“Work-Life Balance” Ruthless Criticism

“Work-Life Balance”

BASF, the world’s largest chemical company and an international trend-setter, recently opened an “Employee Center for Work-Life Management” at its headquarters in Germany amid much public brouhaha. The company executives have discovered, to wit, a widespread problem: “reconciling the demands of career and family is a demanding challenge.” (Information brochure) And not only for the valued employees in particular, but even for the company, which is well advised to attend to offers for coping with this challenge. Then “both sides profit if it succeeds ... This is the only way that we can build the best team and ensure the success of our company.” The secret, BASF’s own experts claim, lies in the right “balance” between “work and private life. This is the crucial foundation for satisfaction and performance. Employees and company profit from this alike.”

If the positive effects of a successful work-life balance for everyone involved are beyond doubt – “it maintains the competitiveness of the employees, increases workplace safety, reduces absenteeism” – only one question remains: what really, according to BASF, does the apparently always precarious balance between work and private life consist of and how is it best produced?


On the work side, there’s quite a lot about what simply can’t be changed in terms of balance. The purpose here is not “balance” but, in the frank disclosure of the company, “business success” = increasing profit, and for the company that alone defines what people have to do. That this is not a little but a lot and always more and more is self-evident. Because the standard of success for the company is that of a world market leader:

“In order to use opportunities for profitable growth all over the world, BASF has subsidiaries in more than eighty countries and supplies products to a variety of business partners around the world.” “BASF intends to expand its position as the world's leading chemical company. This strategy builds on our past success and defines our ambitious goals for the future.”

This is not only why the employees of BASF have a lot of work; the latter also increasingly has the property of “dense” – and that is not without consequences. “In fact, the intensification of work has brought new problems.” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 11.9.13)

On this basis, the employees can now seek advice in the new center on how they can redeploy on this side of the balance. For all the inflexibility of the company’s purpose and its objective necessities, there’s nevertheless quite a lot that’s possible. So the company can offer its employees, for example, the following great finding about handling the place of work:

“Not all tasks require our employees’ physical presence at their place of work. Teleworking is one of the ways in which they can gain greater flexibility by performing some or all of their tasks at home. In consultation with their superior, they may work in a home office if this is demanded by their personal situation.” (Brochure)

How nice that not everyone has to busy themselves in the office all the time if they can get the same amount of work done outside it – in this way, they do themselves and the company a favor by increasing their “flexibility.”

The same goes for matters of working time. If this is already characterized by ever more “compression,” then the employee center is ready to examine whether and how – in combination with flexibility in the place of work – it can be cut up into smaller and ever smaller units and shifted back and forth within the limits of part-time, flex-time and other working time models. So that work really eats up only as much time from life as the productivity of the company requires. And this life certainly has its part in this:


The purpose of the company is set, its success is assumed – that’s work. The employees put up with it for the sake of their purpose – life. For that, for the treasured private life, they hustle and bend over backwards for the company. What they do with the money they get from the job and the time it leaves them is then their private affair, so no business at all of the company in the first place. And nobody else’s either. That’s the meaning of “private life” – on the one hand.

What then is private and what is not – BASF in no way deceives itself about that, on the other hand.

“No matter whether its a life crisis, dependent care, financial difficulties, conflicts at work, problems with addiction or depression – the LuCare team, composed of experts from the BASF advisers, is available to those seeking advice. Each stage of life has its own issues. We as a company do not want to let our employees deal with these issues and associated challenges alone, but to accompany and support them.”

In the form of the enumeration of “life phases” and the “issues” associated with them, those in charge of BASF talk quite coolly about how little is chosen individually, cheerfully and freely when “our employees” leave the work gates behind for free time:

First, the caring employer – keyword: “financial difficulties” – knows that the private life to which it dismisses its people after office hours is in no small way characterized by the financial means it gives them for it: its wage calculations are not oriented by the individual needs and predilections of the recipients, but by the “profitable growth” of BASF; just as vice versa the prices that the BASF employee must pay with his wages should – once again – further promote the “profitable growth” of those demanding these prices – hence, certainly aren’t formed by how well equipped the checking account of the consumer is.

Second, the company makes arrangements with its “BASF experts in counseling,” such as offers of child care, help coping with elder care, etc., that show that the private lives of its workers are not only clearly restricted by the financial and time conditions set by BASF, but that even the content of free time is to some extent defined by outside forces: very little is seen of a freely chosen and organized family happiness, but a lot of family needs that apparently regularly overwhelm the individual. From bringing up children to caring for elderly relatives, the private individual meets throughout his everyday life partly legal, partly general moral types of requirements that make his life difficult: nothing but social arrangements that function not as the affected people would find easiest or even most bearable, but cause new constraints for the individual even functioning.

Third, the modern customs and traditions that make the private pursuit of happiness so stereotypically and predictably a private life struggle ultimately include a very fatal manner of dealing with the adversities and brutalities of “everyday life.” That is, the free private individual takes charge of his duty to cope with all the “challenges” himself: an extremely convenient manner for the social system to use its wealth for better things than an easy life for its rank and file. Only it’s very exhausting and often emotionally ruinous for people who essentially want nothing more than to have something of their lives. Then they are quick to become depressed, to get their enjoyment of life by addictive substances – and that is then not so convenient for the big picture. Because then they no longer function quite properly and tasks that the company wants to have done by its private individuals are left undone. In the end, even work suffers because the people in question at some point no longer have any desire to strive for a nice life through work.

That’s it then, life: a collection of burdens, from small difficulties to major disasters, so stereotypical, so predictable, that BASF has guaranteed an expert on hand for everyone who comes “seeking advice.” Just as the work world is jam-packed from beginning to end by a purpose which is focused entirely on the company and its profit, so the private world that is celebrated as a counter to it is ultimately only the second half of an existence that is continuously determined by the social system of making money and the social responsibility of being useful and functioning without causing problems. That makes a lot of people useless. Not only for private happiness, but also for the job. And the company does not want to leave it at that. It looks after


– meaning, life counseling for company employees who specifically or generally, psychologically or otherwise, temporarily or altogether, no longer manage to function.

An interesting favor.

What the philanthropic company can’t leave alone are things that are necessary consequences of a social system that it is a pillar and beneficiary of. With its highly polished bravado about the growth of its profits produced and realized here and around the world, the company proudly exhibits itself as profiteer of the ruling conditions in which everything depends on money. It is faced with the fact that these conditions also produce a few downsides for its interests in the form of employees whose capacity to do the “work” which the company pays them for leaves a lot to be desired. BASF wants to “balance” out this contradiction. And indeed in the only way this is to be done in keeping with and in fairness to the system: by adjusting the person affected. Whoever needs it gets counseling for carrying out by himself the balance between the burdens of the job and the tribulations of privately coping with life so that “it” works. If work and private life are each spheres of life completely defined according to their own requirements and conditions and thereby are just what they are, and if they get in each other’s way as such, then the individual himself must get it together so that all the demands that both spheres make on him work out.

What the help then looks like is pretty clear: where there’s not enough time to meet all the obligations, the company welcomes its employees’ children or sets up compensatory weight training right next to the factory floor or the office building or sends over a counselor. And where it’s more fundamental, it donates a round of “counseling” which makes an offer to the client as to how he finds a way by himself out of his unhappiness whose failure to deal with could possibly cost him his livelihood, the job: offers to define himself as a “balance” problem in order to get himself back “into balance.”

How nice for the chemical giant that a lot of sufferers gratefully accept this offer as help. The will to remain useful and withstand stress is apparently quite resilient; and useful in any case. The BASF helpers don’t even have to hide the fact that it only matters to the company that “work” runs smoothly.