Real or Sci-Fi? ‘Severance’ and the Risks of Work-Life Balance

Real or Sci-Fi? ‘Severance’ and the Risks of Work-Life Balance
May 11, 2022

Ever since remote work tore down the boundaries between our homes and our workplaces, employees around the world have been forced to learn new methods to achieve work-life balance. But here’s a question for you: if you could separate your work self and your home self entirely, would you?  

That question lies at the heart of Severance, the hit television series which recently completed its first season. In case you missed it, the series follows a handful of employees at a mysterious technology company who undergo a medical procedure that gives the show its title: when they join the company, they each have their consciousness “severed” into two separate minds – a work self and a home self. 

The characters enter the office and immediately forget who they are outside of work. When they leave, they become their regular selves again, but with no memory of what transpired in the office. Each character effectively becomes two different people – the protagonist, for example, is a grief-stricken loner in his personal life, but a rule-following, relatively relaxed do-gooder in the office. 

Okay, wait. Why, exactly, are we recapping the plot of a science-fiction series?   

Because despite all the sci-fi weirdness that transpires throughout the series, Severance’s core themes – the lines between home and work life, and the consequences that occur when those lines become blurred – could not be more timely. In fact, these themes closely mirror the most pressing challenges facing today’s corporate employees. 

Is work-life balance achievable in today’s workplace? And should it be? 

You don’t need any more plot details to understand that Severance’s storyline is a clear metaphor for our complicated work-life balance in the modern workplace.  

The allegory has struck a chord with audiences precisely because of how unfathomable its vision of work-life balance is in today’s climate. After all, most of us have spent the past two years working in the same place we sleep, eat, and relax. We have our email and communication apps on our mobile devices, right next to the games and movie streaming apps we use in our free time.  

Considering the fatigue and burnout that many employees have experienced during this time, it’s not unreasonable for some to daydream about their work and home life being 100% separate.    

In the world of Severance, the employer presents work-life balance as a benefit, but the frightening events that follow reveal it to be something else entirely. Things might not get so dark in the real world – but the idea is based in truth: many organizations promise to offer work-life balance, but don’t provide a workplace where such balance is actually feasible.

When an employer promotes work-life balance but fails to promote a Digital Employee Experience where work-life balance is achievable, they trap workers in a vicious cycle of burnout and frustration. 

The cycle usually goes something like this:  

  • A company wins over a talented new candidate with the promise of work-life balance, ensuring them that they’ll still be able to set boundaries between work and their personal life even when working from home. 
  • The employee starts working and quickly realizes that they were sold an empty promise. Their boss sends them messages at all hours of the night and expects them to respond. Their coworkers ignore their out-of-office statuses and treat them rudely when they don’t answer emails on their days off. And their days are so packed with unnecessary virtual meetings that they end up logging in during off-hours so they can actually get things done.
  • The employee quickly becomes stressed, burnt out, and loses their trust in the employer that did nothing to follow through on its promise of work-life balance. 

 As work-life balance has become harder to achieve, organizations have started to consider alternatives – like work-life integration, a structure in which employees are given flexibility over their hours and time spent working so they can juggle work and personal responsibilities however they see fit. 

Both philosophies have their benefits and challenges. But one thing is clear: in a remote or hybrid workplace, employers can’t claim to offer work-life balance without continuously taking steps to ensure they’re actually offering it.  

That means setting and enforcing ground rules for team leaders and employees about respecting each other’s schedules, managing workloads, limiting redundant virtual meetings, and any other factor that could contribute to an employee sacrificing personal time for their work. 

Benefit or Bribe: The Ethics of Corporate Culture 

Within the central metaphor for work-life balance, Severance offers many subtler critiques about corporate culture and employer-employee relationships. 

For example: throughout the show, the fictional company’s leaders provide employees with a series of frivolous (and eventually, downright creepy) office perks. They throw them parties, serve them drinks, give them branded knick-knacks, etc. These perks aren’t just demonstrations of appreciation; they’re hollow attempts to keep employees happy despite the awful day-to-day experiences that they’re subjecting workers to. 

If you’ve worked at enough corporate companies, this probably sounds familiar. Have you ever worked for an employer who provided all the flashy perks – the parties, the free snacks, the ping-pong tables in the fancy office spaces – but made no effort to improve your actual employee experience? 

It’s a particularly resonant message today, as many companies look to end the conversation around remote work-life balance by mandating a full return to the office. And since many employees prefer remote work – 65% say they don’t want to return to the office full-time – employers are rolling out the enticing incentives. 

There’s even a real-estate firm who offered its employees the opportunity to win cash prizes, a new Tesla, or a trip to Barbados – the catch is: only employees who return to the office are eligible for these offers. 

Of course, no employee would complain about having the chance to win such a lavish prize. But benefits like these set a troubling precedent, as they exist in order to entice employees to work in a way that might contradict their own needs and preferences.    

Employee experience isn’t about the gifts and small luxuries our employers throw our way for doing our jobs. And it’s certainly not about a form of work-life balance that exists on an attractive Careers page but not in the actual workplace. 

True employee experience is about the way we feel every day at work, how much trust we have in our employers, and the tools and strategies our employers adopt in order to help us be as productive, engaged, and happy as possible. 

There’s nothing wrong with offering perks or continuing to strive for work-life balance in today’s increasingly digital workplace. But perks are only beneficial, and balance is only achievable, when employers worry less what they want and more about the Digital Employee Experience they offer to their workers.      

Sam Holzman is a DEX Analyst at Nexthink, a global leader in Digital Employee Experience. Sam covers breaking news stories and industry trends in the IT technology sector.Learn More

Subscribe to the DEX Hub