Work-Life Balance: Why It Is Important and How to Improve It
Work-life balance is key to worker happiness. Actively addressing imbalances can lead to greater worker engagement and productivity, and reduce workplace stress.
The pandemic’s worst effects may be behind us, but certain changes catalyzed by lockdowns are ongoing. Work-life balance has been a hot topic since the COVID-19 pandemic altered work. Many companies were forced to adopt ad-hoc work-at-home policies or to lay off employees, and employment was hard to find for many. Many workers were forced into a prolonged season of unemployment or remote work that broke down the barriers between work life and home life.
The emergence of workplace stress
Since the pandemic’s onset, work-life balance (or a lack thereof!) has been a driving force behind major workforce trends. As pandemic lockdowns began to end, millions of workers declined to return to their old jobs in a mass movement dubbed the Great Resignation or the Great Reshuffle. Since then, quiet quitting has become a buzzword, signaling that an employee has “checked out” and is doing the bare minimum to fulfill the terms of their employment contract. Gallup reports that 50% or more of the U.S. workforce may consist of “quiet quitters”, and that these employees report suffering from burnout, are tired of always being available to their employer via email and text messaging, and that they feel undervalued at work. All these employees are feeling a great amount of job-related stress.
One of the most popular theories about workplace stress is the job demands-resources theory. The theory posits that the demands of our jobs cause stress, but that this link is weakened when we have resources at our disposal that either help to alleviate our job demands (e.g., support from our supervisors and assistance from colleagues) or make them seem more “worth it” (e.g., job benefits and compensation). If a worker feels that they have more demands than resources, they tend to experience work-related stress that bleeds into their home life, causing their perceived work-life balance to tip too far to the “work” side of the equation. This surfeit of demands and stress can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion, burnout, and disengagement or resignation. Contrarily, an employee who feels that they have enough resources to successfully manage their job demands may feel more engaged at work and be more productive.
Work-life balance has been a hot topic since the COVID-19 pandemic altered work.
Maintaining work-life balance
I have had the distinct pleasure of studying Tai Chi, Hung Ga, and other martial arts. Physical balance is a core component of all these disciplines, and the basics of balance remain the same regardless of the style. One teacher often discussed the nature of physical balance and made a distinction between maintaining balance and being in balance. Maintaining balance is an active endeavor, wherein a person uses their muscles to correct some imperfection in their posture so as not to fall over. Being in balance is the result of having impeccable posture and being in this state requires no muscular work on the part of the balancer.
To be ‘maintaining balance’ is to be actively striving to remain in the desired position, whereas being ‘in balance’ is to exist in a state of equilibrium. In fact, he told the class, the active state of maintaining balance is the default state for every practitioner of the art, no matter how advanced. The passive state of being in balance is rarely achieved, and it is fleeting when it does occur. Physical balance is an active endeavor, not a passive process, especially when one’s body is in motion.
Work-life balance operates on similar principles. Just as we must actively work to maintain physical balance, we must also actively maintain our work-life balance. This requires juggling the responsibilities of our work and non-work lives, and the details of how that juggling act occurs are different for each person. However, certain principles are universal. If you find yourself struggling to maintain a work-life balance, the following actions can help maintain or restore it:
- Set clear boundaries between your work and non-work activities. If possible, avoid answering work-related phone calls, emails, and text messages while outside of working hours. If you work remotely, create a dedicated workspace that you can physically leave when your workday is over. Refusing to allow your work responsibilities to bleed over into your everyday life helps create a psychological barrier between the two and may help you relax more completely while not at work. Keeping fixed routines at the beginning and end of your workday can also help train your mind to switch from “work mode” to “nonwork mode” (or vice versa), helping to create healthy boundaries between your work and nonwork lives.
- Take time to engage in recreational activities that you truly enjoy and during which you can experience flow. Being absorbed in the fun, recreational activities leads to psychological distancing from work, which is a crucial step in the process of rejuvenation. Just as your body needs to rest after a hard day of work, so too should your mind! More rejuvenation away from work means more energy to put into both work and nonwork activities.
- Block off time on your schedule to take care of necessary life activities. If job demands are causing you to have insufficient time or energy to regularly take care of necessities such as grocery shopping and cleaning, you may come to resent your job, which can lead to burnout. Blocking off time when you are dedicated to maintaining your quality of life can reduce this kind of resentment and stress.
Workplace culture is a crucial component in the equation of work-life balance, too. Employers and managers can implement balance-friendly practices and policies that go a long way toward helping employees achieve the work-life balance that will help them maximize their own productivity. Here at SHL, we have a Together Community dedicated to maintaining work-life balance, and employees who join this community can receive support and advice from a community of others who seek to maintain work-life balance. This community is also an invaluable resource to employees who have significant responsibilities outside of work, including childcare and eldercare, that make it more difficult than most to achieve optimal work-life balance.
If you are feeling stressed or burnt out at work, taking conscious steps to address a possible imbalance may help to reduce or eliminate negative repercussions of work, and lead to a happier, more fulfilled life. It can also increase your sense of engagement with your work, increase your work productivity, and increase your satisfaction with both your work and nonwork lives.