The cult of "life-work balance" wants us to think that some people have their life and work in perfect equilibrium. (Probably the same mythical people who "have it all.") But it also promotes the idea that "life" and "work" are separate spheres of one's existence. Part of that fallacy is semantic—are we not living "life" while at work?—but the bigger issue is the idea that we have to check our personal lives at the front door of our workplaces. Apparently, we can't bring our whole selves to work. And apparently, our personal lives are irrelevant in the workplace.
But we can't just sublimate our personalities, our experiences, our dreams. Nor should we—especially when diversity of identity and of experience sparks innovation. Nor should we act like emotionless automatons—especially when empathy begets loyalty and trust.
"Bringing our whole selves to work means showing up authentically, leading with humility, and remembering that we're all vulnerable, imperfect human beings doing the best we can," emotional intelligence expert Mike Robbins told Forbes contributor Henna Imam. "It's also about having the courage to take risks, speak up, ask for help, connect with others in a genuine way, and allow ourselves to be truly seen. It's not always easy for us to show up this way, especially at work. And it takes commitment, intention, and courage for leaders and organizations to create environments that are conducive to this type of authenticity and humanity."
Now, we're not saying that we should all be revealing everything about our personal lives at work, right down to the downright salacious. We should still be professional, of course, and cognizant of the comfort of our coworkers. But we shouldn't feel like we have to quarantine our personal lives from our professional lives.
"When we don't bring our whole selves to work we suffer—lack of engagement, lack of productivity, and our well-being is diminished," Robbins added. "We aren't able to do our best, most innovative work, and we spend and waste too much time trying to look good, fit in, and do or say the 'right' thing. For teams and organizations, this lack of psychological safety makes it difficult for the group or company to thrive and perform at their highest level because people are holding back some of who they really are."
Deslyn Douglas, VP at Human Resources at TopGolf, described her own experience with the life-work schism in a 2013 blog post, writing, "There was the Work/Professional Deslyn and the After 5 p.m. Deslyn. Work Deslyn thought only of PowerPoints and performance goals. After 5 p.m. Deslyn had a life full of music, movies, sports, food, travel and fun with friends. With time, these two sides of my personality have merged and I once again became Just Deslyn. Period. All the time."
"I never want my colleagues to feel as though they can't be themselves for fear of embarrassment or criticism," she added. "In fact, I appreciate my peers most when they are genuine and transparent."
Plus, our personal lives inevitably encroach into the workplace, just as our professional lives sometimes encroach into our time off. We've all had to deal with the unexpected while at work—big things like family emergencies or medical issues or little things like plumbing snafus. Our personal lives don't just pause from 9 to 5 every day, and we can't be expected to ignore what's going on outside of the office.
This, of course, is where flexibility proves so useful. Structured flexibility makes it possible for our personal lives and our professional lives to be not balanced, necessarily, but compatible. It acknowledges the fact that workers are humans with evolving needs. It's expansive enough to respond to a diverse range of those needs. And it's a surefire way to let workers feel like they can be people. Our research shows that flex provides a solution for the 29 percent of U.S. professionals who have trouble bringing their whole selves to work, and it improves engagement, productivity, and well-being, the three areas Robbins mentioned.
This argument of ours comes with asterisks, of course: Employees are entitled to privacy and shouldn't feel obligated to share details of their personal life. And they shouldn't feel like they have to spend their personal time with their coworkers, or worse, like they don't have any personal time to enjoy.
Our point, however, is that it's unproductive and even futile to try to leave our personal lives at the front door. And the benefits of bringing one's whole self to work are huge. When workers are allowed and encouraged to show their humanity, and when flexibility makes life and work compatible, everyone wins.