What Is Work-Life Balance?

We explain the concept — and provide expert tips for finding equilibrium at your job.

Written by Jeff Rumage
What Is Work-Life Balance?
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
UPDATED BY
Hal Koss | Oct 11, 2023

Work-life balance is the degree to which an individual is able to achieve their professional goals while also making time for family, friends and personal interests.

The concept dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when labor unions fought for eight-hour work days, trisecting a 24-hour day into a perfectly balanced eight hours for work, eight hours for play and eight hours for sleep.

What Is Work-Life Balance?

Work-life balance is the degree to which someone can manage their job responsibilities and their personal life in a way that supports their well-being.

The increasingly digital nature of the professional world has blurred these boundaries, though, as technology has made it possible to work from home (or anywhere with internet connectivity). According to Gallup, the 40-hour work week has stretched to 47 hours for the average American.

Some see this digital transformation as cause for increased vigilance about the work-life divide, while others have argued that work-life balance is a false dichotomy that ignores the interconnectedness of our work and personal lives.

“The reality is that we know that work is a part of life, and they really should be much more closely integrated,”said Lee Rubin, CEO and co-founder of culture-building platform Confetti. “For us, it’s really taking steps to see how both of them work together so life doesn’t feel like it’s being sacrificed. At the same time, how do we produce the best work that we can during the hours that we should be actively working for a company?”

“The reality is that we know that work is a part of life, and they really should be much more closely integrated.”

Work-life balance is a subjective concept, as each person will have different feelings about the amount of work that feels enjoyable or manageable in their own life. It’s a movable target that often changes for each person over time, so the search for equilibrium is more of a work-in-progress than a milestone to be achieved.

“Our work-life balance — as we evolve, as we age and as our lives change — is always ebbing and flowing,” said Caitlin Collins, an organizational psychologist with Betterworks.

Employees might, for example, prioritize career growth over work-life balance earlier in their career, but their priorities may change if they experience burnout or start a family. On the other hand, more experienced employees may have advanced to a more engaging position that inspires them to work longer hours than their younger counterparts.

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Why Is Work-Life Balance Important?

Having a healthy work-life balance is important for your productivity, physical and mental well-being and maintaining healthy relationships with the people in your life.
 

1. Increases Productivity

You don’t have to work a long schedule in order to be productive. In fact, research shows that productivity drops significantly after 50 hours per week, and those who work up to 70 hours per week are only as productive as employees who worked 55 hours.

Happier employees are 13 percent more productive, according to research from Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. By stepping away from work and engaging in other activities, employees can return to work the next day with more energy. Time away from work can also generate fresh perspectives and breakthrough ideas.

 

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2. Prevents Burnout

Workers with an imbalance between their work and personal lives are more likely to experience burnout, which is a type of exhaustion caused by prolonged work stress. When workers are unable to make time for their hobbies, they may start to exhibit some of the classic burnout symptoms, such as decreased performance quality and a disengagement from company culture.

“We all have our things going on outside of work that require time,” said Amy Casciotti, vice president of human resources at TechSmith. “If we don't get that time, we start resenting work when we’re there — even if we like work.”

 

3. Improves Mental and Physical Health

Work-life imbalance can take a toll on your mental and physical health. Long working hours have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

People who are dealing with chronic stress are more susceptible to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure and other health issues. These workers tend to also experience sleep deficiency, which is linked to chronic health problems such as heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes.

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Ways to Improve Work-Life Balance

More than 70 percent of workers say work-life balance is an important factor in choosing a job, but only 40 percent say they are able to maintain a healthy equilibrium amid work demands that too often encroach on employees’ personal lives.

If you feel like work is taking up an unhealthy chunk of your free time, there are many tools at your disposal to regain control of your time and restore balance.
 

1. Take a Vacation

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by work, your first thought might be to take a vacation. That’s easier said than done for most people, though. A 2023 study found that 68 percent of Americans work on vacation — oftentimes because they have no one to delegate their tasks to.

Other people may have difficulty stepping away from work due to anxiety. They may worry that if they don’t take care of a task themselves it won’t get done. In some cases, they may be avoiding a personal issue and turning to work to get a sense of control, Collins said.

Knowing the peaks and valleys of your workflow can help you schedule a more enjoyable vacation. Accountants are typically busiest around tax season, for example, so they might find it easier to relax once the April filing deadline has passed.

You can also set yourself up for a more relaxing vacation by reminding coworkers about your upcoming vacation, determining who will cover which tasks in your absence and setting up an out-of-office email response that directs your contacts to the appropriate team member.

 

2. Talk to Your Supervisor

Employees are often reluctant to bring up their work-life imbalance with their supervisor. They usually just look for another job.

Lindsay Dagiantis, founder of fractional HR firm blueprintHR, said she has often learned about employees’ work-life imbalance through exit interviews, when it’s too late to take action. She wishes more employees felt comfortable expressing their imbalance with their manager so they could try to make accommodations.

“As a manager, I would love for an employee to come to me and say, ‘For the next 12 to 18 months, the biggest driver for me is flexibility,’” Dagiantis said. “What does that look like for you? You should be able to articulate that and put thought into it…That will be a much more productive conversation than the binary ‘I need this. You can’t provide it. We need to break up.’”

You may not be allowed to reduce your workload, but you could probably negotiate PTO, flexibility in working hours or being excused from unproductive meetings.

“It’s having a give-and-take dance around what is necessary in that person's life and dancing with them to say, ‘Here’s what’s important for the business right now,’” Dagiantis said.

 

3. Add Flexibility to Your Schedule

This isn’t possible in all roles and organizations, but you might want to talk to your supervisor about carving out personal time during the day with the expectation that you will pick up any leftover work at night. This type of flexible work arrangement is most common with parents who want to pick up their child from school in the afternoon, but it could also be used to attend an afternoon yoga class, therapy session or spend quality time with your family.

Kane Carpenter, practice lead for employer branding and growth strategies at growth strategies consultancy Daggerfinn, said he occasionally takes a mid-afternoon break to go to the grocery store, which is less crowded at that time. He then works a little later in the evening to make up for lost time. 

“Work-life balance, fundamentally, it means flexibility,” Carpenter said.

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4. Take Breaks

Employees shouldn’t just sit at their desks for eight hours straight. That’s not good for physical or emotional health, and companies should encourage employees to take lunch breaks, bathroom breaks and just step away from their work for a few minutes.

“During the day we actually promote 15 minutes of dedicated break time because people like myself book back-to-back meetings,” said Amy Kim, former CEO of Jugo, a virtual meeting and events platform. “We’re prone to doing that because we think we’re being effective with our time, but what we end up doing is counterproductive by running late and being late to meetings, but also just not having a break to think and process.”

 

5. Incorporate Physical Activity

Physical activity plays an important part in your mental health and mindset. Going to the gym, participating in recreational sports and jogging are great ways to expend energy, but there are also small things you can do to be more active.

Walking around the block on your lunch hour, for example, engages your body while also reaping the healing benefits of nature. Zachary Ginder, a psychological consultant for employees and organizations at Pine Siskin Consulting, suggests setting an hourly alarm to stretch or practice progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and relaxing individual muscle groups throughout the body.

“Your productivity increases when you take a moment to improve your well-being — even if it’s through micro-practices, but especially if you can take more of an intentional break,” Ginder said.

 

6. Get a Good Night’s Sleep

If you’re feeling overworked or stressed out at your job, you might be tempted to reclaim some “me time” late at night — a bad habit known as revenge bedtime procrastination. As you might suspect, though, a sleep deficit will only hurt your productivity the next day and take a further toll on your mental health. Research shows that adults need at least seven hours of sleep, which will help you reduce stress, improve productivity and get along better with people.

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7. Connect With a Therapist

Therapy might not be for everyone, but it can be helpful to have someone assist you in identifying the issues at your job that are causing you the most distress. A therapist will be able to talk through these situations with you, investigate what is causing that distress and help you develop tools to more effectively address these issues in the future. However, there’s only so much you can do if you’re in a toxic work environment that doesn’t provide organizational support for work-life balance.

“A lot of organizations put the onus on the individual,” Ginder said. “They say, ‘Here’s a program you can take to improve your health and well-being,’ separate from actually addressing some of the core causes.”

 

8. Set Remote Work Boundaries

Remote work ushered in a major shift in work-life balance, giving workers the chance to save time and money on commuting, spend more time with their families or move to a new city. 

And while remote work offers flexibility, it also causes some employees to feel less connected and engaged. It can blur the boundaries between employees’ work and personal lives. Remote workers can establish clear boundaries with work by designating a separate office space and sticking to a schedule that delineates work from personal time. 

 

9. Talk to Your Friends

Interpersonal relationships can also act as a buffer against stress, Ginder said. Talking to family, friends and mentors can help you blow off steam, put issues into perspective and provide support during stressful times.

 

10. Evaluate Company Culture During Job Interviews

When interviewing for a new job, it’s worth asking about the company culture and its philosophy about work-life balance. Some important benefits to look for include ample paid time off, paid leave, flexible work schedules, remote work options and synchronous breaks.

For a company to truly have work-life balance, there needs to be thoughtful, strategic consideration around how to support the health of employees and not have work negatively impede on their personal lives. Supervisors can help set boundaries and norms for things like responding to work emails and messages within the confines of established business hours.

“This is not something where you can throw up a yoga class and give everybody a meditation app and expect transformed outcomes,” said Susan Hunt Stevens, CEO and founder of WeSpire. “For you to have better outcomes related to well-being, you need to have a much more systematic approach to understanding what is dragging down well-being in my specific company and my specific industry and my specific region.”

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What Does an Unhealthy Work-Life Balance Look Like?

If you have an unhealthy work-life balance, you will probably be able to feel it in your physical and mental health. It can also change how you interact with your friends and family members and therefore damage the relationships with those closest to you.

“Without appropriate work-life balance, and keeping things in line with your goals, values and ideals, you can really start to spiral downwards,” Ginder said.

If work is looming too large in your life, your brain might feel like it is always on, and that you find it hard to focus on things other than work. You might be answering emails at the dinner table or thinking about work when other people are telling you about their day.

“Sometimes the amount of time you're spending thinking about work outside of work is like a whole other full time job,” Ginder said. “You’re really giving yourself twice to a job that isn’t going to give that back to you, and you’re never going to get back that time with your family and friends.”

This kind of preoccupation with work might be normal when you are working on a big project or an especially busy time of year, but if this stress is prolonged, it will eventually start to impact other areas of your life, like your relationships or your mental and physical well-being. It may also cause trouble sleeping, low energy levels or irritability. Being mindful of these symptoms will help you take necessary precautions before burning out.

“I think a really good practice is to do a self-evaluation,” Collins said. “I think stress sometimes can go unnoticed over a long period of time until it's too much. It happens slow before it happens fast.
 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Having a good work-life balance helps with maintaining physical and mental health, avoiding burnout and staying productive in the long run.

An unhealthy work-life balance is one that makes it difficult for someone to have time and energy for family, friends and hobbies, or where thoughts about work linger constantly.

An earlier version of this story was written by Alexandria Jacobson and published in 2022.

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