Work-Life Balance

See also: Avoiding Burnout

Work-life balance is a term used for the idea that you need time for both work and other aspects of life, whether those are family-related or personal interests. The saying goes that ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’. Working long hours can also be extremely stressful, so it is best avoided if possible.

However, work is essential for many of us to pay the bills. Some kind of contributory effort, whether paid or voluntary, is also often recognised as being important for personal satisfaction. It therefore seems likely that ‘all play’ would be dull too. We need to find a balance between the two.

The Origin of the Idea of ‘Work-Life Balance’

The idea that rest is vital for productive work goes back millennia.

And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.

Genesis 2:2, King James Bible

In the 1800s, during and following the industrial revolution, industrialists and unions alike agreed that workers needed a day off. This later became a two-day ‘weekend’. However, in those days, ‘work’ was mostly manual, and once workers left the site, they also left their work behind. They were genuinely able to rest, away from work, without having to think about it or worry about what might be going on in their absence.

Times have changed dramatically.

The phrase ‘work-life balance’ is rather more recent in origin. It was probably first used in the UK in the late 1970s, and in the US in the mid-1980s. It has, however, taken on a new meaning with the recent technological changes that have made it possible for workers to stay in touch 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Smart phones, remote working technology and the like have meant that, even on holiday, people find it hard to ‘switch off’ and genuinely rest, and the complaint is often that people are expected to be ‘on-call’ at all times, without being allowed to have a life outside work.

The Importance of Work-Life Balance

Our page on Personal Development explains the work of Maslow, and his Hierarchy of Needs.

Broadly, Maslow says that people have needs, which have to be met in order. Before anything else can be considered, basic physiological needs such as food, water, and shelter must be provided. After that, people need to feel safe, and then to be loved and belong to a group.

They then move on to issues of self-esteem, cognitive needs, and aesthetic needs, and finally, at the top of the pyramid, there is self-actualisation, or achieving your full potential as a human being.

What this means in practice is that work provides for basic needs: money earned provides food and shelter, and a regular income means safety. Work also allows people to belong to a group, and doing well at work boosts self-esteem. The lower levels can therefore all largely be met through aspects of working.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Physiological Needs, Safety Needs, Love and Belongingness, Esteem Needs, Cognitive Needs, Aesthetic Needs and Self-Actualisation.

At the top of the pyramid, however, are needs that are hard to meet with work alone. This is where lifestyle choices, and having time for leisure, become important.

This explains partly why a work–life balance is a relatively modern concept. You truly do need all the basic needs to be met before you have time or energy, or need, to worry about aesthetics or self-actualisation.

However, there is also another issue to consider: the impact of stress on the body, and the importance of being able to rest and recover.

As our page on Stress in the Workplace explains, some level of pressure can be very productive. However, too much pressure leads to stress, and prolonged and high levels of stress can lead to burnout and even serious mental health problems like depression. Working long hours is also associated with physical problems. One study found that people who regularly worked more than 55 hours per week had a higher risk of stroke as well as depression and anxiety. These are not just personal problems either: time off work for mental health problems is extremely expensive for businesses.

It is well-documented that rest and particularly being able to detach from work is vital for reducing stress.

With almost half of people reporting that their jobs are either ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressful in a survey in the US, this means that the idea of a work–life balance is increasingly important to the economy.

Elements of Work–Life Conflict

Commentators have divided both work–life balance and conflicts between work and life into several different elements. These distinctions can be helpful if you are trying to work out where a problem might be arising in your own life.

Conflict between work and family life is known as work–family conflict. Researchers divide this into two areas:

  • Work interference with family life (or work-to-family conflict) occurs when your work starts to interfere with or prevent you from doing things that you want to do with your family. This might include because you have to travel extensively for work, your organisation has a culture of long-hours working, or you are required to work irregular or unpredictable hours.

  • Family interference with work life (or family-to-work conflict) occurs when your family commitments affect your ability to work. This is less studied than work-to-family conflict, but can occur, for example, when caring responsibilities affect ability to work, or problems within the family distract from work.

Identifying Problems with Work–Life Balance

What does a work–life imbalance look like?

First, it is important to be clear that it is different for all of us. However, some signs that you may have a problem include:

  • Working very long hours, including regularly working at weekends and during pre-booked holidays (or not taking holidays at all);

  • Neglecting your personal life for work, including your relationships, hobbies, and other leisure time activities;

  • Experiencing some of the symptoms of burnout, which suggests that you are under too much stress, and don’t have time to recover; and

  • Not having time for ‘self-care’ such as eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising.

The ‘Ideal’ Work–Life Balance

Is there a way to define the ideal work–life balance?

The answer is yes and no. No, because there is no single ideal that works for all of us, or all the time for any individual. It is a highly personal thing. However,  commentators have suggested that there are six elements to achieving a work–life balance. These are:

  • Self-management, which is about recognising that you need to take control of your own life and time. Nobody else is going to look out for you if you don’t do so.

  • Time management, or making sure that you make the best use of your day and your time (and there is more about how to achieve this in our page on Time Management Skills).

  • Stress management, or managing the inevitable pressures of life to avoid becoming stressed (there is more about this in our pages on Stress and Stress Management).

  • Change management, or the ability to navigate change and complexity with ease and flexibility (you can find out more about this in our page on Change Management).

  • Technology management, or being able to use and harness tools and technology, rather than technology mastering you (you can find out more about how this might be a problem in our page on Problematic Smartphone Use).

  • Leisure time management, or taking control of your ‘free’ time and doing the things that you want to do.

Across these six elements, we all have the capacity to decide for ourselves what our ideal work–life balance would look like at any given time. To get a feel for whether your work–life balance is about right, try asking yourself two questions:

  1. How would I describe my life just now?
  2. How would I like to describe my life just now?

Whether the answers to these two questions match will tell you a lot about how you feel about your life at the moment—and how far it is from the ideal. If the answers don’t match, it may be worth asking the same questions for each of the elements listed above. This may help to identify the problem.

Achieving a Suitable Work–Life Balance: A Suggested Process

Achieving a desirable work-life balance can be a challenge, but these ideas should help you to make a start:

1. What is the nature and scale of the problem?

Before you can make things better, you have to understand the problem.

Try keeping a diary for a week, and set out how much time you spend on each activity, both at work and outside. This will give you an idea of your current work-life balance. You may also find it helpful to separate chores, including driving children to activities, and ‘fun’.

Warning! You may be surprised by the results.

A recent study using this technique found that women who reported having a good work–life balance and those who felt that they were spending too much time at work actually had very similar diaries. Much of it was a matter of perception.

Just seeing how much leisure time they had often made the participants feel better immediately.

Once you can see how your life separates into work and ‘other’, and into chores and fun, you can start to work out how to make changes to improve the balance.

2. Identify the ideal scenario

In many ways, this process is a bit like strategic thinking.

First you need to know where you are, then where you want to be. Think about how you would like your life to look. Ask yourself:

  • What would be the ideal balance between work and home?
  • How would you like to be spending your time?

Top tip: Clocks

One very useful technique for this is ‘clocks'.

Draw two clock faces on a page, one for an ideal week day and one for an ideal day at the weekend.

Split the day up into chunks to show how you would like to spend it: how much time in bed, how much time doing chores and other necessary but boring things, how much time working, and how much time on other things.

Be specific about the other things, whether those are playing with the kids, practising a musical instrument, learning a language or going for a walk. The discipline of having a clock face forces you to fit your activities into the time available, and you can see whether your ambitions are realistic.

You can expand this to seven clock faces, one for each day of the week, if you wish. You may also find it helpful to draw out your current ‘average’ weekday and weekend day on a clock face, for easy comparison.

WARNING! Be realistic about your ambitions. You do need to do boring stuff like cleaning and laundry from time to time, or pay someone else to do it.

3. What changes do you need to make to get from ‘now’ to ‘future’?

Look at your current situation and at your ideal scenario.

Identify three to five key changes that will help you to move from ‘now’ to ‘future’. For example, if you have identified that you want to confine weekend overtime to an hour in the evening on Sunday night, then what do you need to do to achieve that?

Concrete steps that you could take include:

  • Telling your colleagues that you will not be checking emails at the weekend;

  • Putting an out-of-office notification on your email to remind people;

  • Putting your work phone and computer away somewhere during the weekend. If your work emails come to your personal smartphone, then remove the account, or get a dedicated phone for work; and

  • Telling your family what you intend so that they can remind you if they catch you checking emails.

If you have enough time outside work, but you feel that it’s all swallowed by chores, then steps to take might include:

  • Working out whether you can afford to have a cleaner;

  • Asking your spouse, and if appropriate, children, to do more chores, and agreeing a reasonable split or rota; and/or

  • Identifying one day per week that is ‘chore-free’.

A Matter of Choice

It is important to recognise that we all make choices that affect our work–life balance, and particularly, how much free time we have.

You might feel that some of those choices are forced upon you by work or family circumstances. However, ultimately, it is up to you to take control of your own life. Nobody else is going to do that for you.

It is no good complaining that you have a poor work–life balance, and then doing nothing about it.

Stop and take a look at some of the choices you are making or have made, and how they might be affecting your approach to work and life. Consider whether you can make different choices, and achieve a different outcome.

Some good ways to take back a little control over your life and make yourself feel better include:

  • Getting enough sleep (and there is more about this in our page on The Importance of Sleep);

  • Taking some exercise, even if it’s only a short walk (and you can find out more in our page on The Importance of Exercise);

  • Turning off notifications, which will help you to avoid the ‘always on’ feeling (there is more about this in our page on Problematic Smartphone Use); and

  • Asking for help or support, even if it’s only asking a friend to go for coffee with you so you get a break from work, or can vent to them.

Our pages on Assertiveness explain that you need to value yourself as highly as others: not ahead, but not behind, either. Taking time for yourself and taking more control over your life, without feeling bad about doing so, are important aspects of that.


…it is possible to achieve a reasonable work–life balance, but you have to want to do it.

You can take control of your life, and make time for the things that matter to you. Nobody else is going to do that for you. If you want to spend more time out of work, then you will have to start leaving work earlier or arriving later.

You may need to learn to be more assertive with your colleagues, and particularly start to say ‘no’, if anyone asks you to take on more (and see our page on Assertiveness Techniques  for some helpful tips). However, once you start looking to make changes, you may be surprised how easy it is to achieve a better work–life balance.

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Learn more about the nature of stress and how you can effectively cope with stress at work, at home and in life generally. The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management eBook covers all you need to know to help you through those stressful times and become more resilient.