In a recent interview published in Business Insider, Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, holds forth on the topic of work-life balance and why he doesn’t like this familiar formulation:
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. You never want to be that guy — and we all have a coworker who’s that person — who as soon as they come into a meeting they drain all the energy out of the room. You can just feel the energy go whoosh! You don’t want to be that guy. You want to come into the office and give everyone a kick in their step.
Bezos does not like “work-life balance” because “it implies there’s a strict trade-off.” I take Bezos’s point here. Work-life balance might be interpreted as spending exactly the same number of hours working and doing whatever else we do when we’re not working. That would be perfect balance. But this approach to work and the rest of life would be rather arbitrary. It wouldn’t fit the variety of real work settings in which we find ourselves.
Bezos prefers what he calls “work-life harmony” and then “work-life circle.” He explains this in terms of the energy he brings both to work and to home. Happiness at home translates into “tremendous energy” for work. Happiness at work means “tremendous energy” at home. I find it fascinating and somewhat unexpected that Bezos speaks so plainly about the priority of having energy for life at home. But, Bezos is reported to have a unusually high commitment to time at home, at least according to another recent story in Business Insider. According to this summary of Bezos’s “daily routine, ” he gets plenty of sleep each night, eats breakfast with his wife, spends ample time with his four children, and washes the dishes each evening when he’s home.
If this description of Bezos is accurate, he sets an impressive example of work-life harmony or work-life circle. That’s great. I do worry about how this fits with a number of recent stories that chronicle extreme overwork require of and harsh demands placed upon Amazon employees. A New York Times piece described Amazon as a “bruising workplace.” The Independent in the UK reports that Amazon workers are so exhausted they “fall asleep standing up.” So, if Bezos is indeed living harmoniously between his work and the rest of his life, he may need to pay more attention to whether or not his company is allowing others to do the same.
Though I appreciate Bezos’s rejection of the phrase “work-life balance,” and though I am encouraged by the high value he places on life at home, I’m not convinced that the main reason we need work-life harmony is so that we can bring lots of energy to both work and home. This is a worthy thing to do, no doubt. But I have other reasons for being unhappy with the notion of work-life balance. I’ll say more about this in my next blog post.