Work-Life Balance Lessons From ’90s Holiday Movies

I had an epiphany while watching “Jingle All the Way” recently.

It’s odd to have any kind of revelation when watching Arnold Schwarzenegger chase Sinbad throughout Minneapolis looking for holiday’s hottest toy, Turbo Man. But I realized that several early ’90s family movies revolve around the same issue: work-life balance.

“Jingle All the Way” (1996) saw Schwarzenegger’s character late to his son’s school events, missing out on important moments with his family, and tension with his wife. All these things led up to a Christmas Eve shopping excursion to make up for a year of being absent at home (and once again missing time with the family).

“The Santa Clause” (1994) had Tim Allen’s character (spoiler: he eventually turns into Santa Claus) working so much that he didn’t have time to play with his son, make any kind of Christmas dinner or even comfort the child about his parents’ recent divorce.

And in “Hook” (1991), Robin Williams’ grown up Peter Pan didn’t have time to get to his son’s baseball game and his constant cell phone usage was a major family disruption.

In these depictions, the fathers worked hard to provide for their families but ended up neglecting them because they couldn’t set boundaries and separate their work and home lives — usually with a harassing boss in the background demanding devotion.

I did a little digging on the origins of the “work-life balance” term and found a 2007 study from the Boston College Center for Work & Family. Interestingly, the study pins much of the realization of the need for flexibility in the workplace on a surge of working mothers, not the fathers (despite Hollywood’s depiction).

The study notes that as the workforce began to include more professional women in the 1970s and ’80s and – as they began to have children and families – there was a struggle to achieve both career and family aspirations. The actual term “work-life balance” first appeared in the mid-’80s.

Companies began to understand that being “family friendly” could be used in recruiting efforts. Employee assistance programs (EAP) and health and wellness programs made it into the workplace as employers realized burn-out and low productivity were problematic.

Another factor in the changing face of the workplace was advances in technology, which allow people to unchain from the office. Now, people are more likely to work at home in the evenings or on weekends. (Of course, that lends to its own set of balance problems, due to the ability to be constantly plugged-in.)

Here’s a piece of anecdotal evidence about employers providing a healthy balance: Each year we sort through the Best Places to Work in Indiana entries to highlight some of the things the best Hoosier companies provide (as voted by the employees themselves). “Healthy work-life balance” (zero or little overtime, paid vacation, etc.) is typically one of the first things each of these winning companies list.