did I know?

In fact, even now I wouldn’t be able to make out the wife of the senior partner when dad was deputy senior partner. The very kind, burly man’s children currently live barely five hours away from my family in the same country (Canada) but we don’t know each other well enough to even give the other an occasional ring. Oh wait, I got to talk to one of them once, when their dad was seriously ill and had been hospitalized in their town, but that’s been about it.

I think what I longed for, even as a boy, was a bit more of work-life integration, without even knowing that was actually ‘a thing’ or that such a term even existed. A feeble attempt at it has become largely known in the corporate space in recent times as “work/life balance” but what I speak of is more profound than that. How can anyone not see that there is a problem pitting “work” against “life” as if life doesn’t encompass work itself as well as one’s personal life, family and community? And it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game, work or die, inasmuch as there tends to be many tradeoffs.

 

BUY ONE, GET THREE FREE!

It’s a no brainer that having a bad home situation can adversely affect your professional performance and vice versa. Also, despite how stringent your personal health routines might be, your community relationships are a significant determinant of your mental and physical health, a 75-year study proves. Life is not as separate as we would like (or like to think). Somehow we know this when it comes to how something negative in one aspect of our life can spill over to botch another aspect but what if I told you that being a great dad can make you a better CEO or that the skills you use in your community can be a life-saver in some work project? Yeah, work/life balance isn’t the way to go; work-life integration is. I’ll tell you why.

Author Stewart Friedman concurs: “From years of studying people in many different settings, I have found that the most successful people are those who can harness the passions and powers of the various parts of their lives, bringing them together to achieve what I call “four-way wins — actions that result in life being better in all four domains.”  These four domains Stewart speaks of are illustrated in ‘The Integrated Life’ diagram below. He continues, “My research has shown that there are ways for everyone — from the managers of sales teams, to executives in government agencies, to computer engineers, to florists, to coaches — to achieve professional success without always having to sacrifice the things that matter in their personal lives.”

COVID-19 BLESSING IN DISGUISE

One of the gifts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to not only highlight how important the place we call “home” is, but how it is central to our children’s formal education and our own professional lives. Heck, we’ve even done community, like church, from home! Online. This is perhaps the most physically integrated most people have been in their entire work lives. And those of us who like to keep everything prim and proper with no drama have had a really hard time.

I do a fair bit of social media. I find FaceBook much more integrated in terms of all four aspects of life than say, LinkedIn. Several times, I have seen people literally apologize and “make an excuse” or “make an exception” to post something faith or family-related on LinkedIn. I’ve tried to push those boundaries myself sometimes but it’s a weird, I must say. When I recently shared on LinkedIn that I daily run the daycare at home for the youngest ones of our seven children, I was really honoured to have one of my mentors, Bill George (Harvard business school professor and former CEO of Medtronic), affirm me as follows: “Thank you, Yaw, for being the authentic leader you are.” This must be why: Bill really believes, “For authentic leaders, being true to themselves by being the same person at work that they are at home is a constant test, yet personal fulfillment is their ultimate reward. Doing so will make you a more effective leader in all aspects of life  (George 2015, 16).

 

WHERE THE RUBBER HITS THE ROAD

At a just-ended eight-week Family Foundations Mastermind I hosted, the prime place of family was underscored over and over again but by the penultimate session we needed to ‘get real.’ How do we do family well while keeping a demanding job, juggling community roles and trying to stay sane? This is where the rubber hits the road.

As I’ve stated before, integrity comes from the Latin root integritas which means whole, entire, undivided. On the other extreme are those who completely separate their professional life from other aspects of their lives. Then there are those who in the name of work/life balance, hop from one of the four parts to the other, trying to “fulfill all righteousness” and tick every box with as little guilt as possible. What I subscribe to and strive for is  integration. Bill is blunt: “To lead an integrated life, you need to bring together the major elements of your personal life and professional life, family and friends so you can be the same person in each environment” (159-160).

We’re striving for the word integrated rather than balance. Subtle difference, apparently, but HUGE. Stewart gets it: “The idea I think to replace work/life balance, which treats these categories as independent, is work/life integration. You’re treating yourself whether you’re at work or at play in basically the same way.”

 

 

BIG ROCKS FIRST

All the buckets don’t have the same weight. I believe we ought to carry the more important yet not always more urgent buckets of personal and family first, putting the big rocks in first as Stephen Covey would put it, and all the other things will be added to us as well. Easier said than done, but it must be done nonetheless.

My favourite corporate example of this is Nike CEO John Donahoe (former eBay CEO), when he was a consultant with Bain decades ago with a young family. I was most impressed about how he told his client, ”It is important to me to be doing this. I’m committed to working hard, but I can’t be there before 10am.” This is because he insisted on taking his children to school before heading to the client site. The result? Donahoe was amazed that his clients appreciated the choices he was making. “The client responded positively as he appreciated my commitment and contributions even more” he says. “I didn’t have the courage to think about it that way before. There’s an inclination in business to put on a tough exterior to give the impression that you have everything under control” (162).

Bill George reports that “Donahoe learned that the more he integrated his life and embraced his humanity, the more effective he became as a leader … by showing his team and clients his [priorities and] vulnerabilities, he discovered his teams performed better and his client relationships strengthened.” (162)

This is not to say it’s all easy; but it’s worth it–just like med school or doing an MBA. Hear Donahoe: “The struggle is constant, as the trade-offs and choices don’t get any easier as you get older. My personal and professional lives are not a zero-sum trade-off. I have no doubt today that my children have made me a far more effective leader in the workplace. A strong personal life has made the difference” (160).

To be whole (integritas), we need to integrate our personal , family, community and professional lives, not pit one against the other like ‘work/life balance’ suggests. Real life happens were all four meet and they can enhance each other. Indeed, they should. It isn’t easy. How do I know? I’m still trying. So should you. It’s worth it.

In my next blog, I will share a number of practical examples and ideas of how people have made life-work integration happen, and how my family and I have tried to, also.

 

References

Friedman, Stewart D. 2014. “What Successful Work and Life Integration Looks Like.” Harvard Business Review. October 07, 2014.

George, Bill. 2015. Discover your True North. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

 

 

 

 

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8 Comments

  1. Lorretta Roberts says:
    June 10, 2021

    Looking forward to the blogs. Very insightful article

    Reply
    • Yaw Perbi says:
      June 11, 2021

      Thanks Lorretta. You and I are in this struggle together. Aluta continua! It’s worth it.

      Reply
  2. Dorothea Otchere-Keelson says:
    June 11, 2021

    Thank you for writing and sharing.
    This is so important and cannot be overemphasized in Family Medicine, Healthcare as well as Living a Christian Life.
    I used to wonder how some close friends or some spouses coped with some very busy and very long schedule off-Family time.
    Of course…. physical distance may not be a problem in itself if there’s a Family Bond but integration of work with family and community towards development is very therapeutic to some extent.

    Reply
  3. Leslie Hans says:
    June 14, 2021

    A true authentic leader; who leads by example.

    Reply
    • Yaw Perbi says:
      July 5, 2021

      You’re too kind, Sir Hans. Grace alone!

      Reply
  4. Nana Anyani-Boadum says:
    June 15, 2021

    We are striving for the word integrated rather than balance. Thank you Dr. Perbi for sharing and leading by example. I will try. It’s worth it.

    Reply
    • Yaw Perbi says:
      July 5, 2021

      Yes chief, it’s worth it. The struggle (aluta) continues. But from glory to glory to glory till “when we shall see him, we shall be like him!”

      Reply
  5. […] my last blog on Why I strive for work-life integration and not work/life balance, some got it and said, “important distinction.” Others thought it was just semantics, […]

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