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Creating your own work-life balance: are you a separator or an integrator?

There seems to be a constant stream of articles dismissing work-life balance and saying that now we have to integrate our personal and professional lives:
“Forget work-life balance: It’s time for work-life blend”
“Work-life integration is the new norm”

This is a confusing about-turn from the more traditional advice that drawing a clear line between work and home will bring you greater balance. So which is right? Is work-life balance a thing of the past? Blurring the boundaries between work & personal life seems to work for the home-based journalists & entrepreneurs writing these articles … but will it work for you?

If you’re thinking about returning to work and wanting to maintain your balance, do you need to focus on creating clear boundaries between job & home? Or do you need to be always contactable? Is it better to have fixed work & home time? Or to work from home when you can?

The answer from the psychology research, as so often in psychology (& life), is that it depends on you …

What do we know about balance?
1. Balance is an internal state of feeling balanced and energised not an externally-set recipe. I see this all the time in my coaching. Some women who work full-time in demanding jobs still feel generally balanced – often if they have high control over their workload and keep weekends mainly clear. Other women work 3 days a week in unstimulating roles and feel drained and out of balance.
2. Balance is completely individual – your balance is not my balance. I enjoy the flexibility of having my own business but that may well not work for you if you prefer more standard hours and structure.
3. Balance changes day to day & through the lifespan. I don’t need to tell you that what you need to feel balanced when you’re 20 & single is not the same as when you’re 35 with 2 children. Don’t try to evaluate your balance at a point in time; think about whether you’ve felt more or less in balance over the last month or the last few months.
Are you a separator or an integrator?
Psychology research* has drawn out important differences between individuals in terms of the boundaries we want between home and work:
  • Some people are naturally integrators. They will love the idea of work-life blend as they prefer blurred boundaries and changing roles through the day. You’ll see the integrators switching effortlessly from watching a sports match or cooking dinner to taking a work call. Many energised entrepreneurs and home-workers fall in this camp.
  • Other people are more naturally separators. They prefer a clear split between work & personal life, closing the door on their work life at the end of the day and focusing on their friends, family & leisure (& vice versa when they’re at work). They may prefer to go into an office rather than to work at home and to finish their day’s tasks at work rather than bringing them home to finish after the kids are in bed. One of my clients went back to full-time working as she found this was a better fit for her separator preference than blending the work/mum roles on her day off.
What does that mean for finding your own balance?
What’s important for balance is not whether you are more of a separator or an integrator, but whether you have a good match between the degree of separation you want and what you have. So ignore blanket advice about having to blend or to separate the personal and the professional and work out what suits you. You may not get to the ideal situation (often working mothers are integrators through necessity rather than desire) but you can consider what small actions you can take to bring your life more in line with your choices. Where you can, try different ways of working (eg. finishing work at home or in the office; working from home one day) and evaluate what works best for you.

And whatever your preference, don’t neglect setting some boundaries, such as not checking your emails at 11pm on Sunday evening …we all need time to switch off and recharge our batteries!
Further Reading
* This is a simplified version of the ‘flexstyle’ research findings reported in CEO of Me (2008) by Professors and work-life balance experts, Ellen Kossek & Brenda Lautsch. They also identify a 3rd grouping of ‘volleyers’ who prefer to switch from integration to separation according to their priorities. An extract is available here
Posted by Julianne