What is work-life balance?

Work-life balance addresses how an organization's workforce prioritizes their personal and professional activities. Work-life balance is a timely matter given the increased amount of technology used to complete work activities and its ability to interrupt home life.

Each employee defines their ideal work-life balance differently, depending on commitments to family, work priorities, health, and leisure.

What is work-life balance?

A brief history of work-life balance

Until the early 20th century, typical blue-collar workers labored for 70 to 100 hours per week during The Industrial Revolution.

Automotive innovator Henry Ford pioneered the modern “9-5” workday in the 1920s to provide his employees more opportunities for balance and leisure. Companies would follow this model over the next two decades and the US government would eventually codify 40-hour work week into law. During this time, the press described the time between work and home as work/leisure balance.

The relationship between work and home evolved in the last quarter of the 20th century with the introduction of new technology and a shift in business priorities towards shareholder value. Employees could now stay connected to their work outside the office over email and instant messaging. With previously set boundaries now eliminated, the concept of work-life balance was introduced.

How has work-life balance changed?

Work-life balance continues to change today, with employees looking for more flexible work arrangements that support their lifestyles. Companies have responded, introducing childcare, elder care, and employee assistance programs. For some companies, the prominence of such initiatives provides a boost in company brand image and recruiting.

The COVID-19 pandemic created additional dialogue around work-life balance. As workers shifted into remote settings while also fulfilling family responsibilities, workers felt increasingly stressed out. In response, companies updated their benefits offerings by expanding existing employee assistance program services while offering access to mental health counseling, health and wellness programs, home office stipends, and flexible work hours.

Work-life integration vs. work-life balance: What's the difference?

Work-life integration and work-life balance are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are differences between the two.

  • Work-life integration is when your employees blend their personal and professional obligations while finding areas of compromise. For example, your employee could be completing their household chores while participating on a conference call or bringing children into your office when schools are closed. When your employees successfully implement work-life integration into their lives, they enjoy a higher level of flexibility that allows the coordination of schedules, leading to increased satisfaction.
  • Work-life balance is when your employees equally prioritize the demands of work and personal life. In this model, a clear boundary is established where explicit schedules exist to support your employee’s efforts in both areas. This balance can be hard to manage, especially in remote or hybrid work settings where separation fades. Additionally, difficulties may arise when your employees need to put in extra hours for a presentation, project, or event, requiring regular recalibration of such a balance.

Both systems seek to find an equilibrium between personal and professional lives. Your workers should evaluate their life priorities and needs, then set out to adopt one with the intent of lowering their stress and increasing well-being.

How can employers support better work-life balance?

You can support better work-life balance in many ways. While stress levels will differ by industry, following are a few ways employers can support work-life balance:

  • Creating adaptable work environments: Your workers are happiest when they get to manage their own time. In an environment of trust, offering flexible work arrangements helps your employees feel valued knowing they can complete their work and address other areas of their life, as needed.
  • Encouraging employees to take frequent breaks: Work can be stressful, and you can get more from your employees by encouraging fitness, communicating the importance of mental health, and encouraging the use of paid time off.
  • Assess existing benefits: What benefits do your workers find value in? Evaluate your current offerings and make adjustments based on feedback.
  • Check-in with employees: Every employee has a different situation they are facing. Broaching the conversation and asking what they need to be successful is a good start, whether it’s reviewing their workload or discussing ongoing challenges.

How to improve work-life balance?

The following are some ways to improve work-life balance:

  • Learn to set boundaries: Encouraging your workforce to communicate their boundaries is one of the keys to workplace success. With so many requests and demands from colleagues, your workers should know how to articulate priorities, which frees up time to focus on important tasks. Similarly, boundaries are also important after work hours.
  • Practice self-care: During the day, your employees should take regular breaks, which can improve their concentration, reduce stress, and help maintain focus. Supportive daily routines such as meditation, exercise, and gratitude practice can create a habit of self-care. Your employees should start small so it’s simple and there’s no excuse not to do it.
  • Practice self-compassion: Work is not always easy and it’s not difficult to get caught up in perfectionism. Your workers should recognize they aren’t going to get it “right” the first time, and should focus on lessons learned. Such a mindful approach promotes a level of work-life balance and reduces the inner critic which can add pressure.
  • Prioritize quality time and make the weekends count: A good work-life balance includes spending time on passions and hobbies outside of work. With so much to juggle during the week, it’s easy for your workforce to forget about their own aspirations. Encouraging them to do something different on the weekend – and even treating the time like a vacation – creates rest and relaxation for the week ahead.
  • Cut down on media consumption: Trying to keep up with the news can be stressful and scrolling through social media news feeds doesn’t help either. Encourage your workforce to limit both and preserve their work-life balance.

How does technology affect work-life balance?

Technology can cultivate or harm your workforce’s work-life balance.

At work, digital tools help your workforce to get work done, including automating routine tasks, providing communications channels, and improving collaboration. Such resources are especially helpful for teams working in virtual or hybrid arrangements. Additionally, technology can drive work-life balance by helping your workers maintain focus and organize their day. With more structure, your employees can plan their days and leave work at a manageable time.

Digital tools can also make work-life balance more elusive than ever because the ability to work from anywhere can make your employees feel they always need to be available. Unaddressed, the invasion of technology in their personal lives can lead to worker burnout, low performance, and attrition.

Addressing how technology affects your employees’ work-life balance starts with a conversation between your leadership and employees.

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