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Can we really find a work-life balance?

Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams

- Corporate

- Jul 3 2014

Once executives reach a certain level of professional achievement, many struggle to maintain personal priorities as well as their foothold on success. Harvard Business School Professor Boris Groysberg and research associate Robin Abrahams delve into five years of research to determine if the work-life balance really exists.


What do executives think about the notion of a “work-life balance”?

Robin Abrahams: We certainly didn’t mean for it to be a hot button, but when executives heard “work-life balance”, they hit the roof, declaring that there is no such thing. Many individuals assume that this term refers to a perfectly balanced week, which can be a harmful notion. Most of our lives are not like that.

On the contrary, the term can actually refer to a balance over a period of years – meaning you spend some years really giving it all on one frontier and then you pull back and find other ways to contribute or redefine your job. Many of us spend years where everything centers on finishing a dissertation, making that big deal or making partner – and then you can shift a little bit.

Your article points out the importance of support networks. What role do these networks play in successfully balancing work and life?

R.A.: Support networks both at home and work consists of people who help with a range of matters. Many working mothers hire people to manage “tactical” chores, for example. These women however were adamant about the fact that hiring help simply makes them available to spend time with their family.

Other networks provide emotional and cognitive support. Cognitive support, particularly with spouses, can be very valuable – having somebody to bounce ideas off, reality check you, provide balance to your view points. You need people who are in your corner in all three areas, ideally both home and at work.  

Do these networks differ between men and women?

Boris Groysberg: Support networks can become very complicated in dual career couples. For example, with male executives the likelihood that your partner stays at home is about 60 percent. However, as a female executive, that likelihood drops to just 10 percent. It seems that more senior female executives actually need to manage dual careers versus male executives who are often the breadwinner of the family.  

We also saw an intriguing gender difference in terms of mixing professional and personal networks. Most of the men tended to prefer keeping networks separate while women were split down the middle on this issue. The women who chose to draw a distinct line between their two worlds generally did so in order to maintain a professional image at work.

What was the most striking takeaway from these interviews?

B.G.: Executives get to where they are by being in control; but support networks become hugely important when things you can’t control happen. When life happens. A number of executives spoke about aging parents, and being able to take care of them and the challenges associated with that. These situations made them realize how important people around them truly are. You can’t put in 12-hour days when your child is in hospital or while you’re moving your father into an assisted living home or you are undergoing chemotherapy.

Any recommendations for executives still searching for a better balance?

R.A.: Instead of focusing on the idea of a “work-life balance”, turn your focus on the idea of “work-life integration” – meaning that you are your authentic self at all times. People at work know who you are in your private life, and people in your private life know about your work. Take a moment and think about your core values or core identity or who you are and always operate by these values no matter what domain you are in.

  • Manage your work, manage your life” analyzed nearly 4,000 interviews and 82 survey responses of high-level executives from around the world, collected over a period of five years.


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Can we really find a work-life balance?

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  • Sat
    09 Aug


    Good article... but really don't know how to follow it... with growing demands of an organisation, with thirst to grow, this question remains !


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