Work-Life Integration is a Dangerously Toxic Idea

When was the last time you felt like you really clocked out? When was the last time you took a vacation without being distracted by the buzz of email notifications? If you’re not quite sure of the answers, then you may be suffering from work-life integration.

Over the past few years, “work-life integration” has become a popular business buzzword, and on the surface, it sounds like a harmless idea. When I first heard the term, I thought it seemed like a good way of tearing down the imaginary walls between the people we are at home and at the office.

But since then, I’ve watched both myself and my team suffer in pursuit of work-life integration. I’ve learned that destroying the boundaries between life and work leads to a world in which one isn’t fully present in either place. It’s a world in which we’ve normalized answering emails from the beach.

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This is not what living the dream looks like.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Work-life integration evangelists often tout it as a replacement for the more familiar concept of “work-life balance.” But in practice, blindly embracing this idea leads to workplaces that are dangerously out of balance, which harms the long-term health of your team and your company. As managers, we have to resist the toxic parts of this phenomenon and be the guardians of our teams’ boundaries.

Destroying the boundaries between life and work leads to a world in which one isn’t fully present in either place

What Is Work-Life Integration?

Work-life integration means removing rigid divisions that determine when and how we work versus when and how we attend to our personal lives. It involves doing more work outside of the office and regular working hours while bringing more of our lives into work. UC Berkeley describes it as “an approach that creates more synergies between all areas that define ‘life’: work, home/family, community, personal well-being, and health.”

In practice, most of us have already adopted some elements of work-life integration when we work from home, answer emails during off-hours, or take time out of the day to exercise. And including some flexibility is a good thing! There’s a reason so many companies recruit new hires by promising them the freedom to work from home at least some of the time.

But it’s a slippery slope from flexibility to an unhealthy work culture. One website illustrates this neatly with a table that contrasts work-life integration with work-life balance.

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All these ideas seem innocuous until you imagine how they actually play out in the real world. Unless your company has a dedicated after-school program, asking team members to bring their kids to the office isn’t fair to anyone. Likewise, I’m not opposed to office dogs, but it’s also good for employees (not to mention their dogs!) to have an excuse to step out and stretch their legs. And while offering flexibility around work hours can be nice, so is leaving at a regular time and turning off your phone.

Where Work-Life Integration Goes Wrong

The chief problem with work-life integration is that it starts as an invitation to redraw boundaries, but it quickly becomes an expectation not to have boundaries at all. That’s largely because businesses can exert pressure on their workers to change their schedules, but workers don’t have the same power, so the tradeoff tends to be uneven. Work encroaches into free time, not the other way around.

According to a 2019 Priceline study, 53% of American workers have unused vacation days at the end of each year. And 29% report that their job expects them to be “available” while on break. Perhaps most startlingly, 18% of respondents didn’t use their available vacation days because they felt too guilty about taking the time off.

The rise of remote work has increased the encroachment of professional duties into personal time. And recently, the pandemic has exacerbated the issue further. One study found that the average workday has increased by almost 50 minutes, post-COVID. Time is part of the issue here, but space is another. It’s hard to feel like we ever leave the office when the office is our living room. Those transitional moments of making your commute and unbuttoning your collar are lost, and the day becomes an undifferentiated blur.

On top of that, our ever-present smartphones keep us tethered to work wherever we are. And since they make it possible to be constantly available, they create the dangerous expectation that we should be answering emails, anytime and anywhere.

It’s not just workers who suffer in work-life integration; businesses pay the costs, too. The most immediate and costly impact is employee burnout. Gallup research found that about two-thirds of workers experience burnout. Burned-out employees are 63% more likely to call in sick and almost three times as likely to quit their jobs.

Then there’s the loss of the deep focus that comes with having clear boundaries. As most people can attest, mixing work and life doesn’t feel like a seamless synergy that unlocks your creative potential. It’s more like trying to simultaneously remember your job and your grocery list, while the dog you brought into work whines at you for attention.

How Managers Can Foster Healthy Work-Life Balance

Research shows that managers play a huge role in setting the tone for their teams and encouraging or discouraging boundaries. A 2020 study from Staffordshire University sought to understand why employees felt guilty about taking their lunch breaks and traced the problem directly to team culture. They wrote: “One of the best ways to make sure that you take breaks is to take them with your work colleagues, or to be encouraged to take them by your boss.”

Meanwhile, Gallup’s research concluded that managers are the lynchpin in preventing burnout. They wrote: “How employees feel about their job is largely on the manager’s shoulders.”

My own experiences as a manager have taught me that it’s my job to help each team member find the sweet spot between flexibility and healthy boundaries. Sometimes, that means direct intervention. Throughout my career, I’ve had certain team members who will work themselves into the ground if I let them. With these people, I’ve sometimes forbidden them from responding to messages on days off and walked in their offices at 5:30 to say “go home.”

In France, they actually made this into a law, requiring businesses to establish hours when they wouldn’t email staff. They called it the “right to disconnect.” And while I don’t think we need to clap anyone in irons for sending an email, I recognize that encouraging disconnection is a good leadership practice. Part of my job as a manager is to be a steward of the gifts and talents of my team. If I’m wringing them out for all they’re worth, I’m not doing that job well.

The appropriate mix of work-life integration varies from one team member to the next, so striking the right balance means finding out what works for each individual. I try and learn about my team’s preferences in one-on-ones, starting during onboarding. I ask new team members when and where they work best and how they manage stress. From day one, I establish a dialogue where I know they’ll tell me if they’re feeling out of balance. If you’ve recently switched to remote work, I’d recommend having a one-on-one specifically designed to reset expectations under these new conditions.

Of course, I sometimes struggle with setting my own boundaries since I belong to a generation that was raised to put work first. But working with younger people has helped me rethink the kinds of behavior I want to model for my team. And sometimes, that means embracing the best parts of work-life integration. For example, last week, I put in a 14-hour day when we were in the middle of a major rollout. But the next day, I clocked out at noon and took a bike ride with my wife. (I didn’t bring my phone.)

The Work-Life Divide Isn’t All Bad

I’ve always been confused by the expression “good fences make good neighbors.” It sounds a little aggressive and doesn’t describe my approach to relationships, either at work or in my personal life. But I’ve come to understand that what that expression really means is that healthy boundaries make for healthy relationships.

Work-life integration wants to tear down all the fences in our lives. Good managers should be trying to figure out how to keep the fences but open some gates.