Society

Is separation between work & life possible? Searching for balance in a hyper-connected world

Our paid work and our personal time define us as individuals. Is he a workaholic or a devoted dad? Is she a committed friend or someone whose job always comes first? Technology gives us the opportunity — and the obligation — to be everything to everyone. Here, we survey the research and talk to Ottawans searching for balance in a hyper-connected world

“Email is the spawn of Satan,” quips Carleton professor Linda Duxbury. “It shatters all time and space.” Strong words for an international expert at the Sprott School of Business, but it’s in line with a move in France to protect an employee’s “right to disconnect” (any business with more than 50 employees must set strict cut-off times, after which they are not allowed to send or answer emails). Duxbury’s research, and the French law, show a push back on technology and a drive to ensure that people are fairly paid for work and saved from burnout by protecting private time.

Email represents the most basic tool in our current technological revolution, and it’s critical to any conversation about well-being because it has the power to catapult us into another dimension with the click of a mouse (or the chime of a smartphone notification). At home, it can break the mood of a cozy family dinner; at work, it can interrupt a crucial meeting. The two domains that offer some structure for this goal that we call work-life balance — a term used to describe the equilibrium between an individual’s personal life and professional life — are inextricably tied to email. And as more people work from home, the power of email is only going to grow.

The last time workplaces of the Western world were rocked by technology was during the Industrial Revolution, which saw the birth of factories and time cards and the demise of small farms and family shops. As The Oxford Book of Work and Life details, work happened at work, life was what happened in between. For most, the days of walking across the field (or up the stairs) for a bite to eat and a cuddle with baby were gone. Wages became based on hours worked, not hay baled or shoes fixed. Family life changed, workplace relationships emerged. The separation of work and life was basically inevitable.

Researchers like Duxbury call this the introduction of segmentation: the separation, by space and time, between paid work and private life.

But as technology allows us to connect with anyone on the planet, at any time, things are changing again. Now the integration of work and life seems nearly impossible to avoid. Technology extends the workday, and social media allows us to catch up with friends from our office. It’s all very exciting — until you realize that you’re sleeping with your smartphone, ready to leap up at the sound of that notification chime. Indeed, sleep loss is one of the first things Duxbury mentions as an indicator that things are off balance — that it might be time to examine your work-life balance and ask yourself if you need to set some boundaries between the two.

“Every day is not in balance. If you think that everything is going to be in balance every day, you’re setting yourself up for failure,” says Duxbury. For example, as a university professor, Duxbury knows that when the school year starts, her work will come first and her life — family, friends, personal interests — will come second. By recognizing the busy times in work and life and conveying those to “key stakeholders” (read: colleagues and family), one can prevent burnout, shoddy work, and broken personal relationships as a result of overworking.

Illustration: Remi Geoffroi
Illustration: Remi Geoffroi

Over the past 20 years, Duxbury has watched as technology has shaken up the city’s workplace culture. She has heard young entrepreneurs suggest “It’s not work if it’s what I love to do.” She has tracked email use and its connection with well-being. One study of over 1,500 people from six organizations found employees spending five hours per week — outside of their normal work hours — reading and responding to work-related email.

“There are some people who are strong enough to not check email in off-work times,” says Duxbury, “but they are the minority.” Her advice? Segment. That’s another word for creating boundaries. It doesn’t mean you have to “punch out” at 5 p.m., but it does require creating some structure.

Of course, setting boundaries is easier said than done and means different things for different people. [Related: What work/life balance looks like, two examples]

Duxbury is adamant that boundaries are key to work-life balance and well-being in general. “When you blur those boundaries, you end up feeling guilty and stressed because you know you’re doing something you didn’t intend to,” she says, adding, “In fact, you end up not doing a good job in either role.”

In the end, it’s up to the individual to create boundaries.

But even an expert like Duxbury has restless nights in early September knowing she’ll have to talk to her husband about how their routine will change — and she knows that if her sleep suffers, it’s time to make a change.