The work-life conundrum is probably one of the most unattainable goals in the modern workplace. Or is it?


A snatched lunch-hour workout, a salad bar in the office canteen, an extra day off when targets are met or lurching out of a meeting to attend your child’s piano recital. If this sounds like the reality of your work-life balance, raise a hand.

It’s most likely that you’re in the majority. Many of us may have more sophisticated programmes to facilitate downtime, or some may work for companies that have a more touchy-feely attitude to connecting employees to their post-5 pm life, but a tough global economy and mass retrenchments mean that in the dog-eat-dog world that is the modern corporate workplace, this is the exception to the rule.

There is a plethora of corporate wellness initiatives and even apps to help us take a break. However, truth be told, it’s probably never been harder to achieve a work-life balance. Technology, though a great enabler, has also made it tougher for us to completely switch off. We live in an ‘always on’ culture and with the ability to stay connected 24/7, the lines between work and home have blurred.

This is where work-life integration comes in. While some employees are still searching for a work-life balance, millennials – the younger generation of workers born between the early 1980s and early 2000s – have seen the light. Well, sort of.

If work-life balance is a myth, then integration seems to be the next best option. A likely picture of this would be a dad answering his work emails on his tablet while watching his son’s football match. Or a mum squeezing in a Skype session while waiting to collect her daughter from school. Sound familiar? It’s easier said than done though.

Balancing act
‘People with a propensity for a structured routine tend to feel better and more in control of the balance’


EY, in its latest survey of nearly 9 700 full-time workers, revealed that one-third of employees find managing their personal and professional lives to be more difficult in recent times. The cost of living, an unstable global economy and modest wage increases were just some of the reasons given for this. Another is that some millennials are moving into management positions, while at the same time becoming parents before the age of 30, and so face increased responsibility. This equates to more time at work.

‘People are generally struggling with work-life balance for a number of reasons,’ says Siyabonga Nkosi, executive lead of organisation effectiveness at Old Mutual. ‘We live in a global village and our society has become so interconnected. Social media platforms, for example, are great for stimulation and culture integration, but this also means downtime is shrinking.’

Most people who work for large international corporations find themselves working much longer hours due to time zone differences. Nkosi also highlights the issue of career currency – a phenomenon where people have to stay relevant in their competence and keep up with market shifts.

‘Jobs are shrinking and people are working harder to have the right experiences. This means at times, sacrificing on personal downtime to continue delivering value for oneself or the business,’ he says.

Now more than ever then, we need to stop and smell the coffee. Steve Peralta, a Johannesburg-based corporate wellness coach, doesn’t believe that finding the work-life balance amid the demands of work is completely impossible, and prefers to call it a ‘work-rest balance’.

He also punts the notion of work-life integration, allowing for a possibility beyond the limits of the ‘work versus life’ dichotomy. According to Peralta, this can minimise stress and maximise performance in both domains. Very simply, it’s less about separating the two – which is not easy in our current context – but rather integrating them better. It comes down to values, choice and commitment, affirms Peralta.

‘If you value health, happiness, connection with the people you love and high levels of mental and physical performance, then choosing and committing to mindfully disengage from work to allow for recovery is essential,’ he says.

If this all sounds a little airy-fairy, look at the examples set by some of today’s most successful CEOs. In an interview with news website Business Insider, former Google CFO Patrick Pichette referred to life as a series of trade-offs.

On retiring from Google, he said: ‘In the end, life is wonderful but nonetheless a series of trade-offs, especially between business/professional endeavours and family/community. And thankfully, I feel I’m at a point in my life where I no longer have to make such tough choices anymore. And for that I am truly grateful.’


Meanwhile, EY CEO Mark Weinberger, speaking to Time magazine, acknowledged that at any given moment most people feel guilty about what they are not doing. He didn’t let that bother him though when he missed a day at the WEF gathering in Europe to move his daughter into her university dorm room.

His message has resonated with employees: ‘Afterwards, I got hundreds of emails. Not a single person remembered the terrific speech I gave [at the event], but everybody remembered I went home for my daughter.’

We’re not all high-flying CEOs though. So is it possible for us ordinary mortals to detach? According to Nkosi, this depends on an individual’s personality, lifestyle choices and type of work.

‘From a personality point of view, people with a propensity for a structured routine such as gym, work start and end time, and so on, tend to feel better and more in control of the balance,’ he says.

Some people’s lifestyle choices, on the other hand, can dominate work commitments, for example, playing a competitive sport while you have a full-time job. The challenge may be balancing important work milestones and taking part in some or other sporting competition.

Finally, the type of work, role, industry or organisation can impact such a possibility. Some companies have flexible work policies, such as reduced core office hours and virtual working tools, to allow employees to connect remotely. These help with business productivity and alleviate the work-life tension especially when people have to spend large amounts of time commuting to and from work. Very simply, work-life balance – or integration – begins with the individual, their disposition and choices. Within your own unique context, it’s about making the right choices, however challenging this may be at times.

Nkosi believes that the departure point is understanding the motivation behind the quest for work-life integration. Is it health concerns, family requirements, managing terrible traffic, the pursuit of other hobbies or some emotional issues that require attention?

Anything can drive the quest for work-life balance. Most people live in a bubble – conducting extremely busy lives – and often need an external force to trigger much-needed change and bring about some balance.

The way to go about it is to understand your primary motivation so that you can respond with a workable plan. You can’t always convince your employer to change company policy, but you can take responsibility for your own needs and bring some life into your work and vice versa. Now would be a good time to start.

By Tracy Melass
Image: Fredrik Broden/