There are certain concepts in modern life that somehow leave you with the sneaking suspicion that although they sound like they exist for your benefit, they are really more for the benefit of the person suggesting them. “Open marriage.” “Comprehensive dishwasher insurance.” And now, from the dictionary of human resources doublethink, “work/life integration”.
I first noticed that “integration” was starting to elbow out “balance” in the work/life dialogue a few years back, when I was working full-time at a large media organisation. Overwork, often to the point of exhaustion, was pretty standard – I had missed two of my close friends’ weddings that year and regularly worked weekends and late into the night. Then, our boss sent round an email to the department, with the subject heading “work/life integration”. What this appeared to mean was that he was issuing us with special devices that meant that we could log on to our work email out of the office. “Now,” he wrote, we could “go home, put the kids to bed and then pick up working again in the evenings ‘at our own convenience’”.
It takes a certain level of corporate chutzpah to sell the chance to work until midnight as an employee perk. But now, in the era of the smartphone, the culture of “work/life integration”, has seeped through the HR manuals and into our collective psyche. Even if you have never heard the phrase, if you are a white-collar professional in today’s economy you are likely to have lived the reality.
It takes a certain level of corporate chutzpah to sell the chance to work until midnight as an employee perk. But now, in the era of the smartphone, the culture of “work/life integration” has seeped through the HR manuals and into our collective psyche
“Work/life integration” is the philosophy that work and “life” should not be viewed as separate entities. Work is a part of life, so the argument goes, and often one of the most satisfying and fulfilling parts, so why make an artificial separation?
It sounds great in theory, but the reality is that trading balance for integration has given the vast majority of workers a bad deal. Balance, as a guiding aim, even if it wasn’t always achieved, at least attempted to achieve some equity between the two sides. By contrast, “integration” ditches protected free time for employees, instead providing a palatable-sounding slogan that ensures that we are constantly at our boss’ disposal, never truly off the clock. The picture can be even worse for freelancers attempting to juggle the needs of multiple employers.
Because, somehow, all the “integrating” only ever seems to flow in one direction. The HR-promoted fantasy of an infinitely flexible workforce taking time off in the middle of the workday for a kid’s concert or a haircut never quite materialises. Instead, we answer emails crouching behind a bush, playing hide and seek with a four-year-old, and write reports in the dark on our phones, rocking babies to sleep. We check our work email on holiday, during dinner, on Christmas morning. People don’t even switch their iPhones off at the cinema any more, the auditorium now studded with little white squares of light, like a field of i-fireflies, all feeding off the fear that being unavailable for the duration of Moana might render us unemployable.
This model of working life amounts to a particularly pernicious type of overwork, with virtually all of our time now “contaminated” at some level by work. We are never able to fully switch off and be present in our own lives, whether for family dinner or getting wrecked on tequila with our mates. But, yet, all this work is rarely credited or acknowledged, and almost never paid.
Somewhat miserably, the only grounds on which anyone appears to object to this soul-sucking culture of overwork is that it might be “bad for productivity”, with occasional articles popping up in the business press, suggesting that adequate breaks make for more productive workers, as though the complete erosion of our free time is not a valid concern in itself. This may be so, but who really wants to live in a society that values leisure only as a productivity hack?
It is easy to tell people that the solution to all this is simply to switch off their phones, but in an era that insists that, in the words of Sheryl Sandberg, we “Lean In” and push ourselves, this can be hard to do. It should be employers who take most of the responsibility for changing this culture, by setting budgets that allow for reasonable schedules, and respecting their employees’ private lives in all but genuine emergencies.
But most of the rest of us probably do have more control over our time than we believe. We need to realise that working in this way is not actually a necessity, but a cultural norm, and norms don’t shift without people questioning them. We should be confident that setting clear boundaries is not a sign of lack of commitment to our jobs, but a necessity for our health and happiness. In most cases, it really is fine to agree with your boss or your clients that you don’t check your email routinely out of hours, that the vast majority of tasks can wait until the next day, and then to stick to that. Because, if we don’t, we run the risk of losing the “life” part of the work/life equation completely.
Ruth Whippman is the author of The Pursuit Of Happiness: Why Are We Driving Ourselves Crazy And How Can We Stop?