10 tips to improve your work-life balance

April 23, 2021 - 19 min read

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What are the benefits of having a work-life balance?

What are the most common causes of poor work-life balance?

10 tips to improve your work-life balance

Final thoughts on work-life balance 

What is work-life balance, and how can you achieve it? This article explores the benefits (for individuals and organizations) of supporting work-life balance and practical tips for improving it.

Work-life balance is a term that makes intuitive sense to many of us but can be elusive to achieve. We all know the feeling that demands are piling up on one side of the work-life scales and dominating our days.

We also know the feeling of unfulfilled dreams and desires on the other side of the scale. They tug us into a vague feeling of discontent and disengagement. 

How can you manage your time and energy in ways that leave you feeling fulfilled and engaged as a whole human being? How can you be at your best?

Work-life balance is often used to describe a trade-off. Time spent on work projects versus time spent with family, friends, and personal interests.

It can also refer to the level of flexibility team members feel they have. Can I integrate my work and personal demands? Can I respond as needs arise? To what extent do they interfere with one another?

According to Gallup’s Women in America report, work-life balance encompasses “all of the components that go into a life well-lived. ... Many women have a holistic view of life and work and look for employers that do too. They are drawn to companies that encourage, support, and empower them as people.”

This challenge has been around for centuries. Reformers in the early 1900s advocated for fair labor standards at a time when people routinely worked more than 100 hours a week. But the term work-life balance wasn’t coined until the 1980s. The women’s liberation movement used it to describe the challenges faced by working women with families. 

Today, work-life balance has expanded to include all genders. It is broader than just families. It includes concepts such as effective time management, stress management, and burnout prevention.

With technology, many professional work cultures and expectations have changed. The result: a more integrated, and fuzzier, relationship between “work” and “personal” time. No wonder this concept is so difficult when we try to establish (or reestablish) it for ourselves!

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What are the benefits of having a work-life balance?

The benefits of work-life balance are far-reaching and extend to both you and your company.

Fewer health issues

According to the Mayo Clinic, overwork has consequences including:

  • Fatigue, which negatively impacts focus and productivity. Your professional reputation can suffer if you are making mistakes or forgetting commitments.
  • Poor health as a result of both stress and neglecting healthy habits. Stress can affect medical conditions and increases the possibility of substance misuse. 
  • Negative impacts on relationships due to neglect. This undermines one of your major support pillars as a social being.

People working 3-4 hours of overtime have a 60 percent higher risk of heart-related problems than those who don’t work overtime. Moreover, working any overtime is associated with poorer perceived general health.

Consistently working overtime is associated with:

  • Increased neck and muscle discomfort
  • Higher on-the-job injury rates
  • Unhealthy weight gain
  • Increased likelihood of smoking
  • Higher rates of alcohol consumption

Higher productivity

Too much time spent at or on work is directly correlated to a loss of productivity and effectiveness. Stanford researchers found that “employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour work-week. It falls off a cliff after 55 hours ... someone who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours.”

Conversely, when we’re feeling supported and engaged, our physiology responds with a happy soup of neurochemicals. They make us feel more connected, creative, energized, and collaborative. These all directly benefit you and your employer.

Fewer ‘burnouts’

According to Jacinta M. Jiménez, PsyD, “Burnout occurs anytime there is a mismatch between the job environment and the individual performing the job.” She describes six person-job mismatches that research has identified as contributing to burnout. 

These include: 

  • Work overload, when job demands exceed human limits.
  • Too little control over work due to rigid policies, micromanagement, or chaotic job conditions.
  • Values conflict, where the requirements of the job conflict with one’s personal principles and values.

When your work and life balance with one another in harmony, burnout is not an issue. In many jobs, however, overwork, and burnout, have the potential to creep back in if you don't pay attention.

More mindfulness

Mindfulness is the ability to maintain your awareness and focus on what you’re doing at any given moment. Obviously, this is difficult if you are distracted by other obligations and concerns.

At work, it helps if you’re given the flexibility to manage your personal obligations while also accomplishing your share of the workload. And, of course, it’s crucial that you're supported by your team when you need it.

What are the most common causes of poor work-life balance?

More than a quarter of full-time employees globally say it has become more difficult to balance work and family in the last five years. The most common causes were:

  • Increased expenses without an increase in salary. One-third of employees cited this as the top challenge to maintaining work-life balance.
  • Increased responsibilities at work. About half of millennials and Gen X participants cited additional work responsibilities as a leading cause of poor work-life balance.
  • Increased responsibility at home. More than 40 percent of millennials and Gen X participants said more responsibility at home made it more challenging to balance work and personal life.
  • Working longer hours. Almost half (46%) of managers are working more than 40-hour weeks, and 40% say their hours have increased over the past five years.
  • Having children. Over a quarter (26%) of millennials said they are working more after having a child. Fifty percent of women and 22% of men took a career break after having a child.

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10 tips to improve your work-life balance

It’s one thing to talk about work-life balance. It’s another to achieve it. Here are 10 practical tips for improving your sense of balance at work and at home.

At work

Things you can do at work to improve your work-life balance are:

  • Learn to say “no.” This can be one of the hardest skills for any dedicated professional to learn and put into practice. It starts with assessing the typical demands of your day and learning to articulate and prioritize what you have on your plate. A great tool to use for this exercise is the Eisenhower Matrix. (Hint: If you’re finding everything falling into the “Urgent-Important” quadrant, try this clever hack.) It can be helpful to recognize that saying “no” to things that are less of a priority frees up time and energy to say “yes” and attend to other things that are important to you. 
  • Take breaks. Even a 30-second microbreak can improve concentration, reduce stress, keep you feeling engaged, and make your work feel more enjoyable. MIT senior lecturer Robert Pozen recommends taking a break every 75-90 minutes for 15 minutes to allow your brain to consolidate and retain learning. A study by The Energy Project that found people naturally go from full focus to physiological fatigue every 90 minutes.
  • Ask for flexibility. Having open, honest conversations about your needs and those of your employer and team can lead to productive solutions such as flextime, a compressed workweek schedule, job sharing, and other creative options. 
  • Prioritize your health. Recognizing the importance of maintaining your physical, emotional, and mental health is the first step. Use the concept of habit stacking to build simple supportive actions into your day. Consider daily meditation, movement/exercise, social connection, a gratitude practice, and making a commitment to using your paid time off. 
  • Practice self-compassion. One of the most important ways to achieve a sense of work-life balance is to let go of perfectionism. While this approach may have brought some success during school and early career, it accumulates. The strain on our system and emotional resources increases as our responsibilities increase. We must recognize that life isn’t always easy, everyone struggles, and we aren’t always going to get it “right.” This allows a shift toward a more compassionate growth-and-learning approach to work and life that can help to support a sense of balance. It can also provide an inspiring model for others who also need to hear this message!

At home

There are also many things you can do at home to improve your work-life balance:

  • Communicate boundaries so you can truly unplug. Set and communicate your work hours to your colleagues and customers–which includes when you will work and when you won’t be available to respond. One simple way is to set up an autoresponder to alert those who contact you that you are offline and when you will respond. This removes the pressure to keep checking messages. Consider setting up a system for key stakeholders to contact you in a true emergency so you can rest knowing you’re not missing something critical. 
  • Invest in relationships. Lack of strong relationships increases the risk of premature death from all causes by 50 percent. That’s “roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day!” On the flip side, solid connections and social support can improve health and increase longevity.
  • Prioritize quality time. Rather than spreading yourself so thin that nothing feels satisfying, identify what’s truly important to you. A values exercise, or exploring your Ikigai, can be helpful ways to clarify and articulate this for yourself. Based on what you learn, take an honest look at how you spend your personal time. Which activities and relationships are life-enhancing and which are soul-sucking? With this information in hand, define for yourself where you will devote your time, prioritizing high-value relationships and activities. Don’t forget that one of those relationships is with yourself! When you’re having downtime, allow yourself to enjoy that quality time for yourself to re-energize.
  • Start small. Healthier behaviors, such as staying active and or improving our eating, can support our sense of personal wellbeing—but those habits can be difficult to establish. Who hasn’t experienced the New Year’s resolution that peters out by mid-February? Motivation alone isn’t enough to drive behavior change. The other key ingredients for success are the ability to do the behavior and a dependable reminder that prompts us to do it. As Tiny Habits author BJ Fogg says, “make it so simple that it's almost like you have no excuse not to do it. So even when you're in a rush or you're sick or you're distracted, it's so tiny that you can still do it.”
  • Ask for help. High-achieving professionals are often guilty of taking everything on themselves. They don't want to “bother” anyone by asking for help. Sometimes this is tied to identity (“I’m supposed to be the one who has it all together”) or feelings of obligation (“Who else will do it if I don’t?”). Instead, consider that asking for help gives other people the gift of giving–and being part of a solution and support system, which builds the benefits of mutual relationships for all involved. 

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Final thoughts on work-life balance

Creating work-life balance and integration is an ongoing and fluid process. You will constantly be learning and adapting as your interests and circumstances change over time. Let it be fun! And don’t forget to periodically revisit your priorities to see what’s changed and assess whether they line up with how you’re spending your time and energy.


Published April 23, 2021

Judy Wolf, MS, PCC

Executive & Team Coach

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