Why work-life balance might be bad for you!

Finding a “balance” between work and life is one of the most popular mantras in the modern workplace. Busy professionals can be found in every corner of the office who rue their failure to implement their well-intended plans to get out of the office before 7pm and spend more time with their loved ones. Enlightened employers implement policies that provide flexible working hours, or condensed periods of work that provide for more “leisure time”. Yet for many of us, we still seem to be at the office 24/7, or we harbour the guilty secret that our work actually gives us more or “kick” than our so-called leisure-time.

It may sound preposterous but for many people work provides more pleasure than leisure. This is the conclusion that US psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has drawn from spending most of his life studying a phenomenon called flow. If you have ever experienced a feeling of being totally absorbed in a task, such that you are completely unaware external things like the passing of time then you have experienced a flow moment. Csikszentmihalyi says these moments “provide flashes of intense living against the dull background of everyday life”. They can occur anywhere, for instance during a stimulating conversation, while reading a great book, in the middle of a tennis rally, or solving a challenging problem. Sports types often call it being “in the zone”. And you get more flow moments at work than you do in your leisure time.

Csikszentmihalyi studied 78 workers in a variety of jobs including product assemblers, clerks, and managers and asked them throughout the day to report on what they were thinking about and what they were doing. He found that on average, flow moments occurred 54% of the time at work but only 17% of the time during leisure. Work provides three times as many flow moments as leisure! The breakdown while at work was Managers 64% of time in flow, clerical workers 51% of the time and blue collar workers 47% of the time.

So are efforts to improve the quality of our life by increasing our leisure time misguided? Well the answer may lie in understanding the conditions that are required to have a flow moment. Csikszentmihalyi claims that flow occurs when
“ a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges.” So what did most of these workers do in their leisure time? They watched television and it turns out that television had the worst ratio of flow to non-flow moments. The participants in the study were twice as likely not to experience flow while watching television. This, Csikszentmihalyi argues, is because television is not so good at engaging a person’s skills or challenging them (perhaps this is why quiz shows and murder mysteries are so popular). Activities that fully engaged the person’s physical capacities or intellect such as stimulating conversation, sports or hobbies provided the most leisure flow.

The conclusions are pretty clear, simply increasing a person’s leisure time is not necessarily going to improve their quality of life and conceivably it could even reduce it. It depends on how the individual spends their leisure time. Consequently the focus perhaps should move from work versus leisure to an emphasis on encouraging and supporting employees in pursuing challenging and stimulating past-times. “Quality time” it seems, comes in two forms, the passive type that often forms the “dull background” of life and the active flow-filled that provide the intense living. Flow moments are also the well-springs of creativity, so the more flow, the happier we are and the more productive and creative we may be in work and life.

Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play. By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Josey-Bass. 2000.

Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU National and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy.