In recent weeks, various politicians in Great Britain and elsewhere have suddenly discovered the importance of work/life balance. It’s hard not to feel cynical. When politicians jump on an issue, you can usually be certain it’s something they think will win them credit with jaded voters. The media have also been turning the issue into a bandwagon, with articles in newspapers and magazines from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur.

What all these “conversions” have in common is a superficial view of work/life balance — one that limits it to neat, structural issues like flexible working hours and support for working women bringing up families. Rather than look closely at the real reasons why people are feeling disillusioned with working life (the long hours, constant overwork, increasing pressure, bullying bosses, continual restructuring and cutbacks), they turn to feel-good ideas that don’t need them to alter their attitudes or question past decisions. (Don’t get me wrong. These are important issues that badly need attention, but they don’t get near the fundamental questions of true work/life balance.)

It’s depressingly predictable. Remember when organizations jumped on the “let’s have a compelling corporate vision” bandwagon? And how that became little more than grand-sounding words, composed by committee and posted on the wall of the lobby? It’s the same with work/life balance. Too many organizations are going through the motions of tackling the issues, delegating it to the HR department and pointing to nice, shiny-new policy statements, instead of instituting significant change.

Problems with the balance between the demands of profit-driven corporations and peoples’ need to live a satisfying life won’t be cured by policy statements and procedure manuals. That isn’t where the causes lie. They’re inside peoples’ heads: obsessive achievement drive, ambition gone mad, laughable greed for money and power, and blithe disregard of anything not linked to short-term results. Macho, “grab ‘n go” bosses don’t treat underlings like cattle to be milked of every ounce of effort because they’ve selected incorrect HR policies. They do it because they have dysfunctional values and massively over-inflated egos.

Work/life balance is an issue of civilization. It’s driven by simplistic, financially-derived goals, an unthinking ideology of “winner takes all,” and contempt for those unable to keep up. It’s the result of achievement motivation run wild. Until executives (and wannabe executives) realize they’ve created a monster that’s out of control — one that will eventually devour their lives and health too — no amount of policy-writing will make any difference.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman and a retired business executive. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his serious thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership; and his crazier ones at The Coyote Within.

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