While you might think an individual’s right to a healthy work-life balance would be a universally respected concept, critics of the term do exist. The push for better boundaries between workers’ personal and professional lives, these naysayers argue, is simply a form of entitlement. Working hard when you’re young — no matter the number of hours involved — has always been part of the natural pecking order of career advancement. Why complain about it?
What critics of work-life balance fail to account for, however, is just how much the amount of work that’s seen as reasonable has changed across generations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American today works 44 hours per week, or 8.8 hours per day, with many reporting that they work over 50 hours. The productivity of Americans has also gone up compared to prior generations; according to BLS data, the average productivity per U.S. worker has increased by 400 percent since 1950. Add to this the time devoted to the “second shift” of housework, which still disproportionately falls on women’s shoulders, and the omnipresence of technology and it’s no wonder the U.S. is considered the most overworked nation in the world.
Given the increasing rate at which workers today are experiencing burnout — now an officially diagnosable condition, according to the World Health Organization — having better and more transparent conversations about work-life balance is essential. But more than talk is needed in order to create true change. What can workers today do to ensure not only that their personal time and space is protected, but that they’re able to reclaim some of the energy currently lost to porous work-life boundaries? Before we get into solutions, let’s take a closer look at what work-life balance as a concept entails.
What is a work-life balance?
Historically, work-life balance has been seen as invoking an equal energy split between one’s professional and personal lives. In by 9 a.m. and out by 5 p.m., workers in this prior conceptualization of a balanced (and admittedly white-collar) life had the remaining hours and weekends to do as they pleased, without interference from their jobs. This version of work-life balance, though, is largely seen as outdated.
Positioning balance as an equal 50/50 split is not only unrealistic; it’s rigid and limiting. Some days may necessitate more energy directed at your professional life, while your personal life claims a larger share of other days. Today’s definition of work-life balance advocates for workers’ freedom to approach their lives in a fluid, work-life integrated way.
Causes of work-life imbalance
Far more than in prior generations, where stepping away from your desk meant you were effectively stepping away from work for the rest of the day, technology has made it so that work is far likelier to permeate our out-of-office lives. Your work email is just a tap of the phone away, and push notifications from messaging platforms like Slack mean that it’s easier to have our attention claimed by colleagues than ever. All this accessibility is having an impact; according to research from Workfront, 40 percent of workers today think answering an urgent work email during a family dinner is OK.
2. Bad bosses
Our managers have a major impact on the quality of our lives, both in and out of the office. If you’re working under a boss who believes it’s perfectly acceptable to reach out about a client need at 9 p.m. — and expects an answer from you before it’s time for their morning coffee — attaining any kind of healthy work-life balance can be a struggle.
3. A lack of job flexibility
Depending on the precise nature of one’s work, there’s a good chance that some or even all of workers’ duties today could be accomplished remotely via electronic devices. If this is true of your position, yet your company still chooses to enforce strict policies that make work-from-home options inaccessible, that can majorly limit the amount of control you have over approaching work-life balance in a fluid, integrated way. This is especially true of workers who have long commutes.
Improve the balance at work
1. Set daily goals that are manageable.
Even better, make a list of your next day’s goals before leaving the office. Walking in each morning with clear, spelled-out goals for that day in hand will prevent time wasted from trying to prioritize on the fly.
2. Do your most dreaded task first.
It’s natural to want to put off one’s least-savored task for last. This can have a negative effect on our overall efficiency, though, as too much of our time is funneled to lesser-important matters. Meanwhile, the Big Dreaded Thing on the list isn’t going anywhere — we’re just increasing the odds of having to put in overtime hours by not focusing on it sooner.
3. Take short breaks in between tasks.
When we feel extra busy, justifying even a 10 minute walk around the block isn’t the easiest thing to do. However, psychologists have proven that taking a few short breaks throughout the work day can increase productivity and ultimately help us get more done.
4. Be honest.
Particularly if you’re inclined to be a “yes” person, signing up for more than you realistically have the bandwidth for is an easy way to sabotage your own access to work-life balance. Be clear with yourself and your colleagues about the priorities that are on your plate, and when you’re presented with a new project, make sure you’re aware of all the timelines involved before agreeing to jump in.
5. Ask for more flexibility.
Many of us simply assume that the amount of flexibility (or lack thereof) we currently have at work doesn’t come with wiggle room. But until you speak up and articulate your needs, there’s no way of knowing for sure. Do your homework by reading up on best practices for negotiating for job flexibility and walk into the conversation with your boss armed with a plan. A little more flexibility can go a long way in how balance we perceive our lives to be!
Improve the balance at home
1. Turn off the tech.
Remember those push notifications we mentioned earlier? You realize those are optional, right? Yes, technology does technically give employers greater access to communicating off-hours, but employees are partially culpable for opening and responding to these messages. Set up a precedent that you will not be reachable for work matters while at home – and then stick to it. Your work emails will be there to open in the morning.
2. Have a morning routine that balances productivity and pleasure.
If you roll out of bed with only enough time to run through a 10-minute shower and bust out the door to work, chances are you’re likelier to feel like your job has totally dominated your day by the time 5 p.m. rolls around. Set your alarm to allow for enough time to do something enriching for yourself before the daily grind starts, whether that’s meditating, going for a run, or enjoying an extended cup of coffee with a book.
3. Use your PTO.
And we don’t just mean a couple OOO dates on your calendar — use your vacation time in full! Considering only 28% of U.S. workers planned to max out their vacation days in 2019, it’s imperative we take better advantage of the time off we’re given. After all, it’s understandable that you'd feel like you’re always at work if you are, in fact, always at work.
4. Delegate what you can.
On the one hand, technology can get in the way of work-life balance. On the other, if used mindfully, technology can be used to simplify our lives and bring us access to greater balance. Rather than spend your free time at the grocery store, “delegate” this task by having your groceries delivered. Apply this principle (where you can financially afford to) when it comes to tasks like cleaning, cooking, shopping and other household minutiae. And don’t hesitate to take advantage of IRL delegating opportunities, too, by combining forces with friends and family where you can.
5. Don’t overcommit.
Much like the sticky situations “yes” people get themselves into at work, the tendency to overcommit extends to the homefront, as well. Be realistic about your bandwidth and energy levels, as well as what you need in order to feel restored. If necessary, block out chunks of your calendar for self-care time. It’ll remind you that this as important of an activity to schedule as any other, if not more important!
What can employers do?
Not all of the accountability falls on individuals themselves to ensure they have a fair shot at work-life balance. Employers absolutely have a role in this, as well, and the best employers know that protecting workers’ sense of balance is a crucial business priority. There’s no denying employee burnout has an influence on a company’s rates of employee turnover. And when 67% of full-time U.S. employees report feelings of burnout, according to a 2018 Gallup survey, preventing that burnout should be top of mind for companies. So, what can employers do to help?
- Allow for flexible work schedules (and encourage employees to take advantage of them)
- Implement an unlimited PTO policy
- Create designated “quiet spaces” for better focus in the office
- Actually allow for lunch breaks
- Implement an employee Wellness Program
- Have a Summer Friday policy
- Allow for regular employee feedback opportunities, outside of high-pressure performance reviews
- Lead by example, and ensure that management is taking breaks themselves!