The Balancing Act: Why Striving for Work-Life Balance Misses the Point
I hate work-life balance.
I realize that statement is a bit controversial and may seem jaded to some. Work-life balance has been the buzz phrase for what seems like the last decade. Everyone seems to be striving for “work-life balance”. And if they are not striving for it, then they ought to be striving for it because it is the great saviour of how professional women can survive their careers. It is nauseating.
But before you stop reading (and, for those looking for an employment or career change, before you retract your resume from Lerners LLP), hear me out. There are (I hope) legitimate reasons why I hate “work-life balance”. Here are my top three:
1. When I became the Chair of the firm, I did a number of interviews. Almost all, if not all, of my interviews involved what it was like to be a woman in the legal profession.
All the interviewers wanted to know how I managed work-life balance. I can be quite confident that if I was a male Chair of the firm, no one would have asked me for tips on work-life balance.
I understand why they ask: it is an important issue for many women. I also appreciate that, particularly among the younger generation of lawyers, work-life balance is sought (or encouraged to be sought) regardless of gender. But for my generation, work-life balance seemed to be the explanation given as to why women, particularly those of child-bearing years, could not be in the office as often as their male colleagues. Women, uniquely it seemed, needed “work-life balance”. And although the profession has made efforts to move forward with the retention of women in private practice, the fact is women continue to be denied opportunities on the basis that it is presumed that they have other commitments that men do not. The origins of “work-life balance”, certainly from someone who remembers when it was first discussed, just seemed like another reason to not provide women with the same opportunities. And though I was always fortunate in my firm to get those opportunities, the phrase “work-life balance” has not always been synonymous with equitable career advancement.
2. As someone who really loves my career, who feels that she is good at it, and who actually likes to get up for work everyday (which can mean 7 days a week), I am offended that somehow I am supposed to balance my “work” with my “life”.
My life includes my work. It is important to me. It is important to my clients. I love it and I am passionate about it. The phrase “work-life balance” presumes the work is some necessary evil to be balanced against the rest of your life. It is the thing you need to get through, so that you can enjoy your life. But in a profession like ours, which can sometimes seem relentless, you want to make sure that you really love your work; or, at the very least, you love it more often than you do not. You should feel fulfilled by work, not in competition with it.
If I choose to work exceedingly long hours because I love what I do or because my client needs me, do not insinuate that I do not have work-life balance. Do not tell me (and my Type A personality) that I have failed at what the profession has decided is what I should be striving for. Instead, recognize that work is an essential part of my life. What we should be talking about is life balance, where we find balance between our careers, our family, our friends, our travel and adventures, and (unfortunately) our need to do laundry or dishes. If we can find a balance that works for us individually, then we have succeeded. But do not go into this profession with the attitude that your work is something bad, or that it detracts from your life. The joy you can get from this profession will be undermined as a result.
3. The construct of “work-life balance” can seem unattainable. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint.
You should not judge whether you have “balance” by looking at the individual day or even the individual week. There are times where your career will be incredibly busy or times when you will be off enjoying a big holiday, such that your life, even over the course of a month, won’t seem balanced as between work and the rest of your life. Yet, I never hear people talk about work-life balance as an overall goal; something you look back on over the course of years or even a lifetime. Rather it seems to have this immediacy; like we need to balance everything every single day. It is exhausting. Based on that standard, I am often a little imbalanced. And that is okay.
So, can we please get rid of the phrase work-life balance? Instead, let’s talk about healthy relationships with our careers, with our family, and with our friends. Choose how you define your own life balance, find the harmony that works for you, and don’t judge people who make other decisions. Take your vacation. And equally savour those moments when you are working hard on something important. It all matters.
Finally, if you feel like your work is a negative, something you need to get through just to be able to afford the life that you want, think about whether this is actually why you went to law school and if this is what you want from a career. If not, consider making a change. At the very least, speak to others around you. Call the LiL hotline or send us a chat. Make use of some of the other resources available such as your law society’s program, your work EAP or the Advocates’ Society mentoring portal. There are resources available for people who are struggling or just need advice, and no shame in using them. At the end of the day, week, month or year, strive for the harmony that is healthy for you, not for whatever anyone else defines as “work-life balance”.
About the Author
Cynthia Kuehl is a senior Partner with Lerners LLP. A seasoned litigator with a skill set honed from years of actual on-her-feet experience and a common sense approach to problem-solving, Cynthia practices in a wide range of areas, including commercial litigation and arbitration, appellate advocacy, public and administrative law, professional regulation and health law. She has appeared as lead counsel at trials, applications, arbitrations and on appeals, and has litigated before every level of court including the Supreme Court of Canada. In addition to her leadership roles at the firm, she has been and continues to be an active leader in the legal and larger community.