When it comes to balancing life and work, I wish I could offer up some sage advice given to me long ago that solved all my problems. But the fact is for years I struggled with balance, keeping a busy job separate from my home life, and vice versa. And then, just last year, I heard something that stopped me in my tracks.
Dr. Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist who researches issues of mindfulness, was being interviewed on a podcast. When asked her opinion about the concept of work-life balance, she replied that for her there is no such thing. She thinks about it as work-life integration, because, “balance” suggests that work and life are opposite forces that have nothing in common. We often think we have one set of skills for the office, and another set for home. Langer feels we should seek to pull the two worlds closer together: We should be the same person in both arenas.
Her idea sounds simple, but it’s actually quite revolutionary. Back in the day, a piece of advice I got about work-life balance was, “When your kids are young, don’t worry about it, because they won’t remember.” In other words: Go ahead and tip the scales toward work, and you can be there for them later. Needless to say, that approach doesn’t work. The tension of trying to keep two different lives in balance gets to you eventually. Your home life is usually the first to suffer. And that means your work eventually will as well — even if it looks at first like you’re achieving success.
Langer has more than four decades of research to back up her ideas, and she’s discovered that changing your mindset to better integrate work and life can have dramatic results. Companies that promote this kind of approach become more innovative, efficient and socially conscious. Employees are less stressed and burnt out, which means they’re better able to solve problems and to really think about what they’re doing. And they and their families are happier, too.
I felt liberated when I realized that I didn’t have to be somebody different at work —that I didn’t have to worry about having an “on-off” switch. This mindset also helps me deal with the pressures of getting everything done. If I’m on a business trip, I can invite my wife to come along so we can spend some time together on the off-hours. I can also make the things that matter to me — health and wellness and philanthropy, for example — part of my job.
These are insights anyone can use, but as a leader, I’m in a unique position to pay this advice forward. I can integrate my life with my work more and try to encourage others to do the same. That allows me to make a difference in the lives of my teammates and employees. Because when they’re happier, my job is better. And when my job is better, my life is better. Because — as I’ve come to discover — it’s all the same thing.
This article is published in collaboration with Linkedin. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: John Thiel is the head of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.