What is work-life balance?

May 27, 2022

‘Work-life balance’ is pretty much what it sounds like. It refers to the balance between the amount of time you spend at work and the amount of time you spend on the rest of your life. This can encompass anything from spending time with your friends and family to adventurous hobbies, or just reading a good book. It’s a subject with important ramifications for each of us, due to the impact it can have on our wellbeing, whether physical or mental.

More and more of us are talking about trying to find some sort of work-life balance. It’s a discussion that’s always topical and never seems to have a clear answer. The internet is littered with tips to find that elusive formula for work-life balance, but it’s rarely that simple.

Having a good work-life balance involves feeling satisfied and content with the major areas of your life and how they interact with one another. What that means in practice to each individual, however, is different for everyone. There is no one-size fits all approach.

What does work-life balance mean for me?

While everyone might have a different answer to this question, you can use a simple process to help figure it out for yourself. It can be helpful to divide up your life into distinct areas. Not everything will fit neatly into a single category but it’s a good starting point. Think of your life as a pie chart, with three main areas:

  • work
  • your family and friends
  • your interests and hobbies

Think about how much time you devote to each of these, and how you prioritise them. Then reflect on what you might want to change. This is a good jumping-off point for figuring out what work-life balance could mean for you.

Generically, you probably want to create enough time for leisure and socialising to make life fun and interesting but not so much that your work performance suffers greatly. There are always going to be tradeoffs that have to be made; you’re probably never going to be able to do everything you want to in life. However, you want to feel that the overall balance in your life is generally right for you. Working out what your priorities are is a good place to start.

Rather than thinking about what an ‘ideal’ work-life balance should look like, take some time for introspection. Ask yourself some questions, such as:

  • What makes me happy in each of these parts of my life?
  •  How much time do I need to spend on these activities to do them properly?
  • Are my current priorities really what I want, or just what I think I should want?

 You don’t have to get all Eat, Pray, Love about it, but it’s better to ask these questions now and adapt your life a bit, rather than come to a hard realisation down the road.

Why is work-life balance important?

Work-life balance isn’t something you should try to achieve for the sake of it. In fact, you probably shouldn’t try to achieve it, at all. What works for you at one point in your life may not work for you at another; our priorities and our circumstances change and evolve. You’ll probably never reach a point where you’ve got your work-life balance sorted forever. It’s about checking in with your life at different points, and making sure that the individual parts keeping adding up to make a whole with which you are happy.

Let’s say that succeeding in your job is your number one priority. Even if you want to go full-speed ahead at work, you need to be mindful of creating space for other parts of your life. Prioritising one thing shouldn’t be done to the complete exclusion of all others. This isn’t just a mantra; balance is key to maintaining a healthy work life.

Burnout may be a zeitgeist-y topic at the moment, but it’s a very real risk if you don’t try to create some equilibrium in your life. There is consistent evidence that regularly working long hours without making time for leisure activities and socialising often leads to lower productivity, more absences from work and poorer health outcomes, along with higher levels of stress. You shouldn’t view the ‘life’ part of work-life balance as the enemy of career success. It is often crucial to being able to maintain your drive over the long-term.

In fact, being a ‘well-rounded’ person is often seen as a plus by employers. Businesses increasingly recognise that this will lead to a more productive and stable (as well as a happier!) workforce. Mental health issues are the leading cause of absences due to illness in the UK, costing employers tens of billions every year. While a decent work-life balance isn’t a panacea by any means, its a good way to help you keep in touch with your own mental health.

As important as it is to balance work with play, this doesn’t mean that work can’t  have inherent value in our lives (even apart from the pay cheque!). A majority of people consistently report that commitment to their work provides significant meaning in their lives, and contributes to their overall contentment. As the name suggests, it’s about finding a balance, rather than demonising either work or leisure.

How does ‘life’ impact work-life balance?

We’ve talked a lot about work, so let’s take a moment to talk about the ‘life’ bit. If we go back to our pie chart, this is made up of ‘hobbies and interests’ and ‘family and friends’. As well as being important to keep you happy and healthy, these areas often affect how you prioritise your time.

The type of interests that you have can affect how you decide your work-life balance. For example, imagine that you enjoy going on frequent, long hiking weekends with your friends. It’s an important part of your life. In that case, you might want to prioritise having a job with flexible hours and a decent amount of time off. This might require a tradeoff on your salary to some degree.

On the other hand, what if your interests are quite expensive, such as foreign travel or buying luxury clothes? You might decide to spend more hours working a bit harder, in order to be able to afford to indulge those interests at all. You might need to think about these sorts of prioritisations when considering your own work-life balance.

Additionally, your family situation will likely impact this. If you have caring responsibilities, that will necessarily affect how much time you can dedicate to your work. Or, indeed, your financial needs may colour the extent to which you can be flexible in your approach to your career, particularly if you have dependents.

Even apart from family commitments, it is important to recognise that spending more time at home isn’t necessarily a relaxing counterweight to work for everyone. This 2014 study indicated that many participants, particularly women, demonstrated higher stress levels when at home than at work, and combining work and home exacerbated people’s experience of stress. It is well known that unpaid labour in the home is a significant time drain for many people, usually women. Therefore, we should not assume that time outside of work is automatically stress-reducing for everyone.

How do different ways of working affect work-life balance?

An increasingly important part of the conversation around work-life balance involves how, when and where people are working. The rise of hybrid-working, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, has led to more people working from home at least part of the time, often outside of traditional office hours. This can grant people more flexibility, such as allowing them to spend more time with family and reduce their commuting time. However, it can also lead to employees spending more and more of their days on work, due to the erosion of clear work hours and the hyper-connectivity that technology now permits.

Even if not working from home during the day, the fact that most people in the workforce today spend so much time on their phones and devices means that shutting off from work can be difficult. If you can be contacted at any time of the day or night, or keep poring over documents on your laptop all evening, clear work/home divisions can be tricky to maintain.

Even more traditional differences in modes of working may impact what people prioritise in their work-life balance. For instance, if you work in a very sociable office all day, you may prioritise alone-time in your private life, or vice versa. If your job is desk-based, you may enjoy planning outdoor hobbies on your own time. Or you may jealously guard your indoor weekends if you’re a gardener, for example. These are just hypothetical examples, but they serve to illustrate how the demands of one area of your life can drive what you choose to prioritise across the board.

Work-life balance tips

Fundamentally, finding a work-life balance that works for you is about figuring out what mishmash of work, friends and fun makes you happiest in your life overall. To do that, bear these tips in mind:

  • Don’t see work and leisure as enemies. Remember that a good amount of one can improve your satisfaction with the other.
  • Try to maintain boundaries between work and the rest of your life. This is easier said than done, but simply putting the laptop or phone away in the evening can really help keep you balanced and feeling in control of your life.
  • Think about how much time you need to do the things that are most important to you, and do them well. Then, try to make that time for them. Don’t try to do everything you think you could or should; you’ll run yourself ragged.
  • Try to ring fence enough time for a good night’s sleep. It’s a basic thing, but it can make all the difference.
  • Finally, why not try actually drawing that pie chart of the different areas of your life? It can help you to visualise your work-life balance, and see whether it’s looking right for you.

Written by Nathalie Lahiri

Featured Photo by William Fortunato from Pexels

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