Work-life balance has long been seen as the “holy grail” of happy employees, but a modern twist on this concept is gaining traction with workers today: work-life integration. Instead of asking how they can balance their personal and professional lives, some employees are exploring how to integrate them. Aiming to integrate work allows your employees to be happier, get more done, and stay with your company longer.
What is work-life integration?
Employees achieve work-life integration when they’re able to manage their professional and personal responsibilities with some overlap, rather than keeping work life separate from home life. For example, a remote employee might load the dishwasher or start a load of laundry while participating in a conference call. A busy parent might bring their laptop to the dining room table so they can be on hand to help a child with homework, or take a break during the day to pick kids up from school and work later into the evening to make up the time.
Integrating work and personal responsibilities allows for some overlap between these worlds, and frees employees to meet the day’s demands in a way that works best for them.
The concept of work-life integration has gained steam post-pandemic, as workers in many industries have experienced the pleasures and pains of remote work, flexible hours, and pivoting to meet new challenges. Many are realizing that work-life “balance” doesn’t reflect the reality of their workday.
Work-life integration vs. balance—what’s the difference?
Whereas work-life integration aims to blend two areas of life, work-life balance is about keeping them separate. Work-life balance is generally thought of as a schedule of dedicated work hours, dedicated personal hours, and a commitment to prioritize both equally. Both approaches have the same goal in mind—to help employees thrive at work and at home. The difference lies in how this is achieved.
It’s important to note that work-life integration isn’t inherently better or worse than work-life balance. Different people have different personalities, job responsibilities, and needs. Some people crave the hard boundary at the end of the day that allows them to leave work at work, while others are relieved to be able to tackle career and family matters as they arise throughout the day and into the evening.
Benefits of work-life integration
People who prefer integration over balance tend to be drawn to its unique benefits.
- Autonomy. The work-life integration model offers autonomy, trusting employees to know how they work best. It also recognizes that schedules may look different from day to day.
- Productivity. Not all workers need several uninterrupted hours to get work done. In fact, the Gartner 2021 Digital Worker Experience Survey showed that 43 percent of employees believe flexible working hours made them more productive.
- Realistic goals. For some people, work-life “balance” is a frustrating goal because they can’t find a way to give even amounts of time to their personal and professional lives. Striving for work-life integration can free them from this pressure and allow them to handle their lives in a way that makes sense for them.
- Remote work. Those who work remotely may find that separating the two spheres is impossible, and integration best describes the reality of how they juggle priorities.
If there’s any downside to integrating work and life, it’s the risk of boundary violations. Some people who attempt to mix the two may find that they can’t stop thinking about work when they need to, or are always expected to be “on call” since they aren’t on a strict 9-5 schedule. This is why, when choosing work-life integration vs. balance, it’s important to consider individual needs and workplace demands.
Tips for employees to integrate work and personal life
If the idea of work-life integration is appealing, here are some tips for achieving it.
- Evaluate your needs. Are you a segmenter or an integrator? In other words, do you need to focus on one thing at a time or are you more productive when you’re able to juggle different tasks? Before you attempt to integrate the two facets of your life, make sure integration is a good match for your personality and job responsibilities.
- Champion flexibility at your workplace. Educate yourself on what flexible policies exist at your workplace and become an advocate for flexibility.
- Create a dialogue. Approach your manager about your desire for better work-life integration. Explain to them what would make you the most productive. You may want to suggest a “trial run” of new flexible arrangements, rather than an indefinite commitment from your employer.
- Set clear boundaries. In order to avoid burnout, be clear about how much you’re willing to integrate work. For example, you might be willing to answer emails after dinner, but not after 9 p.m.
- Take breaks from work. Most people need regular time away from work to be their most productive. Consider taking short breaks throughout your workday, along with PTO at strategic times throughout the year.
- Take advantage of your most productive hours. Everyone has certain times of the day when they’re better able to concentrate deeply. Notice these points in your own day and try to arrange your deepest work at those times.
- Focus on productivity, not hours. Set goals for what you’ll accomplish, rather than focusing solely on putting in the requisite number of hours. Counting up hours may be tricky on days when you’re interrupted by personal responsibilities, but you can still feel successful if you’ve completed all the tasks required of you.
How employers can support work-life integration
As an employer, you can make it easier for your people to juggle home and career. Here are some ways to help them integrate work with their personal lives.
- Offer flexibility when possible, such as remote work, adjusted hours, or four-day workweeks. Your organization may need to create new policies that spell out work-life integration goals and options so your employees know what’s possible.
- Offer benefits that help employees achieve their personal and professional goals, such as mental health benefits. When you support their goals, they’re less likely to feel they have to sacrifice them for work.
- Design work in a way that sets employees up for success. Provide training for managers so they don’t assign heavy workloads and unrealistic goals and then expect employees to somehow find balance.
- Create psychological safety so team members can be honest with you about their needs and struggles.
- Value productivity over hours. Measure what your employees accomplish rather than focusing on how many hours they spent at work.
Strike the right balance
Whether it’s through work-life integration or balance, it’s possible to successfully meet both personal and professional needs. This balance will energize employees and maximize their productivity, and, in turn, help your organization retain top talent.
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About the reviewer
Keren is the organizational development program manager on the workforce transformation team at Lyra Health. Keren has a master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago and has worked as a management consultant focused on large-scale change management implementations. She lives in Seattle where she spends her free time hiking, soaking up the PNW's most glorious mountain views.