Just like the hunt for the Loch Ness Monster, the search for an effective work-life balance continues to elude many people like some kind of mythical beast. The reasons for this are numerous – yet, just like those fanatical hunters who trawl the inky depths of the now infamous Scottish loch, hopes run high. In this article, we take an unvarnished look at work-life balance in an attempt to prove or disprove its existence once and for all.
Work, Work, Work is Only Part of the Problem
The way that work features in our lives today is vastly different from times of old. Gone are the days of neat separation where working hours ended, and personal lives began. Many of us feel the constant drain of work; it hangs around in our lives like a spectre on the edge of our peripheral vision. Even for those lucky enough to love their careers, switching off and stepping away can be a battle. The struggle to find an effective work-life balance does not only apply to those who hate their jobs, it applies to all of us – and we owe it to ourselves, and our health, to ensure that we tame this beast.
So, why has this become a problem now?
Well, in short, it’s a symptom of our time. It’s all down to technology and the subsequent impact on pace and expectation.
Whilst creating a globally inter-connected world, technological advancements have effectively blurred the line between home and work. Coupled with an increase in home-working and the flexible working arrangements offered by many companies, the historical separation that long existed between our personal and professional lives is now a thing of the past. Today, everything happens faster, people and companies expect better results in a shorter period of time. Additionally, there is often an implicit expectation that we should be willing to spring into action when we’re needed.
Of course, companies all over the world are cottoning on to the fact that this can’t continue, and that it’s having a detrimental impact on the workforce. However, your work life is only half the problem. Even if you can dial down your professional life and get it firmly in check, you also need to do the same for your personal life. And let’s face it, many of us have demanding personal commitments which are often far less flexible.
What Work-Life Balance Means
Work-life balance is about harmony. It’s about ensuring that all aspects of your life – your personal life, your family life, and your professional life – are in a state of equilibrium where they don’t conflict with one another.
It’s interesting to note that the term first appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s when advances in technology were starting to impact on the masses.
To achieve an effective work-life balance a person should be able to adequately meet all of their needs, in each of the three spheres of their life, without feeling stressed. When one area of life becomes more challenging and encroaches on the others, you begin to feel compromised and conflicted. At its worse, the impact can be much more significant.
The most common cause of an ineffective work-balance is the conflict that exists between our professional and personal family lives. Most people will say that they simply can’t fit everything in that they need to do, and that there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
In fact, research has shown time and time again, that the majority of people struggle with this issue. Some studies indicate that up to 70 percent of the population is grappling with this problem.
Can You Spot an Unhealthy Work-Life Balance?
According to the Mental Health Foundation, the British organisation which pioneers for positive change and robust research in the field of mental health, issues surrounding work-life balance pose the greatest threat to the mental health of the general population in the modern era. This really is no laughing matter.
A Mental Health Foundation Survey found that people with an unhealthy work-life balance report feeling:
- unhappy with how much time they devote to work
- that they neglect other aspects of their life because of work
- that the impact of working longer hours can be significant – depression, anxiety and irritability were common that there is a correlation: if they spent more time at work, that they ended up thinking about work more often as working hours increase, feelings of happiness decrease.
Source: Mental Health Foundation
You will more than likely know people who suffer from a poor work-life balance even if you don’t feel this way yourself. You will often hear them report that they feel:
- burnt out
- miserable on a daily basis and that this bad mood affects other aspects of their life
their health is suffering as they don’t have time to take care of themselves
- that the lack of balance is impacting on their enjoyment and passion for their job, they might start to hate a job that they once loved
- lost and resentful
- stuck in a rut that they can’t get out of
- unsure of what they want to do with the rest of their life, but they feel that their current job is no longer enough.
Some Strategies for Achieving Work-Life Balance
So now that we have a clear view of what life balance is and what it looks like when you don’t have balance, what can we do about it?
Well, the internet is awash with people who claim to have solved the work-life balance problem. Let’s take a quick look at some of the most commonly quoted solutions.
1. Start with You
Without doubt, self-care is the single most important step in the quest to attain balance in your life. Research has proven time and time again that getting an adequate amount of sleep is critical to good self-care. It also means that you need to look after yourself by eating well and exercising regularly.
2. Plan Your Time and Set Goals
Being strategic with your time enables you to make the most of what you have. Use a diary or planner and stay on top of the things that you need to do. Make sure that everything is in there – work meetings, personal commitments, birthdays – everything. Stick to your plans – of course, you’ll need to deviate every now and then but keep this to a minimum. Set yourself goals for what you want to achieve both in your professional life and personal life then plan your time around achieving these.
3. Manage Your Mind
Take the time to look after your mental health by embedding meditation and mindfulness practices into your life. These should become regular habits just like brushing your teeth. Work to rid yourself of stress by working on single tasks. Don’t be tempted to multi-task.
4. Tame Your Tech
Don’t let the tail wag the dog. Be conscious of how connected you are and manage this down as much as possible. Don’t be tempted to sleep with your phone in your bedroom, cut back on social media and be strict about the times you check emails. Read fiction at bedtime.
5. Take Time
The fact is that taking time away from work actually increases both productivity and creativity in the long run. We all need to recharge our batteries. Despite the fact that working long hours is often worn as a badge of honour, everyone needs a break from time to time. Take holidays, take meaningful breaks during the day and leave work at a reasonable time.
6. Draw a Line
Make a clear distinction between work and personal time. Compartmentalise. Time at home is for leisure and spending time with the family, not working.
7. Maximise Efficiency
Find ways of making the most of your time. Don’t give in to perfectionism. Work smarter not harder, focus on getting things done.
Let’s Get Real: Why Work-Life Balance Doesn’t Always Work
There is no doubt that the above strategies work and that employing them religiously can go some way to embedding an improved sense of balance in your life. However, let’s be realistic here. When you work full-time, have a commute, kids at home and a house to run, taking more holidays and sleeping more aren’t always the quick-fire answers to your problems. After all, we only have 24 hours in each day.
Those people with more complex personal lives and significant family commitments may well see their options for cutting back limited. Sure, it takes bravery to opt for change when you’re wearing heavy golden handcuffs, but you do nonetheless have choices. It’s not as easy to down tools on your kids or make a conscious decision to look after your aged mother-in-law less. The simple act of fitting everything into your life becomes a stressful battle even when commitments have been scaled back as far as possible.
In these cases, alternative solutions need to be found.
Finding Your Work-Life Balance: What Does It Mean to You?
Let’s take a look at some more practical ‘solutions.’
You must accept that having a balanced work life and a personal life isn’t always going to be easy; there will always be times when there is interference and the two sides of your life will not always exist in balanced harmony. Diversity Best Practices report that the best solution in this situation is not about work-life balance but instead work-life integration. Whilst this is not a one-size-fits-all solution it is possible for companies to make strategic decisions that benefit their employees such as flexible working conditions, on-site childcare, and paid maternity and paternity leave. The impact on individual people and their families can be huge, and it’s an excellent retention strategy for companies. However, not everyone is fortunate enough to work in such conditions.
If you’re lucky enough to work for such a company – fantastic. If not, then maybe it’s time to consider a move to a place where your personal needs can be better catered for. Working for an organisation that actively cares about your welfare, enables your career to flourish whilst also allowing you to have a successful personal life can totally change your world view. Some people even believe that the benefits of less stress and increased happiness are worth taking a pay cut for.
A key part of work-life integration is the mindset that you adopt. The fact is that times have changed. Working patterns and practices and now different and we need to make a conscious decision to accept this. Clear separation between work and home might not be a practical possibility for everyone. Instead of constantly fighting a losing battle, accept this and look at the situation from a different angle.
For example, if you work from home it is impossible to get physical separation between your home and work lives. However, it is possible to have emotional separation. Get dressed for work (even if your working day involves beavering away in the spare bedroom), mark the end of the working day by taking a walk and winding down, go out for lunch and take meaningful breaks during the working day, organise your working habits so that they don’t encroach on your personal life by being tidy and organised and keeping your work materials in a defined space. Punctuate your life with ‘markers’ that show the distinction between your personal life and your professional life.
The Glass and Rubber Ball Theory
Work-life balance is a broad concept including proper prioritising between ‘work’ (career ambition) on one hand and ‘life’ (family, health, pleasure, leisure and spiritual development) on the other.
Stories of highly successful people all share one thing in common: compromise.
In order to rise to the top of their respective fields, these individuals have had to sacrifice some aspect of their lives in order to devote the time necessary to achieve this level of success.
A number of years ago, Bryan Dyson, then the President and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, delivered a commencement speech. In it, he discussed the difference between glass and rubber balls. His insight is as valuable today as it was then it paints a beautiful picture of why we strive for balance, I’d like to share a most resonate piece of that speech with you.
‘Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – Work, Family, Health, Friends and Spirit… and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuff ed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.’
I love that Dyson singles out what is most important in life. There are indeed priorities, and few would disagree over the importance of family, health, friends, and spirit. It is the work topic and this issue of "balance" that gives me and many other colleagues, business associates and professionals cause to pause.
Balance is relative to the individual. The implication that work is bad or less than good is troubling. Our work is very personal. If you are involved in work that you love, as the old adage goes, it never feels like work.
Achieving a universally agreeable definition in a firm over the theme of "work-life" balance is singularly one of the most difficult tasks I have encountered in my professional life.
Balance is not better time management but better boundary management. Balance means making choices and enjoying those choices. Work-life balance also involves juggling workplace stress with the daily pressures of family, friends, and self. Everyone experiences stress at some stage in their life. Stress is not always bad.
In other words, it’s time to get real and forgive yourself.
How can I manage juggling my glass and rubber balls?
Well, in order to compensate for having to juggle too many balls at the one time you can consider the following solutions:
- outsource, automate or delegate anything that you give to someone else.
- focus on the things that enable you to achieve your goals by prioritising: do the most important things first.
- expend your energy carefully; in other words, direct it to the things where it can have the most impact.
In other words, we can have it all, all of the time. This doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your dreams. It doesn’t mean that you have to kiss your career goodbye. It just means that you need to accept that at times in your life you are going to have to compromise.
Despite the romanticised notion that we really can have it all, all of the time, it’s time to face up to the ugly truth that affects everyone. We all have to compromise.
Yes, Janet who reigns as the office manager might seemingly have it taped, but she doesn’t sleep enough and frying off mince for tonight’s lasagne at 4am (before she does her yoga) is not healthy or ‘balanced’.
The fact is, we all have limits. We all have commitments that are sizeable and time-consuming and sometimes we just can’t do it all.
Think about where you are at in your life right now and decide on your priorities. The other things can wait. You can come back to them later.
Forgive yourself and stop wasting time trying to find ‘Nessie.
Frequently Asked Questions About Work-Life Balance
1. What is Work-Life Balance?
Work-life balance is about harmony. It’s about ensuring that all aspects of your life – your personal life, your family life and your professional life – are in a state of equilibrium where they don’t conflict with one another.
2. Why is Work-Life Balance Important?
Achieving and maintaining a good work-life balance is important for your long term physical and mental health. Research has also shown that a good work-life balance positively impacts on people’s levels of happiness, satisfaction and fulfilment.
3. Is Work-Life Balance A Lie?
Work-life balance is attainable, but it is a complex picture that means you have to decide on your priorities and boundaries. Attaining a good-work life balance is dependent on where you are at in your life and the consequent decisions that you need to make in order to decide where you need to focus your attention. At the end of the day, everyone has to compromise. It doesn’t mean that you need to give up on your dreams, but it does mean that some things might need to wait.
4. Why is it Hard to Achieve Work-Life Balance?
Work-life balance is hard to achieve because practically is often impossible to fit everything into the 24 hours that you have. You need to accept that you cannot do it all and prioritise. Some people find it hard to accept that they have constraints. We are often led to believe that we should pursue a kind of perfection where we are productivity superheroes and get it all done. It’s far more accurate to accept that we are human and that we need to forgive ourselves for not being perfect.
5. When Can I Achieve Work-Life Balance?
At all points in your life. Accept that you are going to have to compromise, focus on your goals and priorities and the way you expend your energy. Don’t waste time searching for the impossible.
Now, I’d love to hear from you.
What action are you going to take as a result of reading this article?
Let me know your thoughts. Your observation may inspire someone else who needs help to act.