Work/Life Balance: A ‘Debilitating Phrase’ or Cherished Ideal?


Last week, Jeff Bezos called ‘Work/life balance’ a ‘debilitating phrase’. 

He went on to clarify his remarks:

“This work-life harmony thing is what I try to teach young employees and actually senior
executives at Amazon too. But especially the people coming in.”

“I get asked about work-life balance all the time. And my view is, that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off.”

“And the reality is, if I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy,”

“And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. It actually is a circle; it’s not a balance. And I think that is worth everybody paying attention to it.”

Bezos’ words may sound reasonable enough  but the reality is that Amazon is still struggling to shake off its reputation for a tough and overly competitive working environment. In fact, in a Business Insider interview, an Amazon software engineer suggests that achieving work/life balance at Amazon is impossible:

"Extreme hours and horrible work-life balance. Be prepared to work a minimum of 12 hours everyday and up to 15-16 hours for months on end.”

"Upper management doesn't respect your work life balance and mandatory overtime is a constant thing.” 

So is Bezos right?

It would be easier to take Bezos’s words more seriously if he wasn’t the head of a company with the reputation that Amazon has. That said, there’s certainly some merit to what he’s implying. For many, fulfillment and success are more important goals than achieving the fabled work/life balance. 

If you find a job where you are pushed, challenged and, ultimately, fulfilled by then you perhaps won’t want to divide your life into neat little boxes, but are perfectly happy to live your job 24/7 with the aim of getting the most out of it. 

Is this the best thing for your long term mental health? Possibly not. But then again, years of stagnation and undelivered potential probably won’t make you feel great either. 

You’re probably all screaming? “It’s about finding the balance.”

And to an extent, yes of course you’re right. 

Work/life balance: A throwaway luxury for the young?

Reading articles on this subject, you’d be forgiven for thinking that finding balance between your job and the rest of your life simply means putting your phone on airplane mode whilst you watch Netflix. It must also be remembered that the choice to throw oneself into one’s work at the expense of everything else is largely a young person’s privilege. 

Throw in spouses, kids, and no-longer-limitless reserves of energy and you’ll realise soon enough that compartmentalising your life is not simply a trendy buzzword but a downright necessity. 

Pulling 80-hour weeks might fly when you’re 25 and the only things waiting for you at home are three avocados and a couple of HDMI cables. It’s not so easy to do when other people, including children, are relying on large chunks of your time (unless you’re Elon 'Dad of the Year' Musk, who replies to emails whilst bonding with his kids).

The boring answer: Work efficiently and set priorities 

Whether your goal is unparalleled success in your respective field or simply sticking to the quiet life, the answer to your work/life balance issues are simple: Work smartly and efficiently and stick to the priorities you set for yourself. 

Regardless of what people tell you, nobody can do good, quality work for 80 hours per week, at some point you’ll just be spending time in the office without accomplishing anything of note. Focus on tasks, goals, and tangible achievements, not simply the hours spent behind a computer or time spent online. 

There are a million ways to use your time more smartly, this isn’t the article for that, but essentially you can cut out a lot of guff from your working day, freeing up time for your other stuff and ensuring the work you do actually do is half decent. 

The priorities bit corresponds to the first part of this article: If your goals are to be the most successful version of yourself, then you’ll have to make a few sacrifices along the way, which is fine if the fulfilment you find in your success is worth it. If your priorities are your family, friends, health or having fun, then you need to set aside outside of work for these, which sounds simple but gets harder the further through life you go. 

So was Bezos right? Well maybe partly, but it’s probably still not good to make your employees cry.