We first began researching the field of careers more than a quarter of a century ago. Back then the idea of “work-life balance” was in its infancy and had almost no resonance at all among women, who were still expected to work at work and work at home.

Nowadays the concept is an accepted part of the zeitgeist. Moreover, it’s absolutely central to how women think about and arrange their lives. Yet it could be argued that overuse has left the entire idea on the verge of meaninglessness – a knee-jerk and thoughtless cultural shorthand for an ill-defined set of lifestyle choices and workplace responses.

A basic problem with “work-life balance” is that it hints at a convenient whole that we should be able to divide as we see fit. Countless books, guides, journals, programs, courses, coaches and campaigns give us the distinct impression that there’s precious little difference between carving up our lives and cutting a cake.

If only. The truth about “work” and “life” is that we can never hope to quantify one or the other. We can’t just equate four hours at work to four hours at home. We can’t plot parallel trajectories over the course of a year, a week or even a day. We can’t chat to a colleague about home matters or to a family member about work and then expect to compute how the encounter tipped the scales one way or another. It’s too neat to be real.

After all, stuff happens. There may well be people whose existence remains blissfully untroubled by random and unforeseen events, but for everyone else the supposedly competing spheres of “work” and “life” are intruding on each other virtually without pause. That’s why the quest to achieve what passes for “balance” requires dynamic adjustment rather than the cool, considered calculations that we’re constantly led to believe are possible.

It’s actually less a question of balance and more a question of control – or, if you prefer, a question of maintaining order. There are instances when “work” and “life” can be split and we’re pleasantly aware that we’re managing to separate them; and there are instances when one smashes into the other and we’re all too conscious that our demarcation efforts are crumbling to pieces all around us.

With all of this in mind, consider the following framework for understanding the ever-shifting relationships between “work” and “life.” It traces the slide from a high level of control to little or no control, with the first three categories broadly indicative of order and the second three illustrative of mounting disorder.

  • Segmenting

 This is the elusive ideal that we hear and read so much about. Everyone strives for it. It’s why we head for the office even when we could work from home, why we put on our smart clothes, why we talk about the nine-to-five. And just occasionally, of course, we somehow manage to pull it off.

  • Integrating

 Sometimes we try to amalgamate our “work” and “life” identities into one seamless whole. We deliberately seek opportunities to bridge the boundaries – say, by working at home during school holidays. There may be an element of disruption, but we still retain control.

  • Importing

We’re happy to import things from one sphere to another when it suits us. It could be something as straightforward as discussing work at home or gossiping about home at work. In these instances, crucially, we decide how much to give and when we’re going to give it.

  • Seeping

This is where we begin to lose a degree of control. Despite our best efforts, the two worlds start to collide. Thinking about the kids during a meeting, thinking about work at the breakfast table – the effect is sometimes positive, sometimes negative.

  • Invading

In circumstances like these the sense of disorder and the consequent loss of control become significant. The impingement of one sphere on another can be physical or emotional ­– or both. A loved one suddenly being rushed into hospital is one obvious example.

  • Overwhelming

Imagine the loved one is diagnosed with a serious condition. Where’s the “balance” now? Suddenly the emotions associated with one domain completely engulf the other. The scales appear permanently tipped. Control is at best tenuous and at worst lost.

The chances are that we can all recognize the above scenarios more readily than we can identify with the romanticized epitome of “work-life balance”. And there’s no surprise about that – less still any shame – because “work” and “life” exist in a state of perpetual tension. In light of both our own agency and the constraints we find imposed on us, we’re almost always reinforcing or redrawing the boundaries of these elastic constructions.

It’s an endless process – one we have to manage every day – and it’s extremely tough to stay in control. And that’s why, when all is said and done, the mystical “balance” that has gone from nowhere to everywhere during the past quarter-century or so can never be fully achieved. That’s just the way it is. Maybe if we could just accept that – if we could acknowledge that ebbs and flows are much more likely than glorious equilibrium – we would feel better equipped to handle anything that falls short of unattainable perfection.

Laurie Cohen is a Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School and the author of Imagining Women’s Careers. Jo Duberley is Professor of Organisational Studies at Birmingham Business School. Their research focuses on a number of career-related areas, including professional work and workers, individual and organisational perspectives, gender and organisation and careers in science and engineering.

Featured image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

About the Authors

Laurie Cohen is Professor of Work and Organisation. She joined NUBS in September 2012, having previously worked for many years in the School of Business & Economics at Loughborough University. Since coming to Nottingham she has led the redesign of the undergraduate Management programme, and is currently Head of Professional Practice. Professor Cohen's doctoral research focused on women's career transitions from employment to self-employment. Her interests emerging from that include changing careers, careers in emerging forms of organization, and research methods in the study of career, focusing in particular on interpretive approaches and the use of narrative. For many years she has also been involved in a series of studies into perceptions and enactment of management in professional organizations focusing mainly on scientific research establishments. Professor Cohen is currently involved in research projects into public sector careers in the wake of austerity, and into gender equality in university research. Her work has been supported through a series of grants from the Economic and Social Research Council, the British Academy and the Nottingham/Birmingham Collaboration Fund. Professor Cohen has published widely and is on the editorial boards of Journal of Vocational Behavior, Management Learning, Journal of Professions and Organization, and Management Inquiry. Her research monograph, Imagining Women's Careers, was published by Oxford University Press in September, 2014. This has led to an appearance on BBC Radio 4's 'Women's Hour' and to numerous articles in the press. Professor Cohen has taught across the spectrum of years and programmes, including undergraduate and postgraduate taught and research programmes, and she has supervised over 10 PhD students to completion. In addition to her Nottingham role, Professor Cohen is Visiting Professor at the Lund University School of Economics and Management.