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March 25, 2020

work life balance

As you start your career and gain traction as an aspiring expert in a field, you have a decision to make.

That decision involves answering the following question:

“How will I maintain both a personal and professional life?”

The first option is to dive head-first into your work and give it absolutely everything you have to offer - all of your time, energy, devotion, blood, sweat, tears, and so on. While this might result in a fruitful career, your personal life will struggle. There’s no way around it.

Your second choice includes you giving minimal effort at work, and focusing more on your personal life. You might blow off the last couple of hours at work to go out for a late lunch with friends or hit the gym before the after-work crowd rolls in.

With this option, your life outside of work will be booming - your phone will constantly be blowing up, and you will spend a lot of time with loved ones. However, your career will struggle, and leadership will start to doubt your dedication as a contributor to the team.

Your third option is creating a work-life balance that works for both you and your employer.

Work-life balance is a state of equilibrium every modern-day worker strives for. It’s achieved when an individual feels harmony and satisfaction with the amount of time, energy, and attention both their personal and professional lives require.

In the idealistic world of creating a work-life balance, you would go to your office, give it your all during work hours, leave it all at the door, and spend the rest of your day focusing on you and your personal life.

However, finding the right balance between work and your personal life is a long and grueling process that’s never quite finished. Nowadays, as your work can follow you everywhere you go because it’s sitting in your pocket, dinging and buzzing to remind you that it’s there, work-life balance might seem impossible to accomplish.

It’s no easy feat, but let this complete guide to work-life balance educate and inspire you to find harmony in both your personal and professional life.

Work identity

Today’s workplaces all revolve around one main idea: fast, efficient, low-cost solutions. Products and services that were once simple have become complex in order to stand out to consumers. These conditions have had a significant impact on the way individuals engage with their business and create work-related images for themselves.

Place of work has become an identifier. By working for an organization, individuals don't only earn a paycheck, but they also associate who they are with their job title, their status as an employee, and the way they are stimulated by their work.

Because people gain a sense of  identity from those they are surrounded by, employees consider ourselves to be a part of the corporate culture their employers represent. Those values, norms, and interests of the organization define the way people work, but they can also be reflected in they act outside of work. This results in us corresponding our work identity with our true identity. 

work identity vs true identity

As employees interact with their coworkers, managers, and customers, it enforces their work identity. If someone’s work identity and their true identity don’t align, this can create a feeling of a poor work-life balance.

The modern-day workplace

The stressed importance of the physical safety and mental well-being of employees is, unfortunately, a relatively new concern.

Towards the end of the Industrial Revolution, a 14-16 hour work-day was the norm. People were overworked, and often did so in dangerous conditions. As the health and safety of workers became more of a concern, in 1940, the U.S. enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act that enforced the 40 hour work week. As workers got used to having more time to themselves, the term “work-life balance” was coined in the 1980s.

It’s safe to say the modern-day workplace has changed significantly since then. New policies, like unlimited paid time off and the ability to work from home, have offered flexibility to employees. The incorporation of human resources and employee success departments have prioritized employee well-being. And the modern-day office is full of accommodations, such as free lunches, entertainment, and social spaces.

Overall, the modern-day workplace has made obtaining a work-life balance a bit more feasible. However, there is still a disconnect. According to a study by Workplace Trends, while 67% of HR professionals think that their employees are achieving a work-life balance, only 45% of employees thought the same.

Needless to say, the opportunity is there, but reaching that balance is going to take some work.

Causes of work-life imbalance

As stated above, if your work identity and true identity don’t match up in terms of values, interests, and norms, an imbalance will occur.

Because work-life balance includes only those two aspects of your life, imbalance can also happen when one is demanding more time and energy than the other. 

More responsibility at work

If you are given more responsibilities at work, you might have to spend more time at the office, or even bring your work home with you after you have already worked a full day.

After an event like a promotion, raise, or new project, people can get laser-focused on work and neglect their personal life. Even when these people do have time to partake in non-professional activities (cooking dinner, gardening, cleaning their closet), they might feel unproductive because of the lack of recognition and monetary reward.

More responsibility at home

On the other side of the divide, some people have more demanding lives at home. Depending on their familial status, duties outside of work, and mental and physical health, people might have a hard time working a full eight hour day with other commitments in their personal life.

Being in denial about your work-life imbalance

Some people might think they don’t need a work-life balance. Perhaps they get all the satisfaction they need from their job. Or maybe they’re looking at their job solely as a method for paying the bills. If this is the case, it’s likely that the aspect you don’t care about needs some more attention, evaluation, and adjusting.

Unfortunately, this world is more full of workaholics than personal life-aholics. Even though the technical work week is 40 hours, over 10 million Americans are clocking in at 60 hours per week.

While it’s a good indicator, a workaholic doesn’t just refer to someone that spends more time at the office than they do at home. A workaholic is anyone that feels anxious while they aren’t working, prioritizes work over everything else, and isn’t happy with their current work-life balance situation.

Effects of work-life imbalance

If there is no harmony between your work and personal lives, there are going to be some negative consequences. Overcompensating for either aspect will cause an internal battle that’ll result in you feeling distressed and unable to sustain your personal or professional life.

Here are a couple of common effects of work-life imbalance.

Absenteeism and tardiness

Everyone is going to miss some work and personal events here and there, but those that struggle with work-life imbalance will be excessively absent. If work or family is requiring more time and attention, compromises will have to be made.

Even if they are physically present, mentally, people with work-life imbalance might be stressing out over how they wish they could be in two places at once.

Loss of personal time

The constant battle between spending more time at work or with family is not only grueling, but also a huge time suck. While spending time at work and with loved ones is important, people also need time to be completely alone.

When struggling between work and personal life, it’s difficult to find time to be alone, which is when a lot of people find it easiest to recharge.

Irritability

When someone is fighting work-life imbalance, they know it, and it bothers them. This can have a significant effect on their mood and make them irritable. A comment from a family member about how they spend too much time at work can have a bigger impact on that person than they think.

Burnout

A lot of times, when people are struggling with work-life imbalance, they tend to try to cram as much work or family activities into as little time as possible. Unnaturally forcing all of that energy can cause them to burnout and have no desire to participate in anything at all.

Stress

Overall, the most significant negative effect of work-life imbalance is stress, as it can apply to everything mentioned above. Stress can cause absenteeism and tardiness, loss of personal time, irritability, and burnout.

There are many mental and physical health problems associated with too much stress. Physically, individuals struggling with stress can experience cardiovascular disease, a weakened immune system, and extremely stiff muscles. Mentally, stressed people can encounter poor coping mechanisms, insecurity, and difficulty concentrating.

Unfortunately, there is only so much that can be done about relieving these pains of work-life imbalance. Harmonizing work and life with an average 40-hour work week is difficult. Nowadays, overworking to excel is the new norm, making it that much harder.

56%

In the U.S., about 86% of males and 67% of females work more than 40 hours per week. Now that is a hard pill to swallow.

Global comparison of work-life balance

Based on that stat above, it can be concluded that citizens of the U.S. are overworked. But how does it compare to other developed countries?

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, who did a study of work-life balance based on time devoted to leisure/personal care and the number of employees working long hours, here are the top five countries with the best work-life balance in the world:

countries with best work life balance

All European countries. Every single one. That’s probably the reason why discussions of work-life balance in the U.S. often include a comparison to the European Union.

The quality of work-life balance in any nation is altered by legislation, regulations, and most importantly, workplace policies. The two biggest issues come down to parental leave and paid time off.

To conduct this U.S. vs. European Union comparison of work-life balance, let’s take a look at how the US squares up against Finland, which is number 15 on the list of countries with the best work-life balance, but more importantly, was just named the happiest country in the world by the 2020 World Happiness Report (In the same happiness report, the U.S. finished 18th).

Let’s start with parental leave. In Finland, maternity leave averages at 21 weeks, or 105 weekdays. In addition, one of the parents has the option to take an additional 158 weekdays off to look after their child after that. The total time off clocks in at about 52 weeks, or one year.

While the U.S. claims to be a leader in promoting equal opportunity in the workplace, businesses fail miserably at family protections. The average amount of time given for parental leave in the U.S. is a measly 4.1 weeks, or about 21 days.

In terms of paid time off, Finland, once again, overtakes the U.S.

You might want to sit down for this one.

It’s federally required for employers in Finland to offer 36 total days of paid leave to their employees every year. Want to know how many days the U.S. government requires?

Zero.

While a decent amount of businesses decide to grant paid time off to their employees, it’s not required by the government.

When compared to our European counterparts, the lifestyle and societal norms of the U.S. fail at stressing the importance of work-life balance and enabling employees to succeed at it.

Improving work-life balance

Comparing the state of work-life balance in the U.S. to other, happier countries is discouraging. However, you have more control than you think. It might not be at the forefront of our society, but there is still plenty that can be done in making this complicated task more feasible.

Employer responsibilities

As an employer, you have a responsibility to your employees to create a corporate culture that encourages a balance between work and personal life. Not only will it make them happier, but it will also relieve the pains of work-life imbalance that can result in poor work performance.

Here are some ways you can make it happen.

Offer flexibility

Flexibility in the workplace doesn’t mean you should allow employees to come and go as they please. It simply means allowing your employees to alter the “nine to five” work day to fit their personal life.

Employees that like to take their child to school in the morning might come in at 9:30 am and stay until 5:30 pm. You might have some people that like to have a few hours of daylight after work to spend time outside, and they might prefer a 7:30 am to 3:30 pm schedule. As long as they’re getting their work done, let them find a schedule that works for them.

Implement a work from home policy

Working from home policies are sweeping the nation. Probably because it benefits both employees and their employees.

Working from home offers the flexibility that employees crave. Cutting out commutes, creating your own personal office space, and creating a schedule that works for you all deliver easy access to achieving work-life balance.

For the employer, it’s actually better for business to let your employees work from home. With the ability to work from home, people take less time off of work and are actually more productive.

Related: Managing a remote team for the first time doesn’t come easy. Learn how to successfully manage a remote team and help employees find the work-life balance they need while also boosting productivity.

Grant paid time off

Paid time off (PTO) policies group sick days, vacation days, and paid personal days all into one category. This shows that you trust your employees to make a decision, as an adult, as to when they will decide to take time off work.

There’s no importance as to how the time off was spent. Again, as long as they are getting their work done, trust them to act responsibly.

Limit PTO carryover

This might sound like a counterpoint to work-life balance, but it actually supports it. The point of taking time off is to, well, take time off. If you allow unused PTO days to carry over to the next year, there’s a chance employees won’t take advantage of their allotted vacation time, which is bad for work-life balance.

Practice it yourself

Practice what you preach. Be a model of the work-life balance you’re trying to promote in the workplace.

If you are dipping out an hour early to go to the gym, be honest about that. Or if you have decided to take a personal day, let your team know. Watching you take work-life balance seriously and approach it with honesty will motivate employees to do the same.

Make it known that time off is time off

When someone takes a few days off work, they might still sit in on a phone call or answer an email or two. Make it known that when you say time off, you mean it. Don’t reach out to an employee if they’re out of the office. Everything will be waiting for them when they return.

Understand that your employees are humans

Yes, your employees work for you. But above everything else, they’re humans with lives where both planned and unexpected events occur that might affect them coming to work. Be understanding and offer support where you can.

Employee responsibilities

While employers can enable workers to find a good balance between work and personal life, the employees still have a responsibility to make it happen for themselves. There are certain actions you need to take as an employee to find work-life balance - it won’t all just be handed to you.

Accept imperfection

The first step in finding a work-life balance for yourself is accepting that perfection is impossible. When you hear the phrase work-life balance, you probably imagine yourself having a productive day at work and then going home to some good quality time with family or alone time by yourself.

Striving for perfection in your work-life balance is a lost cause. Be realistic, and know that some days you will focus more on work, and others you will focus more on your personal life. There’s no completely even split all the time. The balance happens over time, not all at once.

Pursue a job you love

Finding a job you love is easier said than done, so let’s say that to achieve a work-life balance, you should be in pursuit of a job you love. While work is something we do to make money, there should still be some semblance of passion and satisfaction from how you spend your professional time. You don’t need to be in love with it, but you shouldn’t dread going into the office every day.

Prioritize your health

Your mental and physical health should always be your first priority. If there’s something you are currently struggling with in either of those areas, ensure you are taking the necessary time to focus on it. If this is the case, be transparent about your situation with leadership at your company.

Also, this might sound like a broken record, but make a point to set aside a time to get a bit of exercise. Whether you decide to walk the dog, do yoga, or go for a run, adding some movement to your day is a great method for feeling satisfied with your work-life balance because it involves activities that focus on you and you only. 

Unplug every now and then

Because our jobs can follow us everywhere now with modern technology, it’s important to realize when the time has come to unplug. Cutting ties with work when you’re not at the office is crucial to finding your desired work-life balance. If you don’t separate the two, getting there will be that much harder.

Take a vacation

Taking a vacation might seem like an extreme measure for finding work-life balance, but sometimes, that’s what it takes! Completely shutting off work for a week, a couple of days, or just an afternoon can offer the refresh your brain and body need to find harmony. You might miss out on a bit of work, but the benefits of taking a vacation outweigh the drawbacks.

Set goals

Create goals for both your career and your personal life. Find what would make you feel the most fulfilled in those areas, and designate tasks that will help you get there. Make time for both, and recognize when one area is overpowering the other.

Establish boundaries

Make sure you’re establishing boundaries for when it’s appropriate and inappropriate to do things associated with work. Leave your computer at the office, put your phone on do not disturb, or simply tell your colleagues that you’re unavailable after a certain time.

This is especially important if you work from home. Because your personal and professional lives are happening in the same space, it can be hard to separate the two. If this is the case, set specific hours for yourself to start and end your work day to avoid burnout. 

Find your harmony

Your career is important, but it shouldn’t be your entire life. It’s easy to get caught up in work, especially if you’re passionate about your job.

When in pursuit of work-life balance, ask yourself what it would ideally look like for you, designate tasks to achieve it, and accept that although it will be a bumpy road, it’s a journey well worth taking.

If you're new to working from home, you might have a million questions floating around in your head about how to approach this modern way of working. Don't fret. Check out G2's guide to working from home for all things remote work. 

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