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6 tips to balance family and work — without sacrificing both

June 14, 2022 - 16 min read

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Why integrating family and work is so important

6 ways to better balance family and work

Final thoughts

What does “balance” feel like?

When I think of balance, I think about walking straight ahead, one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, the image that comes to mind is of riding a bike. Your weight is evenly spread between both sides. No matter which foot — or pedal — is ahead, you feel confident about moving forward.

For me — and for a lot of people — work/life balance doesn’t look or feel anything like that. Instead of feeling like things are even on both sides, it can feel like you’re always in danger of falling. And when you feel that off-balance, you’re not always so confident about moving forward.

The term “work/life balance” gets parried around a lot, but it might be doing more harm than good. If you ask most working professionals, they’re not likely to say that work and life feels “balanced” on any given day. Thinking of “balance” as a benchmark for success sets us up to feel like failures most of the time.

Work, and life, comes in surges that can be fairly consuming. When you're too focused on balance within a day — or even a week — you can get really frustrated, resentful, or upset. 

The key isn’t really “balance,” it’s integration. A successful work/family integration is a long game that plays out over a week, a month, a career. If you have older parents that need support, an ailing spouse, young children, or other demands at home, they will (rightfully) need more of your attention. Sometimes work projects and deadlines demand more of your focus. Integrating the day's work needs and life needs is about learning to reprioritize (with compassion and flexibility) — sometimes on a daily or hourly basis.

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Caregiving and working from home

For working parents and caregivers, working from home has been a bit of a mixed bag. In many ways, people found themselves better able to balance the demands of work and family. This had a lot to do with logistics — like more time spent with family, less time spent commuting, getting more rest, and employer focus on well-being throughout the pandemic.

On the other hand, not everyone enjoyed working from home full-time. Many employees found that, after months of exclusively working from home, they felt more disconnected. Remote work and social isolation can have a detrimental impact on belonging. 

For employees that are already overwhelmed — or even experiencing caregiver burnout — this can feel like the last straw. Working parents have been vocal about feeling stretched to their breaking point as they try to handle inconsistent childcare, remote work, homeschooling, and the mental labor of running a household.

Balance between family and work isn’t a nice-to-have — it’s critical. You might go so far as to say that there’s no way to meet your full potential if this balance isn’t met. 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is neatly compartmentalized. It means that the two sides of your life are each given the attention they need, when they need it, in a way that leaves you free to move forward — with confidence.

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Why integrating family and work is so important

There are many dimensions that make up who your employees are at work. BetterUp bases our coaching and development on this Whole Person Approach. From our research, we know that employees are more productive and more engaged when their organization takes a holistic approach to their growth — instead of focusing solely on traditional leadership capabilities.

When employees feel like they can’t successfully balance work and personal life, their stress level rises dramatically. This stress, in turn, raises the odds of experiencing other physical and mental illnesses. It increases the likelihood of anxiety, burnout, cardiovascular illness, depression, and substance abuse. 

Stress also increases the likelihood of resignation. The American Institute of Stress reports that 80% of employees feel stressed due to work, and approximately 1 in 5 will ultimately quit their jobs because of it. 

For a long time, workplaces and professionals have bought into the myth that pressure is a necessary part of performance. However, this chronic stress actually undermines performance while damaging mental and physical health. Pressure doesn’t make people better — in fact, the evidence indicates that it often makes them worse. And the short-term so-called “gains” aren’t worth the long-term effects on employees and their families.

Over time, people with a poor work/family balance report lower overall health, decreased job satisfaction, and a less positive outlook for the future. It’s time for a closer look at how to make work fit better into life instead of the other way around.

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6 ways to better balance family and work

Although they look different for everyone, work and family life are arguably the two most important components of a person’s life. Finding a way to strike the right balance between the two is critical to our health and long-term success. People shouldn’t feel that they have to choose one over the other.

In the midst of stress, however, it can be hard to find ways to balance home life and a job. You might feel like — since you can’t really walk away from your family — the only viable option is to quit. While that may provide some short-term relief, you’re likely to be resentful, frustrated, and even more stressed in the long run.

And as with most challenges, work/family balance is best attacked from multiple angles. There’s a lot that employers and managers can do to reduce stress for their employees. It’s a win/win proposition. When managers take an active role in preventing burnout, their employees are more engaged, more productive, and more likely to stay.

Here are some ideas for employees and employers to improve work/family balance:

For employees

1. Put words to the problem

Most of us can identify when we feel stressed, but we can’t always pinpoint where it’s coming from. Grab a piece of paper and write down the answers to the following:

  • When I’m at work, I’m worried about…
  • When I’m with my family, I’m thinking about…
  • If I had unlimited time and money, I would…
  • The number one obstacle to my work/life balance is…

This exercise can be challenging. It may bring up feelings of guilt, being stuck, resentment, or hopelessness. If you start to feel angry, try taking a couple of deep breaths. Label the emotions you feel and note them to talk through with a coach later.

Once you know how you feel and what you think the source of those feelings is, you can begin to address it. Do you feel like you need more support, more free time, or more resources? Whatever comes to mind, write it down — even if you don’t think it’s a likely solution.

2. Talk to your family

Once you’ve started to journal your thoughts and feelings, plan some time to talk to your family. Tell them how you’re feeling and what you think would be helpful for you. However, don’t be too quick to come to a solution. You might find yourself solving the wrong issue. For caregivers and working parents, guilt can cloud reality.

For example, you might feel like you’re always working, and your late hours mean that you order takeout multiple times a week. You feel terrible about this, since you grew up in a home that had home-cooked family meals every night. You apologize to your family, only to learn that they don’t care. They love ordering takeout and what they really care about is having more time with you.

These candid conversations can help you re-establish your priorities and your family values. Talk through your daily routine with your loved ones and see if you can identify opportunities for the type of connection that makes a difference. Give yourself permission to let certain things go, like the pressure to make dinner from scratch every night. Build family time into your schedule, and make it sacred so they know what to expect from you.

3. Ask for help

Change doesn’t happen overnight. Rebalancing work and family life will likely mean that you’ll have to set boundaries in new ways. This part of the plan might take some recalibrating and a few more conversations. 

Take a realistic look at your work schedule. Are your long hours necessary? Is there something else that you can change so you can have a more predictable schedule? For example, my husband and I both have flexible schedules, but I tend to work late when I need to finish a project. 

Getting better about ending work on time meant, for us, that I had to say no to running errands with him during the day (at least, most of the time). My family gets that if I take them to an appointment or event during the day, I’ll likely be making up for it at night.

If you need more flexibility at work, reach out to your manager. Remember that everyone wins when you take care of yourself and your mental health. Your manager can help you adjust your schedule, discuss your commitments, and learn more about any resources that might be available for you.

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For employers

Over a third of full-time employees say that balancing work and family life has become much more challenging in the last few years. A survey of full-time employees found that the most common reasons for this were increased work-loads, an increase in expenses (without an increase in salary), and working more after having children. 

The workplace has changed (and is still changing) over the last few years. Both employers and employees are still trying to figure out what works as the lines between work/home continue to blur. Here are some practical ways that you can support team members that are struggling with work/family balance:

1. Get familiar with your policies

As a people manager, you’re in an ideal place to bridge the disconnect between the company and your team. Learn about any employee benefits your company might offer that are designed to combat stress. These might include access to therapy, mental fitness coaching, employee assistance plans (EAPs), or paid time off.

Employees that are unable to work due to health concerns (including mental health) or caregiving responsibilities may qualify for a medical leave of absence. Encourage them to take the time they need for themselves and their family members.

2. Learn to lead diverse and remote teams

There are as many versions of what work/family balance look like as there are people at your company. Each of your coworkers will have different needs and a different balance of time spent at work vs. time spent with family to be at their best. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking one-size-fits-all.

Instead, spend time getting to know your team as individuals. When do they do their best work? What makes them feel supported? What do they need to get into a flow state? Encouraging your team to do good work isn’t about demanding it. It’s about creating the circumstances to empower it.

3. Model work/family balance

While you’re looking for ways to support your employees’ mental health, be sure to walk the talk. Take vacation time (and don’t send emails from the beach). Build downtime into the workday, like blocks of time that are meeting-free. If you’re eligible for family or maternity leave, don’t cut it short to rush back to work.

As a leader, what you do is just as important — if not more so — than what you say. If you model self-care practices, your teams are much more likely to take the time they need for themselves, too.

Final thoughts

Your employees care about doing well at their jobs and supporting the company — but they should never be asked to choose between family and work. If you’re an employee or freelancer, you shouldn’t feel guilty about wanting to spend enough time with your family. Finding the right balance between family and work is critical to your long-term success and well-being.

Remember that the goal isn’t to find “balance,” but a successful integration between work and family life. You may not always feel like both sides are equally “weighted.” That’s okay. Looking at your responsibilities with a long-term perspective is key. You want to find the practices (not the arbitrary allotment of time) that supports your responsibilities to your family, your career, and to yourself. That looks different for everyone, and no one but you can say when you have the right mix.

If you need help setting boundaries, asking for support (at work or at home), or dealing with caregiver burnout, reach out to a BetterUp coach today.

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Published June 14, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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