The term “work-life balance” came into use as a call to action within the women’s liberation movement in the United Kingdom, in the 1980s, as stressed baby boomers strived to achieve a balance between career, family and other commitments. But it was Robert Owen, a wealthy Welsh industrialist, born in 1771, who is widely credited with being the first person to campaign for, “eight hours’ labour, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest.” 


As millennials have risen through the ranks in the business world, they are more interested in finding a career path that will support their lifestyle – or life outside of work. They have first considered the lives they want to live and then sought jobs and employers who support their requirements. This has led to a shift from the idea of work-life balance to work-life integration. Focusing on the idea of integration helps employees to identify what is important and then to create a unique and flexible career path around their wants and needs. 


Work-life balance versus work-life integration 

Work-life balance and work-life integration share the aim of achieving a healthy balance between a person’s work and personal life. However, their approach is quite different. While work-life balance emphasises maintaining a distinct division between professional and personal life, work-life integration seeks to find a way for both facets to successfully coexist.  


What defines work-life balance? 

According to the Cambridge dictionary, work-life balance is the amount of time a person spends doing their job, compared with the amount of time they spend with family and doing things they enjoy. This definition does not seem to allow for the fact that work should be an enjoyable part of life. In business, work-life balance is the term used to describe the ideal practice through which a person can effectively manage their work and personal commitments, while keeping them separate. Maintaining work-life balance aims to enable employees to stay solely focused at work and able to concentrate on work-related tasks during working hours, then disengage from work to fully engross themselves in their private life during personal hours. 


What defines work-life integration? 

Work-life integration is the practice of blending both work and personal life. It is a concept that has become particularly prevalent in South Africa since the first Covid lockdown and subsequent rise of remote and hybrid workplaces. It is based on work and personal lives being lived in concert with each otheras opposed to the scales tipping exclusively in one direction or another. Work-life integration is not about finding a universally acceptable balance between work and home life; it is about finding a balance that works for the individual. Flexible schedules are a major part of how employees define work-life integration because what works is different for everyone – and evolves over time as life and career circumstances change.  

Which approach has the most benefits? 

Neither of these approaches can be considered to offer greater benefits, because people are different and have diverse needs. Some people want a distinct boundary between their work life and home life, while others want work-life integration that will blend the two.  


Here are some of the benefits and drawback to both approaches. 


Work-life balance benefits and drawbacks 

  • Personal work-life balance benefits. One of the key benefits of applying a work-life balance approach is that it will allow you to devote your full attention to your work during formal working hours – like working “8-to-5”, Mondays to Fridays – and then not have work intrude on your personal life outside of working hours. After hours, time is spent solely around personal activities, without being encroached upon by receiving WhatsApps from colleagues or weekend work to meet a deadline. Adopting a work-life balance approach can help to ascertain whether one’s work and personal life is really in balance, or if work is encroaching on personal time (or vice versa).  
  • Work-life balance benefits for employees. Studies show that productivity plummets for individuals who work over 55 hours per week. Allowing employees sufficient time for themselves and their families results in happier, more fulfilled employees. It helps to avoid low employee morale and alleviate high turnover rates. With adequate rest and personal time, employees will be more energised and refreshed when they return to work. As a result, they will be more focused and productive. When it comes to mental health, if employees are not constantly feeling guilty about working during personal time or taking personal time during work hours, they tend to be more relaxed and less stressed. Studies show this improves decision-making and problem-solving abilities. By offering ample down time for employees to engage in their hobbies and interests, work-life balance can help foster creativity and innovation.  
  • Work-life balance drawbacks. Work-life balance can fluctuate and achieving perfect work-life balance may be unrealistic, particularly if your business is in a growth phase or is seasonal. If the workload increases with no end in sight, employees may feel stressed, which can affect productivity. You could prepare for short-term upticks in workload by hiring temporary staff – or offer employees overtime work on a volunteer basis. It is important to make sure employees do not feel press-ganged into working extra hours. For those that do, introducing employee rewards for going the extra mile will go a long way toward them feeling appreciated and valued.  


Work-life integration benefits and drawbacks 

  • Personal work-life integration benefits. Work-life integration allows you to devote time and attention to work and personal life on an exchangeable basis. It is an excellent method for prioritising if you prefer to mix up your “8-to-5”, as you can handle your personal responsibilities in a way that lives alongside your work demands. For example, rather than counting down the minutes until you can fetch your kids from aftercare at 5.30pm, you may choose to work from home in the afternoons, to be able to give your children lunch and help them with their homework before “going back to work” in a home workspace. Combining work and personal life can help you live a more interesting and varied life, which is in keeping with the contemporary perspective on work. 
  • Employer work-life integration benefits. In today’s world of work, achieving work-life integration is more realistic than reaching work-life balance. With work-life integration, employees can give equal attention to all aspects of their lives without sacrificing one for the other. Employees feel a sense of empowerment when trusted to deliver on agreed work output, while still being in control of their own time and flexibility. In turn, this boosts their engagement and productivity. A sense of independence and ownership of their work can improve employees’ confidence and self-esteem. This has been proven to lower stress and enhance fulfilment and wellbeing. 
  • Work-life integration drawbacks. Work-life integration can be challenging to maintain without self-discipline and a clear plan – it requires support from the workplace and family members to make it work. For example, although employees can choose their work hours, they might feel guilty about doing less work from time to time – or find that their circumstances have them looking after children during day and working late at night. Employees whose lives are always integrated with work may rarely take down time to relax and recharge. Despite the benefits of flexibility, this can negatively affect their performance and lead to burnout.  


What today’s workers commonly refer to as work-life balance has broadened into encompassing work-life integration. Increasingly, employees are seeking to work in a holistically healthy work environment that allows for open and unbiased communication between themselves and their employers. This communication should enable them to address their personal lives in the context of their careers and help to create a successful balance between work and personal life.  

Over to you for sharing your comments and experiences.

What are your thoughts on Work-life balance vs work-life integration? 

About the Author: Kerstin Jatho

Kerstin is the senior transformational coach and team development facilitator for 4Seeds Consulting. She is also the author of Growing Butterfly Wings, a book on applying positive psychology principles during a lengthy recovery. Her passion is to develop people-centred organisations where people thrive and achieve their potential in the workplace. You can find Kerstin on LinkedIn, Soundcloud, YouTube and Facebook.

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