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Is work-life balance off-balance?

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For the last couple of decades, work-life balance has become a cherished workplace value akin to apple pie. As demands and competition have increased,...

For the last couple of decades, work-life balance has become a cherished workplace value akin to apple pie. As demands and competition have increased, work -- projected through Blackberries and laptops -- has spilled into personal lives. This is severely disrupting the equilibrium in the work-life balance, creating more stress, making any corporate efforts to help manage work-life balance even more essential.

However, recently, Jack Welch, former GE CEO and management guru, created waves by stating that much of this stress we bring upon ourselves. The sound byte that got everyone's attention was in a recent speech, in which he proclaimed “There’s no such thing as work-life balance.” He added that it's not a matter of "balance," but a matter of "choice."

"There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences," he said in the same speech.  This choice is far starker for female executives and professionals than their male counterparts, he points out, noting that those who take time off for family could be passed over for promotions if "you're not there in the clutch."

In his own blogsite a few months back, Welch talked about "work-life choices" versus work-life balance. There cannot be some kind of ratio between time spent on work versus time spent at home, he said:

"Balance... is a personal choice based on what feels right to you given what you want from life personally and professionally. With that choice comes consequences. When you choose to work 80 hours a week and you have a family, you’re also choosing to give up some level of intimacy with your spouse and children. When you choose to work 35 hours a week in order to see more of them, you’re also choosing to take yourself off the fast track to senior management."

Welch also opined that "work-life balance is usually a much harder goal for women with children," with a 15-year period in their careers "in which the choices they make are not about what they want from life professionally and personally but about what is right for their kids."

Does Jack Welch make sense, or he stuck in the last century, inferring that women are more prone to be sidetracked by personal and family matters? I would think that this is outmoded thinking.

In fact, ironically, these days, women have better odds in the workforce, as the current economic downturn has been described as a "Mancession." That is, the downturn has hit male-dominated occupations (such as construction and manufacturing) a lot harder than occupations with a lot of women. But it should also be noted that women's earnings are still only 78% of their male counterparts.

Ultimately, of course, Welch is wrong on the count that work-life balance is a male-female issue -- there are plenty of men that are wrestling with work-life issues.

Work-life balance goes right back to corporate achievement. In fact, companies that actively promote this balance tend to be better-performing organizations overall. Mark Harbeke put it this way in reaction to Welch's comments:

"Here's a bottom-line guy who fails to understand not only that work-life balance exists and is achievable, but that it contributes mightily to the bottom line of organizations that place a premium on the employee engagement practices that address this aim."

Harbeke points to 30 companies with active work-life balance programs that have seen decreased absenteeism, decreased turnover, greater employee satisfaction, improved customer service, longer average employee tenure, business continuity, and "strong, steady growth" that exceeds industry averages.

It's about managing stress. In any machine, components that run at relentless high speeds eventually grind down or overheat. The same happens to people who go too long and too hard. A survey by ComPsych found that the main causes of professional stress include workload (46%), personal issues (28%), and juggling work/personal lives (20%). Actively striving to help employees and executives manage work-life balance is smart business because it helps keep an organization's best resources sharp, focused and refreshed.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure