Work-Life Balance: Luxury or Ethical Necessity?

The ethical price of overworked America

Posted Jun 13, 2016

JohnsonWang/Pexels/Free Image
Source: JohnsonWang/Pexels/Free Image

In the age of email and smart phones, work-life balance is hard to find. Workers are often expected to answer emails and work remotely on weekends and evenings (well, unless they live in France). The resulting long work hours leave Americans feeling overwhelmed and burned out.  In addition, many companies in the US are stingy with vacation and family leave, and many workers fail to take the vacations to which they are entitled.

Given these facts, workers can be expected to complain.  And why shouldn’t we? Lack of work-life balance undermines happiness and leads to burnout.  But is work-life balance a personal luxury, which we should negotiate to get?  Or an ethical necessity, which we may reasonably expect or demand?

If work-life balance is a luxury, then it is a desirable good but not an essential one.  Essential goods are ones that we need in order to live a minimally good or decent life.  Consider food, shelter, and personal safety.  These are essential goods, not personal luxuries, because life without them is bound to be nasty, brutish, or short.  If your government robs you of essential goods it is often thought to have violated, or failed to respect, your human rights.  These are clearly things you can expect and demand.

Work-life balance, on the other hand, tends to be a bourgeois problem.  People who complain about a lack of work-life balance usually lead pretty decent lives in the big scheme of things; they normally have plenty of food, shelter, education, and safety.  A cynic might say we are complaining about how hard we have to work for the essential goods that we are lucky enough to enjoy. 

It is hard to resist the conclusion that work life balance is a luxury.  Workers quite sensibly want it, but they do not literally need it; it is something we can negotiate for, but not demand.

Of course even if work-life balance is a luxury, some companies or governments may choose to promote it.  Perhaps promoting work-life balance will increase worker productivity.  Perhaps a majority of voters will be willing to pay for taxes that support work-life balance programs.  But in service economy and working class contexts – not to mention sweatshops and other workplaces in which workers wield negligible power – it is hard to believe that the bottom line will favor work-life promoting policies.  And, given that such policies will often conflict with the imperatives of economic productivity and profit, we should expect a political fight before governments step in and promote work-life balance.  Opponents of such government intervention will have an especially strong argument if work life balance is thought of as a desirable luxury, not a basic need.

Before we accept these conclusions and the idea that work life balance is a desirable luxury or perk, we need to ask whether access to essential goods will enable us to be ethically good people.  By definition, essential goods enable people to live minimally good and decent lives.  But it is simply unclear whether they enable us to be good ethical people. 

To be good ethical people – good parents, children, friends, citizens, and workers – we need good character and it is an open empirical question whether access to essential goods such as food, shelter, and education will enable us to develop good character and fill our life-defining ethical roles well.  Psychologists and philosophers are working together to explore and answer this complicated question but it looks like we might well need more than the essential goods to be good people.

With this point in mind, we can explore a new answer to the title question about work-life balance.  We have a new reason to think work-life balance might be an ethical necessity: lack of balance might undercut our ability to develop and act from good ethical character.  It might be one of the factors that contributes to corrosion of character.  If so, perhaps companies and governments should promote work-life balance in order to enable people to be good parents, citizens, friends, and workers – life-defining ethical roles that require us to have and display good character.  So even if we don’t have a human right to work-life balance, we might have good ethical grounds to expect or demand it from our governments and employers.  This is a live possibility; one we should explore.

In a future posts I will say more about the philosophic and psychological issues involved but right now, I am curious about your personal experiences and opinions.

Do you think a lack of work-life balance hampers your ability to be a good parent, child, friend, citizen, or worker?  Does it make it practically impossible for you to be the best person you can be in all of these roles?  What problems strike you as the most important ones?