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The Paul Ryan and Joe Biden Work-Life Announcements: Are They Really Victories?

It's a victory, but I'm afraid it's a small victory. Rather, it's more of a baby step that, while filling many people with hope, has a long way to go before it's up and running as an accepted norm in America's work culture.
11/02/2015 05:01pm ET | Updated November 2, 2016
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Recently, Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden announced some work-life balance news that seemed to stop people right in their midnight-email-to-the-boss tracks. Both men stated -- for varying personal reasons -- that they'll be spending less time in the work environment and more time with family.

By now, most of us are aware that Ryan cited the desire to swap excessive time on the road with more face time with his children. Biden, whose son Beau Biden died at the age of 46 from brain cancer earlier this year, announced he won't attempt another presidential run; he'll be spending time with family to continue recovering from the devastating loss.

Of course their news spread like wildfire, with work-life balance advocates especially applauding their decision. For people living the burnout culture life -- those who are tethered to their desks, who miss out on their child's first steps at their plane touches down in another state for a trade show, who haven't had a meal with their spouse in months -- the men's decisions were a victory.

Getting the work-life balance discussion going

But, I've often asked myself since their announcements: Just how big a victory? Is it even a victory at all?

The media has been all over the Ryan-Biden work-life balance news, which seems to provide encouraging rays of hope for overworked souls who wish to someday break free from their "I haven't taken a vacation in years" chains. Others perhaps think that they will one day be able to dim conference room lights at 6 p.m. and call it a day -- without fear of not being considered a "team player."

After all, an attention-getting CNN headline asked, "Is Paul Ryan the new poster child for the work-life balance debate?"

A New York Times article titled, "Paul Ryan and Joe Biden: Unlikely Alliance of Working Fathers," outlined the importance of the men's "remarkable" declarations. In it, author Claire Cain Miller states that the news is interesting indeed, mainly in light of the fact that, "'spending more time with my family' can often be code for leaving a job for reasons someone doesn't want to name, like being fired."

How long will this Ryan-Biden work-life balance glimmer of hope linger?

I too, was also very intrigued by the news. Intrigued, but not excited.

It's a victory, but I'm afraid it's a small victory. Rather, it's more of a baby step that, while filling many people with hope, has a long way to go before it's up and running as an accepted norm in America's work culture. Sure, it has fueled those in the throes of workplace burnout with a degree of inspiration, but for how long will this Ryan-Biden work-life balance glimmer of hope linger? Long enough to truly make a difference in today's overworked society?

Interestingly, just as these men's work-life balance news hit -- and still to this day -- I've been observing a Facebook acquaintance continually express her work frustrations. She frequently details her very long hours, her hard work that continues without a pay increase or even words of praise, the lack of adequate sleep and of feeling physically and emotionally stressed as a result. She often wrestles with sticking to it in order to gain experience and just the opposite: leaving the job for one that allows her to take care of her overall health. Yet with every passing day, her delayed decision to stay in an out-of-balance work-life cycle keeps her spinning her wheels in "that's just the way it is" misery.

I understand her situation very well. I quit a Madison Avenue ad agency career after a few years, opting to choose my sanity over my salary. At other companies since, I've been told to stay in my office even when all work was in a decent spot because it apparently didn't look right for higher-ups to stroll down hallways and see a few empty went-home-to-be-with-family chairs staring back at them. I've been told that "checking in" on vacation was expected. I've been exhausted, filled with anxiety, and even doubted my own ability all because of the "work first, life second" attitude that permeates our culture.

Work-life balance not a debate to be settled, but a reality to be accepted

Why, I wonder, can't it be both? Why must there even be debates about work-life balance in the first place? People should work and adhere to deadlines. People should also sleep, eat, and interact with family members. This shouldn't be a debate to be settled, but a reality to be accepted. No choosing one over the other, but an integration of both, void of accusations and shame.

Of course there are those who argue that men, especially ones with the financial securities and public freedoms of Ryan and Biden, are in easier positions to make such statements and therefore better able to make certain work-life desires come to fruition.

Other people maintain that some individuals -- women in particular -- are often not as easily able to discuss family and children, much less alter their work lives around them, without being thought of as an uncommitted employee. For example, of the Ryan and Biden announcements, HuffPost blogger Joanne Bamberger wrote that women can't "make that kind of announcement in 2015 -- not even on Back to the Future Day" (Oct. 21, 2015 was the date made popular by the movie and when her blog appeared in HuffPost). Hers is a sad but valid point.

So while these recent announcements from Ryan and Biden have certainly generated a great deal of discussion about work-life balance -- an important step right there -- there's still a long way to go before we can declare that any victories over the matter have been made. The reality is that many people still continue to fear putting in a vacation request, while others work for a boss who says that working 14-hour days is promotion-worthy behavior. And surely, several individuals heard about the Ryan and Biden news -- ironically -- while sitting at work, responding to a family member's "when do you think you'll be home?" text.

Their announcements have undoubtedly raised awareness about work-life issues, but that doesn't mean the problems have gone away -- or that they will anytime soon. My friend still vents about her long hours on Facebook, my husband has worked more Saturday mornings than he'd prefer, and I hear a lot about people who work in organizations that disguise excessive hours as a "high energy, dynamic" environment.

Work-life balance victory isn't here... yet

Victory will come when work-life balance is no longer couched in terms of a debate, but rather when it's an accepted norm. It will be a victory when no one blinks at eye about an employee visiting an ailing father, when no one is thought any less professional for leaving work early to attend their son's drum solo at school, or heck, just to head home and get some much-needed rest. Victory will be realized when discussions shift from "gee, wouldn't that be nice" notions to corporate efforts that actually put work-life balance plans in place -- and stick to them.

Hopefully more announcements like Paul Ryan's and Joe Biden's will continue to surface so the burnout culture fades away entirely. Our professional and personal growth depends on it.