I’ve never liked phrases such as “work-life balance” or “work-life conflict.” They seem to cast work as something separate from life, as if “life” is something that needs to compensate for work. That’s not how people feel when they love their work.
Even people who hate their jobs do not always hate everything about them. Sometimes they develop caring relationships with their co-workers. Sometimes they look forward to commutes that offer them time to themselves in between home and work.
Often, whether people love or hate their jobs, they need them for the money. If you are now thinking – yes, of course, they need their jobs to support their families! – you just demonstrated why I am writing about this. That’s what employers often think, when, for example, some of their employees need to be laid off.
That way of thinking misses something crucial about the role of work in the lives of people who are single: There is no back-up income from a spouse. It is on the single person, and the single person alone, to pay their bills. In a UK study of workplace concerns among people who live alone (discussed previously, here and here), a single woman told the researchers:
“I remember a friend of mine…said that when they were under threats of redundancy a lot of people were saying ‘oh, it’s all right for you, you’re single, you can go anywhere’, and she was saying Yeah, but I’m the only one paying the mortgage, there’s no one else backing me up!”
Participants in the study described something else their bosses and coworkers do not always realize – their work is sometimes very meaningful to them. In fact, another study showed that lifelong single people, on the average, value work that is meaningful more than married people do. They may have chosen work that they valued over work that paid more.
Krystal Wilkinson and her colleagues who conducted the study of single workers (managers and professionals) said that “most spoke positively about their work and were enthusiastic about their careers.” They added, “Many took pride in their occupational status, work ethic and commitment…”
There is a popular way of thinking about this, that is dismissive of the role of work in single people’s lives. That’s the condescending perspective that says that single people only care about work because they don’t have a life – by which they mean a romantic life or a traditional family life. According to that demeaning way of thinking, work is just compensation for not having a spouse or family.
For some single people, though, it is not. For them, their work is their passion. They find it engaging, meaningful, and significant. I’m not just talking about people who are making scientific discoveries or technological innovations or medical advances. All kinds of work can be meaningful to people who value it or learn from it or help others with it.
When people are doing important work, and they are putting that work at the center of their life, they should be applauded for it, not derogated. Employers should recognize the value of workers who are truly committed to the work they are doing.