Nowadays, you hear a lot about “work-life balance.” It’s easy to picture a balanced scale with work-related tasks on one side and your personal life on the other. Having time for both aspects of the personal and professional makes sense, but is it really the best way to break up our time? Though different, work-life integration might encourage a truly balanced approach to living and working.
Work-life balance sounds great in theory. Having your work and life separate in a balanced, optimized way feels efficient and organized. Unfortunately, our brains don’t work this way. We aren’t machines that compartmentalize parts of life into perfectly defined boxes and time slots. We’re human, and that means we aren’t perfect.
While your brain is capable of doing so many things, it cannot do everything. It’s not reasonable (or practical) to have a perfectly optimal career and a perfectly optimal home life. Though society sets us up to believe we can be great at everything (aka “have it all”), this is an illusion. Employers also place this expectation on workers. There’s a focus on being glued to your desk from 9 to 5, and this doesn’t leave much flexibility for real-life. Even leaving work on time is often frowned upon since this isn’t seen as doing “enough.”
In reality, life is messy and unorganized. Flawless focus on one thing (work vs. life) at a time isn’t possible. Instead, it’s better to use the work-life integration mindset. What is work-life integration? More importantly, how does it differ from work-life balance? Keep reading to find out more.
What Is Work-Life Integration?
To start, let’s define work-life integration. This is a way to tackle daily priorities. It refers to the practice of intermixing all aspects of your life, both work and personal. Though many strive for work-life balance, we’ve all experienced how impractical this is in practice.
For example, sometimes you have to catch up on work after 5 PM. Perhaps you have to take a longer lunch to get your daily steps. Maybe you’re worried about your upcoming work project while helping your child through their homework. Though we like to pretend work doesn’t interfere with our personal lives, it absolutely does in very real ways. Work-life integration makes space for these natural interruptions, and it builds them into your routine in a healthy way.
With 94% of American professional service workers putting in over 50 hours per week, it’s important to find new ways to examine work-life balance. Flexibility in the workplace to embrace work-life integration is the best way to increase productivity and reduce burnout. A reported 75% of workers experienced some form of burnout. Combatting burnout means rethinking the structure of the workplace, daily schedules, and company culture.
Work-Life Integration vs. Work-Life Balance
Upon first hearing the term work-life integration, it’s often hard to see how it differs from work-life balance. Again, think back to the image of the perfectly balanced scales. Work-life balance is when you keep these two parts of your life (work and personal) separate.
When we focus on work and life separately, one part usually takes over. This could leave you struggling to find time for yourself or your family. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you might worry there isn’t enough time in the day to handle your work tasks before important deadlines.
Work-life integration, on the other hand, doesn’t put these two parts of your life on opposite ends of your schedule. Instead, they blend together into a more flexible, open-ended way of living. To better understand the differences, let’s look at some examples of work-life integration vs. work-life balance in real life.
Examples of work-life integration:
- You go to the gym in the middle of your workday to break up your meetings.
- You run errands or attend your child’s sports game between work tasks.
- You leave work early to handle the rest of your daily tasks from home.
- During the workday, you join your coworkers for an active walk around the neighborhood while you talk through a new project.
- You leave work early for an important doctor appointment without worrying about making up the time later.
Examples of work-life balance:
- You only go to the gym before work, after work, or on the weekends.
- You can’t attend your kid’s ballet recital because it interferes with your work hours.
- The only time you spend catching up with your family is after work and on the weekends.
- You use your vacation days to unplug from work for a while after feeling burnt out.
- You have to use your lunch break or sick time to make a doctor appointment.
With these examples in mind, you can see how work-life balance can be exhausting. Work-life integration is a more realistic way to change your outlook on work. Not only can you prioritize your time more effectively, but you can leave space for much-needed breaks and family time.
How to Create Work-Life Integration
As more workplaces switch to some form of remote or hybrid work, there has never been a better time to create work-life integration. Whether you’re a manager, self-employed, or a professional, work-life integration is a good fit for anyone who needs a healthy perspective on the workday.
While creating a clear division between work and home is a common goal for many professionals, recognize when you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s easy to fall into the trap of disappointment when you have to work overtime to meet deadlines and goals. Instead, work-life integration encourages you to prioritize what matters to you most on a daily basis. It leaves room for flexibility and life’s unexpected changes.
How do you create work-life integration? Follow these simple steps below. A few changes in your workplace culture are typically all that’s needed to make a real, meaningful change.
1. Start with flexible working hours.
One of the most important parts of work-life integration is having flexibility within your workday. A reported 73% of employees said having flexible hours increased their work satisfaction. Whether that means you can work remotely occasionally or work outside of the 9 to 5 structure, the statistics don’t lie.
When you have flexible working hours, you can adapt your daily schedule to meet your needs. From a management standpoint, what hours of a day an employee spends working shouldn’t matter. The more important factor is that the work is done in a timely manner.
2. Change your outlook on productivity.
Next, recognize that productivity does not equal hours worked. In fact, long hours have links to poor productivity. According to recent studies, productivity per hour declines significantly after the traditional 8-hour day. After 55 hours working per week, the extra hours are virtually pointless because exhaustion gets in the way.
Instead, change your outlook on real productivity. Focus on the value created by your team’s work. Odds are this value isn’t dependent on the number on the timesheet. It’s on the quality of the work.
3. Create a realistic schedule.
While a schedule might sound counter-productive, it’s essential for work-life integration. This schedule does not need to look like the traditional 9 to 5. Rather, it should depend on both your personal and professional commitments. For instance, someone might want to work from 7 to 9 in the morning, go to a nearby yoga class at 9 am, and be back in their office for the 11 am weekly meeting.
This type of schedule above leaves time for real life. Give consideration to the times you and your team work best, deadlines, goals, and breaks. Remember, always give yourself enough time to disconnect and recharge. Ask yourself what your “ideal” week looks like and use this as your guide. It won’t look the same for everyone.
4. Prioritize essential tasks first.
Another key component of work-life integration is prioritizing your tasks. When you blend your work and personal life, your most important tasks always need to come first. This won’t necessarily look the same for everyone and every workplace.
Some weeks, your priority might be on your children. Other weeks it might be on your workplace or your mental health. It’s best to be flexible and adapt to changes as needed. Like all things, there is no one-size-fits-all.
5. Set clear boundaries.
Last but not least, set boundaries. When you integrate all aspects of your life, boundaries are there to provide structure and clarity. Always honor your commitments, your health, and your time. If you replace personal time with a last-minute work task, for example, find time to replace that time later in your schedule.
There is such a thing as overdoing your work-life integration. Your wellbeing and health need to come first. While work-life integration can drastically improve your daily outlook, it might need some changes to suit your needs long-term. Employers also need to set boundaries around goals, deadlines, and meetings. For example, if there’s a team meeting every Tuesday at 10 am, this is something employees need to prioritize. By making these expectations clear from the start, everyone is on the same page.
Is Work-Life Integration Right for You?
In conclusion, work-life integration is an updated, modern approach to work-life balance. In a perfect world, we would all have distinct, separate times for work and our personal life. In reality, our schedules aren’t perfect. We have to leave space to be human, and humans don’t only do one thing.
As humans, we often focus on a lot of different tasks throughout the day, and these tasks don’t always fit perfectly into boxes. It’s healthy to leave space for flexibility. By valuing productivity over hours worked, we find that work-life integration is a healthy approach to modern company culture. With more companies allowing their employees a flexible workspace and hours, now is the time to adapt to the solution that’s best for you.