The Best Way to Think About Work-Family Balance (Balanced Diet, Not a See-Saw)

The Benefits of Thinking About “Work-Family Balance” as a “Balanced Diet” instead of a “Balance Beam.”

Balance, as in a balanced diet... (photo: flickr, labeled for noncommercial reuse)

Balance, as in a balanced diet… (all photos: flickr, labeled for noncommercial reuse)

A balanced diet means that we eat enough of different types of food without eating too much of certain categories. Similarly, a full life means that we must tend to various parts of our lives (family, work, health, relationships, friends, hobbies, exercise, etc.), all of which are important parts of a whole.

When some see the term “work-family balance,” they think of balance as in a scale, seesaw, tightrope or balance beam in which there is a single, hard-to-find, precarious equilibrium point between two opposing forces. Thinking about balance that way leads people (including managers and employers) to think about work and family solely as trade-offs. I think this is problematic, and this is the reason many work-family academics eschew this term.

Sometimes we need to prioritize one over the other and temporarily slip out of balance- there are inevitable ebbs and flows in both home and work. The use of a tightrope metaphor frames temporary imbalance as a failure- in fact, on a tightrope, anything less than 50/50 means a perilous fall. If, instead, we think about a balanced diet, eating too many carbs one day can be balanced out by extra salad the next. And it also helps us recognize that we need many food groups to be healthy.

Most importantly, however, we need to stop seeing work and family as “either-or.” Time for work and for family are BOTH very important components of a full, meaningful life. If we don’t reflexively see them as opposing forces, we may come to understand that both can enhance the other in helping to build a balanced life.

What do you think about these metaphors? How does this relate to your thinking about work and family? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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  1. lifejunctions

     /  July 30, 2014

    Thanks for commenting on my blog post ( on the subject “work-life balance” and leading me to your post here. I do like your metaphor of a “balanced diet” when thinking about balance. I still, however, would prefer a term that promotes a process not just an end goal, motivating action rather than searching for a perfect state. This is why I like “navigating life.” I prefer this also because it is important to include other realms/things you deeply about not just career and family. My clients and I have found that what helps make us happy is devoting time and energy passions/interests outside of career and family. Even though that makes our “plates” more full, it helps to promote peace within us and thus energize us for career and family. Again, thanks for starting a conversation!

  2. My family doesn’t think of it as either or. Going to work gives us something to talk about when we are together as a family. If my family spent all our time together we would run out of things to say and bore each other,

    • Agreed. I think it is very healthy that parents have a life outside of their kids and spouses have a life outside each other. Among other things, as you say, it gives you something to talk about

  3. Yes, we need to stop thinking of balance as either/or. It does feel like a tightrope at times. I try to find the gifts that I can bring from home life to work life and vice-versa. We need to move beyond that tightrope notion. Thanks for a good post.

  4. The imagery here is so important I think in helping people who may be struggling with work/life balance issues to see that it is not an either/or choice but more a blended solution over time.

    • Hi Andy- Agreed. I think visual images can be important reminders for people, and I tried to try something new with this post to make a visual argument. Thanks for reading and your comment

  5. I totally agree with what you’ve said about needing to avoid seeing work and family as things you have to choose between.

  6. This is a really good way to look at it. I never thought about the pitfalls of viewing balance in terms of a see-saw or balance beam. The key point: do it wrong today and you can make up for it another day.

    • Thanks, John. Yep. This is a longer-term view of balance. Some days by necessity will be out of balance, and that’s life. we need to maintain balance over time.


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