If you’re not sure, you’re not alone! Experts across a range of social sciences have looked into aspects of work-life balance, but there’s no agreed definition of the concept as a whole. Initially the idea was focused on women in the workplace, and the balance between their job and family responsibilities. The discussion has widened since then, and the concept of work-life balance continues to evolve over time, as social and technological factors around employment change.
It may also look different across borders. For example, consider that the average person in Turkey works 20 hours more per week than the average person in the Netherlands. This goes to show just how different one person’s concept of work-life balance might be from someone else’s.
Work-life balance in the modern world
Technology has been a great driver of efficiency in modern work. But it also enables an ‘always on’ work culture, where many employees can be productive outside the work environment. They can also make contact (and be contacted!) anywhere and everywhere. This disrupts the boundary between work life and non-work life, which can make achieving work-life balance more of a challenge.
Why is work-life balance important?
While the picture of a ‘perfect’ work-life balance might not be clear, we do know the benefits of getting it right. If you look after yourself well and achieve a good balance, you’ll be a more productive worker and less likely to experience burnout. It will also improve things outside of work, like relationships.
We also know that an imbalance between work life and home life has implications for your physical and mental health. Someone with poor work-life balance will be at increased risk of:
Someone with poor work-life balance is also more likely to have a negative perception of their own health, which can have an adverse impact on health in the long run.
So it’s not just a ‘nice-to-have’; it’s a crucial factor in protecting our health and wellbeing.
Do I have a good work-life balance?
Although we might not have a universal definition of work-life balance, there are some questions you can ask yourself that may help you build a picture of your situation. One research-based model of work-life balance suggests it’s made up of three ‘domains’. I’ve outlined them here, with a couple of questions for you to think about for each one.
Work interference with personal life
- Do you put your personal life on hold for work?
- Are you unhappy with the amount of time you have for non-work activities?
Personal life interference with work
- Does your personal life drain you of energy for work?
- Is it hard to work because of personal matters?
Work/personal life enhancement
- Does your personal life give you energy for your job?
- Do you have a better mood because of your job?
How can I improve my work-life balance?
Unfortunately there’s no miracle cure or step-by-step guide to achieving that elusive work-life balance. But a goal-centred approach may help you to work towards a better balance.
Start with a small, achievable goal or adjustment – one that’s too easy to put off. It could be as simple as committing to leaving work on time once a week. Or you could decide on a time you’ll stop checking your emails in the evening, and stick to it. Whatever your goal is, make sure it’s specific: Where and when will you do it? And how long for?
Once you’ve achieved that behavioural goal and embedded it into your routine, move on to the next. Through small, manageable goals you’ll gradually gain more control over the behaviours that are disrupting the work-life balance you desire.
Of course there may be factors that make it very difficult to make even these small changes. If you’re consistently overloaded with work or your employer has unrealistic expectations of you, it will be harder to set this process in motion. If this is the case, you’ll need to have an honest conversation with your manager, or speak to your HR department. Remember your employer has a legal duty to reduce work-related stress and prevent it affecting your health.
But as much as you can, try and play an active role in shaping your own habits. One step at a time, using a goal-centred approach, you can take control of your work-life balance and improve your overall wellbeing.