The Many Metaphors of Work-Life Balance

November 14, 2017

Spela Trefalt

Finding Meaning in Metaphors

This article was written by Professor Spela Trefalt and first appeared in its entirety in the Spring 2017 issue of Management Magazine.

As someone who has been studying how professionals manage their work and personal lives for the past 15 years, I often hear how frustrated people are with the term “work-life balance.” Critiques abound: that the term implies that there exists some ideal state of balance, when in reality life and work are ever-changing; that the term implies that there is one ideal that fits everyone; that the term dictates that time be equally divided between work and life outside of work; that the term implies that work and life outside of work are in opposition, when in reality they work symbiotically and sometimes even synergistically; and that it implies that work is not part of life but somehow occurs outside of life.

Some people prefer to talk about work-life integration, work-life fit, or work-life juggle. I have also heard people compare the experience of doing all that we need to do in our lives to a plate-spinning act. First, we are placing plates (various activities, interests and obligations) atop of long thin poles and getting them to spin. And then, with each added plate, the tension rises as we need to keep each plate in motion to prevent it from falling off and breaking. So we rush around, from one pole to the next, adding a bit of rotation to a plate that we notice is slowing down or wiggling; working to keep every single plate in sight at each moment, ready to react before it is too late.

Thinking about what words to use to describe our life’s endeavors may sound like a highly academic exercise, but as a coach who works with professionals in search of more meaning and work-life balance, I find metaphors to be extremely powerful in the process of identifying priorities and strategies to pursue them. Metaphors have the power of shedding light on our choices and their consequences, and the power of introducing us to new possibilities. Even if, as Shakespeare claimed, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” names we use for concepts make a difference. The pictures that such names conjure up in our minds shape our attitudes and behavior. If you think of work-life fit, you may see your varied interests as a curse, since it’s hard to make them all fit. If you think of work-life integration, you may feel the pressure to mix work and personal life even if you want to keep them separated. 

To read the rest of Spela's article, check out the Spring 2017 issue of Management Magazine.