Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists


VOLUME 6(3), MAY/JUNE 2004

An occupational perspective on work-life balance
Jane A. Davis

It’s Friday morning, and architect Jeremiah Eck is at home, painting landscapes. More to the point, he is not at his office, which is where you’d expect to find the founding partner of a busy Boston architecture firm. Two years ago, Eck made a major lifestyle change. His goal was to “find an antidote to 24/7 … [and] do something I’d begun to love. ” (Matchan, 2003, p. H2) 

A major topic of discussion in the media these days is work-life balance. Wherever you look, people are discussing balance and how to achieve it, whether it is a focus on work-life balance, redesigning work, changing lifestyles or avoiding burnout. There is a daily television show on CTV hosted by Dr. Marla Shapiro called Balance: Television for Living Well which began as a six-part documentary hosted by Valerie Pringle. Canadian Living Magazine has a special monthly editorial supplement, Balance Television, and an interactive web site,, and there have been a multitude of newspaper and magazine articles written on finding a balanced life, including MacLean’s Magazine cover page on Redesigning Work (March 5th, 2001).

I wish I could say that this attention to balance has evolved from our studies in enabling occupation, but this is not the case. Most of this media frenzy has occurred within the last two or three years. Much of the understanding about balance, contained in these productions and publications, comes from researchers and writers more concerned with achieving success in business and finding solutions to lack of time and increased stress, than with occupational balance in its broad sense. There are the stories of people, similar to Jeremiah Eck, who have found occupational meaning and purpose by making changes in their lives or leaving the rat race of the corporate world. However, the focus is often on finding down time or having a slower paced life than on finding occupational meaning and purpose.

As an occupational therapist and occupational scientist experiencing this media blitz, I have started to wonder what balance really means. Many of us remember when achieving a balance between work, rest and play was a major topic of concern for us. And if you were like I, you probably wondered: What does balance of work, rest and play really mean anyway? How are we supposed to enable balance for our clients? Is balance something that we can measure? Is it just about how much time we spend doing? Is it the same for everyone? What do we have to offer to help enable people’s occupational balance and well-being? I wonder whether Valerie Pringle’s work-life balance is the same as our balance of work, rest and play?

Work-life balance
The concept of work-life balance is defined in the popular media as anything from achieving a state of equilibrium between the demands of work and personal life, to finding meaningful daily achievement and enjoyment in all parts of one’s life. Many researchers see work-life balance and work-life conflict as being on opposite ends of a work-life continuum.

The understanding of work-life balance has been predominantly influenced by the studies of organizational behaviourists and psychologists, sociologists and feminist researchers. There are many books, written by business executives turned consultants, business strategists and self-made work-life balance activists, on how to be successful and happy in your career. Lists of bulleted columns offer a deluge of advice on how to achieve work-life balance. Those who profess work-life balance principles believe that all individuals can achieve a state of balance to create a meaningful and fulfilling work and home life if they just apply the time and stress management techniques being offered.

The work-life balance literature has stemmed from changes in how paid work is performed, a growing unhappiness with work conditions, and an increase in burnout and absenteeism. It is aimed at the middle class employee in a professional or high-powered career. It has neglected those who are not employed, unable to engage in paid work or underemployed, although these individuals have significant work-life balance issues as well. 

Most of the work-life balance studies examine why work-life conflict occurs, what determines it, who is responsible for attaining balance, and how is it achieved (e.g., Critchley, 2002; Duxbury, Higgins & Coghill, 2003; Guest, 2002). The belief behind these studies is that work gets in the way of family relationships and thus one’s life. Life and living are generally seen as separate from working. This dichotomy of work and life is very different from the perspectives we hold as occupational therapists, viewing work as part of life occupations and occupation as everything we do in the course of the day and not just paid work. 

The findings of the majority of the studies, as well as the ideas offered in the popular literature, focus predominantly on three issues — organizational practices, organizational culture and individual responsibilities (e.g., Duxbury, et al., 2003). The overarching goal for organizations is to reduce the cost of absenteeism and unhealthy workers, so that they can remain competitive and increase profits. The work-life balance literature asserts that organizations need to provide flexible work situations for their employees, such as child care and variability in work hours. These changes alone are seen as necessary but not sufficient for work-life balance. The organizational culture and attitudes must also be changed to create an understanding atmosphere so that employees are comfortable enough to take advantage of these flexible practices. This focus on employer-employee relationships is key to the popular concept of work-life balance. Lastly, individuals must be responsible for effectively changing their work-life situations. It is generally held that however much the company does to help out, the onus is on the individual to find and maintain work-life balance. Ideas such as the work/life ratio are offered to facilitate individual change. Fletcher (2002) feels that his 50/50 work/life balance ratio is necessary but insufficient to achieve successful work-life balance. So to uncover more answers he interviewed 16 top executives, whom he considered highly successful based on their level of attainment in business.  The result is a list of assorted ideas Fletcher believes will help to direct the worker in achieving balance. His is one of the many guides (e.g., Critchley, 2002) and numerous workshops (e.g., that claim to know the solution to achieving work-life balance.

The rhetoric on work-life balance focuses predominantly on time use – encouraging time management through more flexible work hours and finding time by getting rid of unimportant commitments. The hope is that through these practices individuals will find achievement and enjoyment in their work and non-work life. Although for occupation-oriented therapists time use is an important concept, we consider that occupation is much more than just filling time with activities of varying levels of importance. Rather, our focus is on the meaning that occupations bring to living and their impact on our identities. It isn’t just about the time spent doing; it is also about the doing itself. This broader perspective on occupation is acknowledged, at least in passing, by some of the work-life balance authors. For example, Duxbury and colleagues write that people’s “work and their lives are, in fact, quite intricately connected, and changes in one domain echo in the other” (p. 73). Scase (2002) goes further, stating that careers are central to many individuals’ lives, to the extent that “it shapes their identities and lifestyles” (p. 120). 

An occupational perspective
What appears to be missing from the work-life balance literature is an appreciation for the complexities of occupation, its individual meaning and purpose, its idiosyncratic nature and its centrality to life. The predominant focus on paid work and the juxtapositioning of life and work would imply that work is a means to an end, the end being living. The occupational perspective draws no such artificial boundaries between paid work and unpaid work, or the occupations of the workplace and those of daily life. As occupation-oriented therapists, we understand the role that various forms of occupation, including paid work, play in people’s lives, and the centrality of occupation to health and well-being. We believe that the meaning and purpose of people’s occupations can only be completely understood when viewed in the context of their unfolding lives and the other occupations they perform.  We recognize that occupation is more complex than how it is portrayed in the work-life balance literature and that it forms the foundation of who we are and how we see ourselves. Achieving work-life balance, therefore, is not simply being more effective at time management or reorganizing our routines to meet competing demands; it is also about understanding the meaning and purpose attached to each of our occupations and making difficult choices. Further, it is about understanding the feeling of loss that results from not being able to do occupations that are meaningful to us. This is the lesson we, as therapists, have learned from our clients who experience huge obstacles in achieving work-life balance because of an injury, an illness or some other occupational disruption.

At every opportunity, occupation-oriented therapists need to enter the discussion of work-life balance. We need to bring an occupational perspective and our sense of doing to this issue to preserve meaning and purpose as essential components to achieving work-life balance for all people.

Critchley, R. K. (2002). Rewired, rehired, or retired?: A global guide for the experienced worker. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Duxbury, L., Higgins, C., & Coghill, D. (2003). Voices of Canadians: Seeking work-life balance. Ottawa, ON: Human Resources Development Canada.

Fletcher, W. (2002). Beating the 24/7: How business leaders achieve a successful work/life balance. Etobicoke, ON: John Wiley & Sons Canada.

Guest, D. (2002). Perspectives on the study of work-life balance. Social Science Information, 41, 255-279.

Matchan, L. (2003, February 20). Architect re-channels his creative energies. Boston Globe, p. H2.

Scase, R. (2002). Living in the corporate zoo. Oxford, England: Capstone Publishing.


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