Breaking down the differences between work-life balance and work-life integration

/ 9 min read
Eliza Frakes

It’s easy to get lost in the sea of wellness information online. Are chia seeds actually good for you? Should we all be drinking wheatgrass? What even is a gua-sha?

Navigating wellness in the workplace is no different. In the world of corporate wellness buzzwords, “work-life integration” is the new kid on the block. It’s trendy. It’s fresh. It’s obviously better than boring old “work-life balance.” Right?

Well… we’re not so sure.  Work-life balance and work-life integration have their pros and cons. Both, in theory, support setting healthy boundaries between your time on and off the clock. Both encourage taking time for your family and hobbies in addition to whatever it is you do to pay the bills.

So what’s the real difference between the two, and how do you know which one is healthiest for you?

This article discusses the differences between work-life balance and work-life integration and their pros and cons. Work-life balance is about creating firm boundaries between work time and non-work time, while work-life integration is a more blended approach. Both have their benefits, and individuals can create a unique system that works for them by taking the best elements of both practices. The article also suggests setting boundaries, taking time away from the office, finding a company culture that supports values, and having regular check-ins to create a healthy relationship with work.

What’s the difference between work-life balance and work-life integration?

The biggest difference between work-life balance and work-life integration is not the what, but the how.

Let’s say you’re a working parent. You work from home with your two precious angels screaming in the other room, your personal phone pinging like a symphony, and your dog chewing on the computer cord.

You’re busy. Maybe a little too busy. You have 40 hours a week of emails, reports, and meetings, tiny people to shuttle around, meals to cook, and, if you’re lucky, friends to see and hobbies to nourish. You can’t always manage it all.

Work-life balance and work-life integration both offer a solution. The former suggests creating hard boundaries between work time and non-work time to ensure you dedicate quality time for both.

You might make a habit of closing your work laptop right at 5 o’clock, not answering emails on the weekend, or going dark for a full hour at lunch to manage the kiddos.

Work-life integration (the newer concept) is a more blended approach. Instead of closing the laptop right at 5 o’clock, you might go dark on Slack for a few hours midday to pick the kids up from school, and then pop back online after bedtime to catch up.

Read: Working from home with kids (without losing your sanity)

Taking a deeper look at both philosophies

Just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s better. I mean, just take a look at the Jaws sequels. Let’s dive deeper into both philosophies to get a sense of which one makes more sense for you.

Work-life balance: simple, but rigid

Work-life balance is the old standard. It’s all about creating firm boundaries between your time on and off the clock, and not letting one bleed into the other. It’s a great option for people who do well with compartmentalisation, or for those who work a more standard, nine-to-five schedule.

It seems like a simple, fool-proof way to manage work and life. And for some, it is. But not every employee is able to go completely dark after 5 o’clock. For many working professionals, being available for calls or emails day and night is simply part of the job.

And although employer-driven expectations can certainly be a barrier to work-life balance, studies show that internal drivers can be just as much of a roadblock. In a recent study, more than 70% of workers attributed their work-life balance challenges to personal or cultural reasons, like perfectionism, company culture, and burnout.

All that being said, there is certainly a case to be made for this tried and true option. Provided you work in a job that allows you to set hard working boundaries, it can be a clear-cut, healthy way to support your mental health, stay productive, and maintain a happy personal life.

“Speaking from my own experience, I find that work-life balance works better for me," says Garrett Smith, a Marketer at GMB Gorilla.

Compartmentalising my time between work and personal hours makes it easy for me to set clear boundaries between the two. When I tried work-life integration, I was more prone to distractions. It was easy to mismanage both my time and energy when I got carried away with something.”

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Work-life integration: flexible, but difficult to maintain

The flipside of the coin: work-life integration. This trendy new version of work/life support is best suited for remote workers who need a little more flexibility from their schedule. If you’re someone who thrives on multitasking, or you struggle to shut off after hours, it might be a good option for you.

For those who work from home, work-life integration might feel less like a choice and more like an inevitability. It’s hard to tune out your personal life when your home office is 40 paces from the kids playroom.

There’s an issue with that, though. When you accidentally integrate work and life, you might find yourself feeling guilty or shameful for getting distracted by your personal life at work.

And while workplace guilt is common, research shows that it’s entirely unhelpful. Guilt is not a strong motivator for productivity. Avoiding the guilt spiral (as best you can) not only feels better, but it can actually make you more productive at work.

Consciously choosing the work-life integration approach can help alleviate some of this guilt.

You’re not getting distracted by your kids during your allocated on-the-clock hours. You’re choosing to take some time away for a quick game of hide and seek, knowing you’ll make up for those hours later in the day. It’s a mental reframe.

At its best, work-life integration can help you celebrate (and manage) the many aspects of your life, both personal and professional. It can help you realise that there’s no need to feel guilty for being multi-faceted. In fact, it’s probably this very multifaceted nature of your life that makes you such a valuable asset to your team.

Still, it's not a perfect solution. When there are no hard boundaries between your personal responsibilities and professional responsibilities, you might end up feeling “on” all the time. It’s difficult to know when you’re done for the day. Can you really toss your feet up and watch The Bachelor, or should you send over that last email?

Beyond the buzzwords: forming your own healthy relationship to work

Both of these work/life support philosophies are designed to help you develop a healthier relationship with your job. But here’s the thing: you don’t actually need to choose one or the other to do that.

By taking the best elements of both practices, you can create a unique system that works for you.

1. Get clear about what is expected of you at work

The first step to developing a healthy relationship with work is getting really clear about what exactly you’re expected to do in your role.

Are you expected to attend all team meetings, or are some of them optional? Is mentoring new employees a mandatory part of your job? What exactly are you expected to complete every day at work? Who is your direct supervisor, and who has the authority to assign or alter your work?

Getting these answers from your employer can help you get clear about your tasks, and avoid feeling guilty for “not doing enough.”

2. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries

This is a key lesson, and it’s one that’s not easy to learn. It can be extremely difficult to articulate boundaries at work, especially for highly motivated workers. But even though it can be uncomfortable, it’s an essential skill to learn.

Setting a work boundary can look like blocking off time on your calendar for family time, or setting an automatic Slack status that states when you’re no longer answering messages.

It can also look like delegating projects that fall outside of your role to a more suitable employee, or letting your employer know that you’ll miss that weekly meeting because it overlaps with your kids soccer practice.

Let’s get clear about one thing: setting boundaries doesn’t mean you get a free pass not to do your work. Everyone has parts of their job that they don’t like doing, and sometimes you just have to buckle down and get them done. Boundaries aren’t a magic wand you can use to avoid the stuff you don’t want to do.

When used appropriately, healthy boundaries at work empower you to communicate your availability and bandwidth clearly and in advance, so you and your team stay on the same page about what you’re working on and when.

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3. Take time away from the office

There should always be time for life, and you shouldn’t be afraid to advocate for it.

Taking time away from work does not make you worse at work. In fact, research suggests that the opposite is true. Work/life support makes people more productive, happier, and helps companies reduce employee turnover.

Whether that means using those vacation days or making time for girls night on a Sunday, carving out quality time away from your job will help you realign with your life and return refreshed.

“One habit that has really helped me is scheduling my personal activities the same way I would schedule a work meeting," says Anthony Martin, Founder and CEO of Choice Mutual.

This ensures that I am not neglecting important areas of my life and prioritising my personal time as much as I do work time. My calendar is fully integrated with life and business activities, which helps me remember that my personal life should still be important.”

4. Find a company culture that supports your values (or create your own!)

Company culture plays a major role in how successful your work/life support plan will be. If you’re looking for work, don’t be afraid to ask potential employers about their leave policies or time off, and how they encourage their employees to maintain a healthy life outside of work.

If you run your own business or work independently, consider how you can create a culture that supports a healthy relationship to work. That might mean setting personal “dark” hours on a weekly basis, or planning to take at least two weeks away from your job a year.

It’s worth noting here that being able to choose your work based on company culture is a huge privilege, and isn’t available to all (if even most) workers. Many people find themselves in jobs that demand too much of them, and many don’t have a way to change it.

“One thing I've found super helpful when it comes to supporting employees in managing their work and personal lives is having regular check-ins," says Dmytro Sokhach, CEO of Admix Global.

"These casual chats create a comfortable environment where everyone feels free to discuss any challenges they're facing, whether they lean towards work-life balance or work-life integration. It's like having a safe space to share what's on your mind and learn from others' experiences.”

Finding balance takes time

Developing a healthy relationship with work isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s an ongoing process of checking in with yourself, communicating with your employer, and managing your changing schedule.

It’s a messy, sometimes frustrating journey. Try not to kick yourself along the way. There will be days where you check your email after work hours, or find yourself thinking about work at your kids recital.

It’s normal to fluctuate. Consistency comes with time, and outlier days are normal. Be gentle with yourself as you learn what process works for you, and try not to beat yourself up when you fall short of your personal goals. After all, there will always be more work and life to manage tomorrow.

Related reading

About the author
Eliza Frakes
Paperform Contributor
Eliza Frakes is a freelance copywriter. When she’s not writing for the Paperform blog, she’s probably writing a play (or acting in one), swimming in the ocean, or taking her very cute dog on a hike.

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