What does ‘Work-Life Balance’ mean anyway?


The Digital Epiphanies project was born at an event entitled ‘Achieving work-life balance in a digitally dependent world’. When I started to work on the Digital Epiphanies project earlier this year, one thing that became very clear to me, very quickly, was that the term ‘work-life balance’ is conceptually problematic for range of reasons.

Firstly each word is individually ambiguous, multi-faceted and contentious, secondly the meaning of the overall term is conceptually problematic to frame and thirdly it is not obvious that, even if the terms were defined clearly and rigorously, such ‘balance’ is possible, meaningful or desirable.

Examples of issues which arise when one starts to think about the term include:

      • Work – what is meant by or included in ‘work’? Only paid work? What about unpaid activities associated with paid work? Does a focus on paid work unjustifiably devalue ‘house work’ and informal caring work that is unpaid? How about voluntary community work, unpaid internships, training and education?
      • Life – assuming this can be seen as distinct from ‘work’ (e.g. paid work), the rest of life includes a myriad of quite different things from managing and maintaining a household to working for personal or political causes to spending time with distant family and friends. These are themselves aspects of ‘life’ that are often highly problematic to ‘balance’, why then focus only on the balance between ‘work’ and ‘life’?
      • Balance – what is being balanced and what does or could balance mean? Guest [1] notes that there are a range of metaphorical interpretations and implications of the term. For example, as a noun ‘balance’ may mean a variety of things such as the balance of weights on scales, bank balance or balance of payments, balance or unbalance of mind, or balance of power, balance in homeostatic processes and balance of justice as illustrated by the ubiquitous symbol of the scales of justice. As a verb it can mean the act of weighing or comparing, to keep in equilibrium, to settle an account and more. The meaning of ‘balance’ is critical to understanding the whole term. For example if we mean ‘weighed against’ then the implication is that ‘work’ and ‘life’ can be [completely] separated and weighed against each other. Is such a separation possible? What would such a balance look like?

In most academic publications on the topic, the problematic nature of the term/terms is generally noted and explored or sometimes sidestepped. One manifestation of the multiple perspectives on the meanings of the term is the large range of related terms used to describe aspects of work-life balance. The specific terms used depend on the perspectives and specific foci of those writing. In the first few months of the project I collected a large list, for example:

      • Harmonizing paid work with other parts of life
      • Role-balance/overload
      • Work-life Alignment
      • Work-family (or Work/Family) Balance
      • Work-family conflict
      • Work-life integration
      • Integrating work and family
      • Work Interference with Family (WIF) & Family Interference with Work (FIW)
      • Work-family relationship
      • Balance outside [of] work demands with … work
      • Work-life blend
      • Work-family enrichment
      • Work-family facilitation
      • Work-life reconciliation
      • Work/Family Jigsaw

These and other terms illustrate the rich range of perspectives, the multi-faceted nature and the complexity of the ‘problem’ that is broadly called work-life balance. The Digital Epiphanies projects are collectively working to understand the roles that digital technologies play within that many faceted and complex problem.

[1] Guest, D.E. Perspectives on the Study of Work-life Balance. Social Science Information 41, 2 (2002), 255–279.

Paul and the D.E. team