The Work-Life Wars: Is Balance the Answer?

The Work Life Wars by Cathy Jacob at

Photo by: PeopleImages

If you’d rather listen than read, visit my podcast Sound Insight, Season 2, episode 17.

“Family and work. Family and work. I can let them be at war, with guilt as their nuclear weapon and mutually assured destruction as their aim, or I can let them nourish each other.”

Ellen Gilchrist, Poet, Grandmother and Mother.

When I first read these words, I felt as if Gilchrist had peered directly into my life.

The phrase “guilt as a nuclear weapon” captured my predominant state of being in those exhausting years when both my career and my family were still young. It seemed they were in relentless competition for every last drop of my attention and energy. This was around the same time the idea of work-life balance was first coming into widespread use in the business world.

Work-life balance, as most of us conceived it, was and still is, an illusion.

We think of it as this utopian state of equilibrium where our complex lives fit into tidy time-boxes in the calendar. As if the only thing you need, to create work-life balance is to GET ORGANIZED! As if your chaotic life is due to your lack of priority and boundary setting. 

As the myth goes, once you achieve this heavenly state of work-life balance, you will perform at the top of your game and then come home with a smile on your face for something called “quality time” with your children.

I always suspected that the term quality time was a concept cooked up in secret meetings between childless corporate executives and child psychologists to put the blame for our misery and exhaustion on our incompetence and inability to cope. 

Promoting work-life balance and quality time perpetuated our guilt in the same way that adding plutonium and uranium powered nuclear warheads.

The war was not only between family and work. It was between leisure and work, sleep and work, and wellbeing and work. 

Gilchrist’s radical idea.

There were two things that struck me about Ellen Gilchrist’s take on the issue. The first was how succinctly and vividly she captured the struggle between family and work. But also, by the glimmer of hope she left at the end of the sentence.

Was it possible to build a life where work and family not only existed in harmony with one another, but actually nourished one another?

This was a radical idea.

I would love to be able to tell you, that this idea was all that it took for me to make it happen in my life. But that would not be truthful.

I had to totally lose the war first, in the form of complete and debilitating burnout. In my case, the beginning of a new relationship with work was total surrender. The way back to well-being and a healthier relationship with work was a long, slow, and painful process.

One of the many things I had to let go of, was the notion that work-life balance as an end state was either achievable or desirable.

I had to stop trying to fix the problem like it was a jigsaw puzzle of organization and productivity hacks that would allow all the little pieces to fit together neatly. 

I had to think differently.

What if it wasn’t a question of getting the balance right? 

What if it was a question of getting the relationship right?

And not the relationship between work and life, but the relationship between work and me? What if instead of a balance to achieve, my work was a relationship to manage. What if the goal was not optimal performance and productivity, but optimal wellbeing?

Once you begin to think about this as a relationship issue, you realize there is more than just you in the relationship. This is not a result of your inadequacy. When a relationship is not working, the problem and its solution do not rest entirely with you, nor do they rest entirely outside of you. You have agency and influence you can exercise in this relationship and how you engage with it, even if it’s not entirely within your control. Work is no exception.

If your relationship with work is unhealthy, part of the problem rests with you and part of it rests outside of you, in your environment.

At the same time, being in a relationship is a little like dancing. For the dance to go well, you need two or more willing parties working in step with one another. If the dance is not working for you, you have the power to change the pattern of your steps and in so doing, change the dance itself. Maybe not fix it, but at least, disrupt it enough to begin to create change.

As I tell my clients, even a subtle shift in the way you engage with your work can have a ripple effect. If you are a leader in your organization, small changes toward making your relationship with work healthier, have the potential to make it healthier for more than just you.

When the things that got you here, start getting in your way.

There is a common and painful transition in leadership and in life, that many career-conscious individuals encounter in their late 30s and early 40s. It’s this terrifying realization that the behaviours and values that got you to where you are, are the very same ones that are now getting in your way.

My experience of burnout occurred after I had just turned 40. In my case, the journey toward a healthier relationship with work began with letting go of many of the very things that had contributed to my success.

  • Letting go of idealized notions of what I could do if I just worked harder, smarter, and faster.
  • Letting go of the practice of pushing beyond my physical and cognitive limits.
  • Letting go of viewing sleep as optional.
  • Letting go of trying to manufacture “quality time” with my family and being okay and grateful for the time we had together whatever that looked like.
  • Letting go of my unrealistic expectations of myself and the constant feeling that I wasn’t living up to them. In other words, letting go of the relentless guilt.

Ultimately, this also meant letting go of an organization and a role that I loved.

I came to the painful realization that my drive to perform, to excel, and to please, at all costs, combined with an organizational culture and profit model that relied on long hours and 24/7 availability from its employees, created conditions that were unsustainable and toxic to my health.

Sometimes the only way to repair a relationship is to leave it.

In my experience through coaching countless professionals who struggle with this issue, most of the time, leaving is not necessary. If you understand the dynamics in your relationship with work that are not working, you can break the patterns that contribute to them before you become too exhausted or ill to do so. This is not easy, and it takes time, but it is possible. The first step is accepting that your current situation is unsustainable. The second is believing that you can affect positive change.

Leaving my job only fixed part of the problem. The part that was about the job. The part that was about me, came with me to my next role and the role after that. 

The road to lasting peace between my work and my life, meant accepting and acknowledging my limitations with humility and compassion. I had to untangle my self-worth and value as a person from my performance at work. 

When I began to put my wellbeing and the wellbeing of my family and colleagues at the center of the process, I was able to repair my relationship with work and make the changes necessary to have it nourish and enrich my life.

Putting wellbeing at the heart of your relationship with work.

The good news is a focus on wellbeing is not at odds with productivity and performance. In fact, there’s a strong body of evidence pointing to the connection between wellbeing and improved performance. Further, as the costs of eroding mental and physical health at work climb, organizations and governments are taking notice and norms are beginning to change.

In a post-COVID era, after so many of our working norms dissolved overnight, organizations are grappling with how the future of work will look. Some of the discussions are focused on where we work – should we work from home, in the office, or in some hybrid arrangement. Some are centered on what we should be doing to prepare for AI’s impact on work. I think these debates do not address the central issue.

The point is, how do we put personal and collective wellbeing at the center of the conversation about the future of work? If we get that right, the rest will follow.

Does your relationship with work support your wellbeing? And if not, what needs to change?

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    Cathy Jacob

    I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.


    1. Jane on October 16, 2023 at 6:04 pm

      Thanks as always, Cathy. I love your pearls of widsom and framing of them with grace, depth and clarity. I just sent the link to five clients so maybe you’ll see a little additional uptake. 🙂

    2. Roberta Rose on October 25, 2023 at 11:51 am

      Well said. It is more about understanding yourself and your passion then balancing the scales. Having gone through a similar realization over the past 1.5 years, it made all the difference. I am forever thankful to Wendy Jones for being that coaching ear to let me hear myself.

      • Cathy Jacob on October 25, 2023 at 1:23 pm

        Thank you, Roberta. Self-awareness is such a huge part of this journey for people. I love the notion of ‘letting you hear yourself.’ A good coach does that. I’ve known and respected Wendy for many years. If she brought you here, I am so grateful. Stay tuned for more on this topic soon.

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