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How a Work-Life Balance Works

Having a healthy work life balance is a high priority for many people

This article was originally written in 2019 and updated in 2020 and 2021.

 

 

How a Work-life Balance Works

In 2021 National Work Life Week takes place from 11 – 15 October and brings the conversation around healthy work-life balances into workplaces proper.

The National Work Life Week is an initiative by Working Families, a UK charity that helps employers, working parents and carers in matters of managing work and home life responsibilities. It offers guidance for both parties and conducts research into the current state of flexible working in the UK. Although their primary focus is working families, the data they collect is of interest to employers who have employees both with, and without caring responsibilities, as having a good work-life balance is important regardless.

Their work includes raising awareness of the benefits of flexible working, improving job design, launching #GoHomeOnTimeDay and improving that campaign into #FlexTheUK in 2021.

A toolkit, webinars, group coaching, ideas and case studies, as well as information on changing workplace policies, are all available for employers to access over the week.

This year Working Families created a survey to find out how people are managing their caring and parental responsibilities during the aftermath of the pandemic. The results show the “wide gulf in how parents and carers are managing to balance their work and home lives…”.

Starting with the good news; the poll suggests there is “a lot to celebrate in UK workplaces today” as 67% of working parents agree they are satisfied with the balance between work and their home life in their current role. Furthermore, 61% of carers agree that open conversations about wellbeing and mental health are more accepted at work than before the pandemic. Many poll respondents say that conditions have improved and that the pandemic brought “significant benefits” to working parents. However, they are now concerned they will lose those benefits as workplaces return to “normal”.

36% of respondents who are working parents, and 48% of carers, said that now that lockdown is over, they are concerned that taking time off for caring needs will be frowned upon at work. 38% reported that those who work the longest hours at their organisations are more respected by senior leaders, 22% admit they hide childcare time off from their managers and 41% of women think that their caring responsibilities have held them back from promotion at work.

So, what does National Work Life Week do? First let’s understand what a healthy work-life balance looks like.

What is a work-life balance?

A good work-life balance comes when an individual is able to set boundaries between their work commitments and their life outside of work. Being able to leave the work environment, both physically and mentally is key, to allow a good portion of each day focussed on non-work-related activities. Especially as a Mental Health Foundation survey found that more than 40% of employees feel like they neglect other areas of their life because of work.

Another way of looking at it is that there are 24 hours in a day, if you discount 8 for sleeping (who actually gets 8?!) then you have 16 left. If you work a 40-hour week you can expect to work 8 hours a day which in theory means you have 8 wonderful hours of each day to pursue hobbies, spend time with your children, friends and family or even study. However we know the day doesn’t exactly work like that; add 2 hours for commuting to work, 1 hour for checking emails at home throughout the evening, then 30 minutes in the morning of mentally planning the day ahead, plus the same amount of time in the evening worrying about what you didn’t get done, and you can easily see how work can actually take over your life. I get it, you want to do a good job, but include how many hours you stay behind or get into work early, or skip lunch away from your desk and soon the amount of time you are actually working is way over 8 hours and that means you put off rewarding social activities in order to cope with the amount of work related activities you are doing instead.

Signs of an unhealthy work-life balance

  • Becoming more unreasonable, impatient and argumentative
  • Skipping lunch or eating at your desk, or increasing your intake of coffee, sugar and energy drinks to get through the day
  • Not attending social events because you’re staying late at work or are too tired from working
  • Working many more hours than you are paid for just to feel on top of things
  • Finding yourself doing non-work-related tasks during working hours as a way to take a break from work tasks, but not taking an actual break when you should
  • You can’t put down your phone/tablet/laptop – you are always checking your emails or for work updates
  • Struggling with knowing what is a higher priority than something else, especially between work and non-work-related tasks
  • Setting unrealistic expectations and perfection levels for yourself

 

Social media seems to constantly show us that our friends, family and role models have everything together and that they can easily manage everything life throws at them; holding down impressive jobs, raising amazing children, going on exotic vacations regularly and somehow managing to fit in hobbies and social events too. But in reality, these are just the snippets they want everyone to see on social media, it doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling with a work-life balance or other difficulties, so it’s important not to compare yourself to others.

Why is a good work-life balance important?

The Mental Health Foundation survey also found that the more hours you work, the more hours outside of work, in which you will worry and think about work, which leads to the main benefit of a healthy work-life balance; the time you get back. Do you constantly feel like you can never get on top of your life admin? Is there a long list of basic errands or “adulting” jobs you need to do but haven’t? If you didn’t check work emails at home, would could you do with that time?

Getting that time back gives you the hours you need to exercise, plan and cook healthier food or see friends, all of which contribute to better mental health. Instead of getting up early to get into work each day and try to get a head start, use that time to sleep longer, go to the gym or eat breakfast.

How can employers help promote a good work-life balance to their employees?

Recognising the signs of someone with a poor work-life balance is an important skill for employers to have, and they should feel they have the support of HR or other managers, so they can broach the subject with their employee. Sometimes their work-life imbalance will be out of your control as an employer, and sometimes it will be that that their homelife is taking over their work-life and the two are not as separated as you’d like. However, at least there are some actions you can take to pre-empt any issues the job may be having on yourself or your employees.

  • Hold regular reviews of workloads
  • Set realistic deadlines
  • Lead by example, don’t check/send emails outside of working hours and take a lunchbreak away from your desk
  • Allow employees an hour for lunch and provide a space where they can eat away from their desk
  • Introduce training opportunities to improve on workload management and priority setting
  • Encourage staff to leave on time after their shift
  • If your employees need a work phone outside of office hours, give them a separate one to their personal phone so they don’t take work with them on holiday and at weekends
  • Send out regular surveys for staff to give opinions
  • Respect their availability – if an employee says they could really do with a couple of hours to work on something that requires concentration, then allow them the two hours of do-not-disturb working
  • Invest in continuous improvement – identify areas of working that are causing congestion for employees and work with them to improve productivity
  • Consider taking on temporary staff during busy periods so your employees can concentrate on priority projects, but the basic business administration still get done

 

How can I improve my work-life balance?

If you’ve ticked one or more of the “Signs of an unhealthy work-life balance” then this next section is for you. It’s not easy to change your working habits, or your colleagues’ perceptions of how you use your time. But you know when something isn’t right, and you’ve got to make a change so start by following these 5 key guiding principles:

  • Have set work hours and stick to them
  • Plan in personal time
  • Prioritise your time
  • Find time for your finances
  • Remember to switch off technology when you can

Some tips to keep you on track:

  1. If you do need to work overtime, plan it into your week and make it convenient so you don’t have to miss out on social activities or important jobs. For example; if you think you’ll need to work for extra hours one day, split those hours up over a few days and meal prep all your dinners for the week. That way you can add a little more time on each day and if you aren’t cooking dinner you won’t lose any time from anything else.
  2. Spending time with loved ones is so important for good mental health so ideally you don’t want to cancel plans. If you plan your personal time ahead, think about travel times, manage yours and your friends expectations and don’t go overboard on worknights, you can find time to see people regularly without giving anything else up.
  3. Learn how to prioritise your time by categorising life and work admin by importance. If you’ve finished your working day and have urgent life admin tasks to do, don’t get distracted by less urgent work tasks – now isn’t the time.
  4. Finding time for your finances is something people avoid – often it’s the worst, least fun and most upsetting life admin task to do. If it’s something you usually put off then finding a way to make it easier will help. Whether that’s by asking a friend, using a money management app, speaking with your bank or paying for someone else to do it, knowing your finances are in order will save you a lot of stress and time.
  5. As a society we revolve around social media and technology – even our downtime is spent using tech. If it stresses you out or you find it difficult to relax and enjoy something because you’re too focused on your phone or your work emails, switch it off. You could downgrade your phone to something less “smart” so you can’t get work emails, put a “do not disturb” mode on a timer or take the TV out of your room so you are encouraged to read instead of binge watch before bed.

If anything in this blog has resonated with you, as an employer or employee, then it’s time to take action to make improvements. Go to your line manager or employee, with a list of what is bothering you, and some ideas on what you can both do to help the situation.

You can find help and more information on the Mental Health Foundation and Working Families websites. 

About the author

Rebekah Frost

A champion problem solver; whether it’s a board game or a tricky computer conundrum, Bekah's attention to detail is second to none. Her interesting and varied work experience across different sectors means she always has a story to tell, a love of people and a way to fix any issue.