We see the words “work-life balance” everywhere: in magazines, in pamphlets, on ads and on Instagram.
The phrase itself implies a couple of things: 1) work and life are separate entities, and 2) there is a way to perfectly harmonize the two things and achieve a state of zen-like balance.
According to David Ballard, director of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, those are myths.
“I think the way work-life balance gets talked about is frequently inaccurate,” he says. “The ‘balance’ part of it is implying you’re equally dividing time and energy, which isn’t necessarily the case.”
According to a 2015 study of female Millennials by PwC, the phrase is something that matters to younger women more than ever. A whopping 97% of those surveyed said that work-life balance was important to them, and 55% of respondents said “the work demands of their current role significantly interfere with their personal life.”
So if work-life balance isn’t an accurate term for what’s achievable, what is?
Experts have suggested several alternatives to help people better understand the concept.
Work culture strategist Cali Yost says she prefers the phrase “work-life fit” because it helps people “see the possibilities, instead of focusing on what they can’t have.”
Yost says even a small change — as small as a monthly “work from home” day — can make all the difference in finding your best fit.
“It’s not a destination, it’s something you manage,” she says.
“Work-life integration” is the preferred term of Katharine Zaleski, co-founder of Power to Fly, a recruiting platform for women in tech.
As an on-the-go entrepreneur, sometimes she has to fit her work life into her personal life. Other times, she’s finding ways her personal life fits into her work life.
“You have to respect the fact that people are going to be putting so much time into your company, so it’s OK that they integrate some life into the workday by going to pick up a kid at 4 o’clock,” she says. “If you’re trying to think of it as a balancing act, then there always has to be an equal distribution of weight. And some days, it’s just not going to work that way. A lot of days, it’s not going to work that day.”
Ballard also suggests the phrase “work-life interface.”
He describes it as “how the various demands in your life touch up against each other.” The most important thing is feeling like you have control over managing your time and energy.
“Even if you have a high workload, if you can do it in a way that fits your needs, If you can do it in a place where you can take care of your other responsibilities, that gives you control,” he says. “So … the positives outweighed the negatives.”
What all these phrases emphasize is that there’s no right way to mix the different realms of your life. There are times when you have it all under control and times when you don’t — and people feel this at all levels of their careers.
Cate Gukowski, vice president of sales at General Electric, recently had a friend explain her own alternative phrase: “sway.”
“This whole idea of sway is that you’ve got to find this natural balance between the ebb and flow of life,” Gukowksi says. “Some days you will have to be more present at work and more work-centric and other days you need to go to your children’s school and read that story. I think for me it’s really about, how do you be present at the times when it matters most? Sometimes it’s going to be work, and sometimes it is going to be home.”