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Most people recognize the importance of work-life balance for staying healthy and productive. But figuring out how to create work-life balance in the face of heavy workloads, family responsibilities, financial stressors, and personal needs can be tough.
While work can have a positive effect on mental well-being, it can also fuel stress and other mental health challenges. In fact, employees in Lyra Health’s 2022 State of Mental Health at Work survey cited work-related stress as a top factor affecting their mental health over the past year.
In many cases, organizations expect employees to be responsible for their own work and life balance. Managers may urge their team members to set boundaries and say no. As many managers have discovered, though, this advice isn’t enough to prevent burnout and keep employees healthy and engaged. While workers themselves play an important role, healthy work-life balance starts with company leaders, policies, and work culture.
The term work-life balance, sometimes called work-life integration or work-life harmony, refers to how people prioritize time and responsibilities at their jobs and in their personal lives. This includes not only how they integrate those two worlds, but how much time they have for personal matters apart from work.
Good work-life balance allows time for rest, family, hobbies, and vacations. Meanwhile, an imbalance between these two worlds leaves employees overworked and worn out, which can dampen productivity, worsen health conditions, and in turn raise health care costs for employers.
When people feel equipped to manage their professional and personal lives, both employees and your organization reap the rewards. Team members with a good work-life balance are less likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety and, according to Limeade, are:
On the other hand, poor work-life balance can lead to burnout, an intense, long-lasting type of work-related stress that poses major challenges for employees and organizations. For example, job burnout costs 550 million work days in lost productivity and $190 billion in related health care costs.
In light of these risks, companies are increasingly committed to improving employee work-life balance.
Poor work and life balance can lead to exhaustion, stress, and problematic coping behaviors like substance use. Those with an unhealthy work-life balance are more likely to also suffer from poor physical health, with effects that can carry forward all the way into retirement. It’s no surprise given what we know about how stress affects the human body: it raises our risks for heart attack, stroke, anxiety, depression, and more.
This means a good work-life balance makes employees healthier in the long run. And, with fewer physical and mental illnesses draining them, they’re more productive on the job than their stressed-out peers. They’re also less likely to burn out, which can lead to “phoning in” work, doing the bare minimum, making more mistakes, or seeking a new job.
Better work-life balance benefits workers’ personal lives as well. A Workfront survey revealed that relationships often suffer due to overwork, with half of survey participants saying they’ve had to prioritize professional responsibilities over time with loved ones and milestone events like weddings. Almost as many (40 percent) said their job has ruined certain instances of family time or kept them from being fully present and focused.
Many of the causes of work-life imbalance are within employers’ control. That’s why improving work-life balance is both an organizational and individual responsibility. Here are a few work-related issues that can impact work and life balance:
Employees will have difficulty setting healthy personal boundaries if they’re burdened by unrealistic expectations on the job.
Too much work can leave workers reluctant to step away and fall behind on their duties.
Workfront’s survey cited negative managerial behavior as the number-one cause of work-life imbalance. Managers are crucial in creating a supportive team culture, problem-solving, and setting a healthy example. Without the right training, managers may engage in behaviors that harm work and life balance such as expecting 24/7 availability or being unsupportive of their team members’ family and personal needs.
When people work 50+ hours per week, their output and productivity start to dramatically decline. Yet 40 percent of employees put in these long hours. It’s hard to set work aside when people feel their status, value, or potential for promotion is contingent on the number of hours they work. Plus, unspoken peer pressure can foil employees’ best attempts at improving work-life balance.
Long days get even longer for those with extended commutes. For employees in this situation, finding time for something other than a career can feel impossible.
Of course, not all stumbling blocks to work-life harmony stem from the workplace. Other causes of work-life imbalance include:
Increases in personal expenses can lead to pressure to bring home more money. Scaling back into a calmer industry or role may not be possible if it involves a pay cut.
Circumstances at home can put just as much pressure on workers as heavy workloads. A new partner, a new baby, an illness, caregiving for an aging family member, a child who needs extra help in school, an absent partner, and many other life situations can add new demands on a worker’s time.
How can you tell if employees have a healthy life-work balance? Here are a few signs of poor work-life balance:
If you notice any of these signs of poor work-life balance, it may be time to re-evaluate aspects of your work culture and the employee experience.
There’s a lot employers can do to improve work-life balance for employees. Use these work-life balance suggestions for employers to create a healthier work environment for your teams:
Understanding the state of your employees’ life-work balance is an important first step toward improving it. Start by asking about their stress levels. Give team members the opportunity to tell you what they need through both formal surveys and ongoing, informal conversations.
A psychologically safe work environment invites employees to be honest with each other, make mistakes, and ask for help—without judgment or unspoken penalties. When employees feel this kind of freedom, they’re more likely to reach out for support when they’re struggling to achieve life-work balance.
Make sure that the way employees experience work isn’t at odds with your stated intentions. For example:
Remote and hybrid work schedules are more common than ever, and recent academic research has shown that employees accomplish as much or more when they have flexibility to choose their work location. You may also want to consider flexible hours. In a recent survey, 95 percent of workers said this was more important than working remotely. Empower employees to produce their best work on their terms.
Instead of fixating on how many hours your employees work, measure how much they get done. As long as their tasks are completed and they participate in important meetings and events, in some industries, it may not matter when people clock in and out.
Employees are more likely to set limits that promote work-life balance if their leaders do the same. Managers and other company leaders can set a healthy example by taking PTO, limiting overtime hours, and unplugging from work after hours.
Better work-life balance starts with managers, who have the authority to set expectations in the workplace. Most managers would benefit from training on work-life balance strategies and communication. Employees also stand to gain from education about how to balance work and life, the negative effects of burnout and stress, and ways to reach out for support.
Codifying your company values in an official work-life balance policy gives employees a concrete standard to reference when deciding how to navigate this culture shift. Train managers and leaders so their team culture and management style align with company policies.
Your benefits package should include health care—including mental health care—as well as other resources that make it easier for employees to balance work and life.
Individual contributors may have limited power to directly influence company culture, but there are steps you can take to manage your life-work balance. Here are a few work-life balance tips for employees:
When you understand the importance of work-life balance, you can give yourself permission to use your PTO and take short breaks during the workday. Even something as simple as a short walk can do wonders for your energy and creativity. Aim for a short break—away from screens and deep concentration—roughly every 50 to 90 minutes.
Make time for physical and mental health appointments and activities that support your health such as exercise or meditation. You’ll be happier and also more effective at work when you know how to create work-life balance.
The human brain can’t really multitask. The best we can do is “task switch” and we don’t do that particularly well either. You’ll get work done faster and more efficiently if you focus on one thing at a time, which leaves more time for personal needs and interests.
Which relationships, hobbies, or activities are most important to you? When responsibilities seem overwhelming, put your most important values first.
Rewarding activities like hobbies, recreation, and relationships renew your mind so you can return to work refreshed tomorrow. In “The Happiness Advantage,” author Shawn Achor explains that the happier people are, the better they’re able to perform and the more successful they can be at work.
Keep in mind that there is no “perfect” life-work balance. Some days you’ll have more work or home responsibilities than others, and some days you’ll question whether you prioritized everything right. The best we can do is acknowledge the work-life balance myth, maximize our time spent doing things we enjoy, and continually monitor whether we’re living up to our values.
Work-life balance—or keeping work life and personal life separate, but equal—isn’t necessarily the goal for everyone. Instead, some employees may aspire to work-life integration, which blends work and life responsibilities in a more flexible way. For example, you may decide to do a household chore while on a conference call, or leave work early and respond to emails from home. Work-life integration can be effective when everyone involved is clear on the boundaries.
Communicate with your manager if you’re struggling with your schedule, workload, a mental health issue, or another challenge. That way, you can develop a plan together.
Understanding the effects of overwork, the benefits of integration, and the work-life balance strategies to get there can help you make your workplace healthier.
Lyra helps employers champion mental health and promote work-life balance and integration organization-wide through a comprehensive learning and development curriculum, trainings, workshops, and other tools. Request a free consultation to learn more.