“Work life balance”: some people see this phrase as a welcome reminder not to overwork, while others feel overwhelmed by the pressure to balance work and life. Certain business leaders have even abandoned the term entirely, preferring alternatives like “work-life harmony”. Nevertheless, each of us must find some way to manage our work and our personal lives, without allowing one to crowd out the other.
Poor work life balance is dangerous, as it can ultimately lead to burnout. While overwork may seem necessary in the short term, in the long term it can damage your health and your career.
Balancing is a dynamic act. In that sense, work life balance is not something you can just acquire—like the title seems to suggest. But neither does that mean it doesn’t make sense to try. A healthier work life balance is very much within reach.
Below, we’ll go over exactly what it means to have work life balance, why it is so difficult to achieve, and ways that both employees and employers can improve work life balance.
Work life balance is exactly what it sounds like: balancing work with life. When we say “life”, we mean “personal life”, since work is part of our life too. In some ways work life balance is difficult to define with a universal ratio, as what feels healthy and good is often subjective and has differed depending on time and place.
The phrase “work life balance” has been around for quite a while; a search of Google Books shows it was already in use as far back as 1953. And of course, the general concept of balancing work and leisure time has been important for as long as human beings have been working.
Throughout history, people have thought about work life balance in different ways. In the 19th century, few industrial workers had any sort of work life balance. Many worked 14–16 hour days, 6 days a week.
That all changed with the mainstreaming of the eight-hour workday. Welsh manufacturer Robert Owen originally coined the phrase “eight hours’ labor, eight hours’ recreation, and eight hours’ rest” way back in 1817, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that this idea was popularized by Henry Ford. The 8/8/8 workday gave rise to today’s standard 9-to-5 schedule.
Of course, the 9-5 or 8/8/8 workday hardly means every worker gets a perfect eight hours of labor, recreation, and rest, nor does it suggest that the 9-5 represents a perfect balance. The rise of the internet, and the ensuing ability to work from anywhere at any time, has radically changed the ways people work.
On the one hand, many people are now working more than the standard 40 hours—a Gallup poll showed that the average US full-time worker puts in 47 hours per week, with 21% working 50-59 hours and 18% working 60 hours or more.
On the other hand, the internet has also enabled alternative and flexible lifestyles, like digital nomadism, that give people more control over their working time.
Regardless of what you personally view as a healthy work life balance, this balance is important for everyone. We’re all human beings, and our bodies aren’t made to work 24/7. From a woman who died after working 159 hours of overtime in a month, to the exhaustion-linked deaths of 17 South Korean delivery workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, you don’t have to look far to find proof of the physical dangers of overwork.
Besides these extreme cases, there’s also the fact that poor work life balance makes us unhappy. A survey from the UK-based Mental Health Foundation found that 27% of employees feel depressed, 34% feel anxious, and 58% feel irritable when working long hours. According to the survey, as a person’s weekly working hours increase, so do their feelings of unhappiness.
Work life balance is also important even for the self-interested employer. Unhappy employees cost their employers money. Work life balance is important for hiring. According to FlexJobs, 83% of millennials surveyed cited work life balance as the most important factor when assessing potential employers.
Maintaining work life balance is far from easy. And unfortunately, the imbalance in the work-life equation usually comes from too much work, not too much life. And the situation seems to have gotten worse. According to a September 2020 survey of HR leaders from the Conference Board, 60% of respondents said employees were working more hours.
Many adults are forced to juggle paid work, unpaid responsibilities (like caretaking, chores, and bureaucracy), and any leisure time or hobbies they can squeeze in. With a limited number of hours in a day, it’s no wonder so many feel burnt out.
Because there are so many structural issues—increased responsibilities at work and at home—that make it so difficult for individuals to achieve work life balance, there is a limit to how much an individual can do alone.
Work life balance has to be tackled both on an individual and organizational level. Below, we’ll offer tips both for individual workers and their employers on how they can better promote work life balance.
Before you can start improving your work life balance, you’ll first need to understand how off balance you are. Feeling overworked is a valid sign that you should act, but to know exactly how overworked you are in terms of minutes and hours, it helps to track your time.
It’s one thing to feel like you don’t get to spend enough time with your family. It’s another thing to know that you spent a grand total of two hours with your kids for an entire week. A time tracking too like Toggl Track can help provide a bird’s eye view of where your time is going.
Busy professionals from all walks of life can benefit from time tracking. For example, tennis pro Serena Williams uses Toggl Track to help her balance tennis, business, and family time.
Once you know how much time you’re spending on work, it’s also helpful to know exactly where all that work time is going.
Is every minute of work time spent on valuable tasks that contribute to your goals? Or is there a lot of time that could actually be better spent on the life part--to replenish and recharge? Knowing where you stand is the first step to making the necessary changes to your schedule.
Once you have a grip on where your time is going each day, you can use that knowledge to help you set firm boundaries between work and personal time.
In an officially designated workplace, setting boundaries is relatively easy and intuitive. You know that if you’re at the office, you should be working; if you’re at home, you should be resting.
For remote workplaces, however, this dynamic often gets turned upside-down. Many people find it hard to focus on work—with feline friends in their lap, doorbells ringing, and constant interruptions from family members. In the same vein, when you work from home it’s often difficult to know when to stop working, as you technically never leave your office. That’s why it’s extra important for remote workers to set boundaries, whether physical or temporal.
Regardless of where you work, there are certain things you can do to create a barrier between your work life and home life. When you’re done for the day, be sure to log out of your work email and chat software. Try to create a physical distance, too—even if you work remotely, it can be helpful to have a dedicated home office or use a coworking space.
Adopting the mantra “work hard, play hard” can improve your work life balance and stave off burnout. What this essentially means is that when it’s time to work, focus only on work. When it’s time for you to rest, truly stop working.
Anxiety can lead us to endlessly discuss work with our partner, or check our email at night “just this once.” Single-minded focus does not come easily, but it can be cultivated with training and effort.
Even knowing to try to avoid these kinds of behaviors—which make it harder for you to relax properly—can help. Creating physical boundaries can also help, creating a mental distance between work and home.
Workload and work responsibilities are often beyond our control. But prioritizing can help make your workload feel more manageable, especially when you constantly feel overwhelmed, and like there are not enough hours in a day.
Time management techniques like the Eisenhower Matrix or the 4 Ds of time management—do, delay, delegate, and drop—can help you sort out the less urgent and important tasks from the rest.
To apply the principle of the 4 Ds to your workload, for example, start with a list of everything you need to do that day or week, and try to see which tasks you can afford to not do (drop), ask someone else to do (delegate), or put off (delay). Hopefully what remains is much more manageable, and leaves you enough time for life outside of work.
Finally, it’s important to know your limits and ask for help when you need it. Sometimes, even the most ambitious attempts at time management won’t be able to help with your work life balance problem. Maybe you just have too much work. In that case, it’s time to have a serious discussion with your manager and family members about your situation and how you can fix it.
If you’re feeling nervous about approaching your manager, it might help to keep the following in mind.
We’ve already discussed why work life balance is so important for individuals. It’s an essential part of physical and mental health. But work life balance is good for businesses, too.
It might seem like limiting work hours would lower productivity, but this isn’t necessarily true. In a standard eight-hour day, the average worker is only productive for around three hours—so just because people are in the office longer doesn’t mean they’re working efficiently. When Microsoft Japan tested a four-day work week, their productivity actually jumped by 40%.
Work life balance also has other benefits. Showing you care about employees’ personal time will make your company stand out from the crowd, helping you attract top talent. It can also help raise employee retention rates. This is very important, since turnover is extremely expensive due to the costs of hiring, training, and lost institutional memory. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, every employee departure costs about one-third of that employee’s annual salary.
Employers can promote work life balance by respecting boundaries. This means not calling or emailing after work hours, and making it clear that it’s okay to switch off outside of work.
In some countries, like France, employees’ right to disconnect is actually protected by law—so if you’re doing business internationally, it’s worth reading up on local expectations around work life balance.
There are a lot of good reasons to let employees work flexibly. For one thing, it can help you attract and retain talent, since employees have shown they care a lot about flexibility.
In a Flexjobs survey, 81% of employees said they’d be more loyal to their employer if they had flexible work options, and 27% said they’d even take a pay cut if they were allowed to work remotely. The same survey also showed that remote work had positive effects on both productivity and job satisfaction.
At Toggl Track, our team is remote and works from 40+ countries around the world. This has worked very well for our culture, as our employees are able to enjoy work life balance and get work done during the hours they are most productive.
Even if your team works on a fixed schedule, you can still support employees through generous company policies. Regular breaks, paid time off, and parental leave all show your company’s commitment to the life part of the work life equation.
But it’s not just about having the right policies on the books—it’s also about having the culture to match. For example, unlimited paid time off policies have been criticized for actually discouraging employees from taking vacation. If you want employees to use their paid time off, make sure management and HR are actively encouraging that.
What if you’re not sure how your company is currently doing with work life balance? There’s an easy way to find out: Ask your people. Many companies use employee satisfaction surveys (also called pulse surveys) to gauge how employees are doing.
You can include specific questions about stress, mental health, and work life balance to identify and stop burnout before it starts.
Finally, the most important way to promote work life balance in your company is to genuinely care about it yourself. Employees often take their cues from managers, looking to them for an example of how they should behave.
An executive that preaches work life balance while working overtime is sending a clear message—the real way to be successful at this company is to overwork. A truly balanced culture needs to exist at all levels of the organization.
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