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Work-life balance can seem like an ideal impossible to achieve. Maintaining boundaries has especially been hard for some since the pandemic and the rise of work-from-home.
Some people even romanticize burnout. We praise those who arrive first at the office and are the last to leave. Or, in remote work, we are in awe of the person who seems to be on top of their IMs from dawn to dusk (across timezones).
When we ask employees to work overtime, come in on weekends, or send emails late at night, it raises work-life balance questions. That's aside from the question of whether a person is even producing good work in those hours.
Overworking isn’t the answer to achieving your goals, and, ultimately, will make it harder for you to achieve them. While balance might be the wrong word, people who can separate productivity from their sense of worth and cultivate a healthy personal life often perform better. Especially over time.
The right mix differs for everyone. It varies depending on your life stage, family situation, and career goals. Regardless of your situation, asking yourself these work-life balance questions will help you identify what balance or integration you need now. Plus, we have eight tips to better balance your work and life.
Why is work-life balance important?
1. Higher levels of irritation and anxiety
Do you snap at people easily? Do you have trouble sleeping at night? Are you ruminating on the day’s accomplishments and what you need to do tomorrow even after you’ve left the office? These might be signs that you’re overworked.
2. No interest in social interaction
If you commonly use the phrases, “Sorry I can’t go out to dinner, I have work in the morning;” “I can’t join you this weekend, I’m just too exhausted from work;” “I need to catch up on work this weekend, let’s hang out another time,” your job is taking too much from you.
3. Screen fatigue
Having sore, tired, or burning eyes, experiencing double vision, and having neck pains or increased sensitivity to light are all signs you might be spending too much time at your desk.
4. Lack of personal growth
If you don’t check in with yourself enough, you can’t have a healthy work-life balance. You may have stopped journaling, meditating, or reviewing your goals. Work and fatigue have consumed all your emotional energy.
5. Lower productivity or effectiveness
If you’re working too much, you aren’t going to be as productive. Remember, productivity in many jobs isn't about just sending more emails or crossing more tasks off the list. It's about being effective and achieving outcomes efficiently.
Failing to rest and take the breaks that you need to stay motivated and focus harms your workflow. You might find yourself spending more time working while producing lower quality — or even less — work.
These are just a few symptoms of overworking. If you want to make a change, BetterUp can help. With extra support, you can review how you spend your time, the causes of your stress, and what balance would be more appropriate for you. You don’t need to let your job dominate your life to meet your goals.
Check in with yourself using these 4 questions
It can be challenging to step back and assess your work-life balance. These questions are a great place to start if you can find some time.
As you’re thinking things through, remember to be honest with and kind to yourself. Try writing your answers in a journal or in a private note on your phone. Don’t overthink it. You can always edit your answers later if they don’t feel right.
1. How often do you work late because of something urgent?
It’s normal for a job to have emergencies. But if it’s happening every day, you might have a problem. Be honest about whether your tasks are sincerely urgent. What feels pressing can, most of the time, wait until tomorrow.
If everything is do-or-die, you might have a different issue on your hands. Your role as the problem solver puts an unfair burden on your shoulders, and someone is asking too much of you. It might be time to consider creating a new role to help you at work.
You can also work on delegating tasks. Do you really need to be the one doing everything or can you give others on your team opportunities to grow?
You may decide, after reflection and trying out some new ideas, that you do need to find a job that’s better for your well-being. Some industries and companies move at a faster pace than others. A fast-growth startup, for instance, is always going to test your ability to find balance in a way that a large mature company might not.
2. Do you enjoy your work?
If there’s one thing that seems to unite a crowd, it’s complaining about work. Sometimes that's funny. Even dream jobs have the occasional off-day. But just because people like to complain, don't be fooled. You should expect to find some sense of satisfaction, enjoyment, meaning, or purpose in your work — even if it also still feels like work.
Take an honest look at your workload. Does the good outweigh the bad? Are you interested, engaged, and having fun, or does every day drain your energy? If your answer is the latter, it might be time for a new job.
3. How often do you check your phone?
It’s one thing to check your emails or Slack messages during a meeting. It’s another to be doing that during your child’s soccer game. Your professional life shouldn’t demand all of your time. If you’re constantly reading and replying to messages, it might be time for a re-adjustment.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, remote work has made it easier to work long hours or overfill our work schedules. Just because you aren’t leaving the office at 5pm doesn’t mean you have to keep working. Learn to switch off by muting Slack and your email after a certain hour, and know that everything else is tomorrow’s problem.
4. What does work-life balance mean for you?
This is the most important question of all. Is it flexibility? Is it predictability? Is it work that's not too challenging? Is it challenging work that feels worth the time away from family?
If you have a family, does it mean having dinner together every night? If you’re single, does it mean spending more time with your friends or on your hobbies? Everyone will have different answers. Once you have yours, determine whether it’s compatible with your current job or if you need a change.
Finding an employer with a better balance
If you decide it’s time to start a job search, here’s what you can do during the interview process to avoid overwork and burnout. Be clear on what you value going in. Is it a set predictable schedule? Is it less than 40 hours a week? Or, is it just the flexibility to choose when and how you work?
1. Start with the job description
No job description will openly admit, “This job will require you to sacrifice family time.” But there are some code words to look out for. Look for phrases like:
- “A willingness to work outside of regular hours”
- “Competitive work environment”
Also, take into account the size of the company. Start-ups and not-for-profits often depend on small teams to manage large workloads. This can eat away your work-life balance. It doesn't mean that you can't find a way to do challenging work and have the life you want, but it will take some effort and intention on your part. A good employer helps.
2. Do some investigating
If you’re interested in a company, you can take some extra steps to inform yourself:
- Lean on your networks. Check your LinkedIn network for people who either work there or have worked there previously. If you don’t know anyone, maybe you have a connection that does. Current and former employees can warn you about long hours and a poor work culture. If the job satisfaction seems high, you’re probably looking at a positive work environment.
- Find industry experts. Speak to people who work in the same industry as the company you’re applying to and ask about the company’s reputation.
- Check company reviews. There are many websites where people can rate their employers. Check for any concerning reviews. One of the most popular sites, Glassdoor offers reviews from employees, current and former. Remember that you won’t have the whole story — disgruntled employees will have a severe bias, but it provides some insight into the company culture.
3. Ask during the job interview
Remember, you’re evaluating prospective employers as much as they’re evaluating you. You can learn a lot about their workflow by asking a hiring manager some simple interview questions.
- What is the company culture like? This is a covert way to find out if you’re entering a toxic work environment. If there were no red flags in the job description, they might appear here. Good employers would outline their mental health programs or employee engagement initiatives.
- What do you do to support work-life balance? If the hiring manager is uncomfortable with questions about work-life balance, their company is probably not the best choice for you.
- Why is this position open? This can help you learn about their employee retention. Watch out for answers that might be code for “burnout” or “overwork.” For example, “She left to spend more time with her family” could indicate a heavy workload.
- What is a typical day like in this position? Ask them to paint a picture. This will tell you about the day-to-day operations of the job, which could reveal potential workload issues.
If you’re interviewing in person, pay attention to the other workers in the office. If you’re there at lunch, are people eating at their desks? If it’s nearing the end of the day, are people still focused on their computers? You might find yourself among them as their co-worker if you take the job.
Determining what’s best for you isn’t easy, but you should know when enough is enough. A job that interrupts your weekend and keeps you from your children isn’t a good one. These work-life balance questions are the first step to getting yours back.
BetterUp can help you see why work-life balance is important and show you how to maintain it. With the right support, you can make the changes you need to enjoy your personal life while prioritizing your work goals.