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Written by Susan ShorSusan Shor

The myths and realities of work-life balance

26 min read
The myths and realities of work-life balance
The idea of work-life is often misunderstood. Here are the realities (and myths) of work-life balance.

Is work-life balance a myth? 

If this mythic balance ever did exist, how can you make it happen — how can you build a life where you do just the right amount of work, with just the right amount of time for family, friends, and yourself? How can you put on your work hat in your office at home and keep it on until your workday is over? 

This post is about answering those questions. We’re going to look at:

  • How to know if you’re burning out (that’s a quiz!)
  • Why work-life balance matters to employees
  • Why employers should promote work-life balance
  • If balance is even the right way to describe work-life balance
  • Work-life balance myths that never seem to go away
  • How to achieve a work-life balance
  • Work-life balance myths and realities from the experts

But let’s start with the biggest question of all: What is work-life balance?

Expert tip

Create realistic boundaries

Sticking to boundaries takes willpower, but boundaries are important for stopping work from spilling over into your personal life. Give yourself a defined working day. If you’re contracted to 40 hours a week, stick to those hours and be clear with your employer and colleagues that your working day ends when you say.

It may be difficult to keep track of your hours if you are caring for others or pets, but do your best to keep the interruptions to a minimum. Schedule unavoidable chores for a block of time around your workday instead of getting up frequently and losing focus.

What is the work-life balance and why is it important?

If we had to define it, we would say that work-life balance is:

The division of one's time and focus between working and family or leisure activities.

It’s the idea that you’ll take the 24 hours you have in a day and balance out the time between work, recreation, and sleep (which falls under the “life” part — no sleeping at work without permission, please). 

Except, that’s not how it really works out, is it? For most of us, 24 hours tend to be not enough time. In a post for Psychology Today, which looks at whether work-life balance even exists, stress management expert, Paula Davis-Laack, J.D., M.A.P.P., provides an example of a typical day that I think most of us can relate to:

Wake up after too little sleep, think about exercising, hit the snooze button, drag yourself out of bed, wake up the kids for school, start the coffee, take a shower, wake up the kids again, make breakfast, pack lunches, read email, quickly kiss your significant other goodbye, answer emails and deal with the first crisis of the day on your way to the office, get to the office and realize you're not going to have the day you thought you would, answer emails from clients who want answers now, do some actual work, make a mad dash to a local restaurant and buy some lunch, rush back to your desk, eat quickly while working, spend several hours on the phone talking to clients, put out a few fires, talk to your significant other because one of your kids has become sick and has to go home, answer more email, drink more caffeine to keep going, attend post-work client development event, eat something at the event, head home, put the kids to bed to bed, relax for ten minutes, significant other wants some "alone time"...

That comma-filled sentence is not quite the textbook definition of work-life balance, but it’s one that’s probably more realistic. It’s also the kind of daily grind that we should be looking to avoid. The kind that causes burnout and breakdowns.

Expert tip

Learn to say no

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” — Warren Buffett

Most of us want to say “no” more often at work, but it never really works out. Because saying “yes” is easier. “Yes” is what people want to hear and we’re scared that saying “no” will put our jobs at risk and result in colleagues that hate us.

“Yes” plays on our psychological need to be socially accepted. But saying “yes” all the time won’t do your work-life balance any favors. And without that, you’ll perform worse at work. So start saying “no” to the things you don’t want to do. Check out Kenny Nguyen’s brilliant TEDx Talk on The Art of Saying No.

Why having the right work-life balance is important for employees

Having the right work-life balance seems obvious. You don’t want to work so much that you never get to spend time with your family, but you need to work to put food on the table and enjoy the finer things in life. Plus, if you don’t work and spend all of your time at home, you’ll be left feeling you have no purpose in life. But work-life balance is more than money and lifestyle, it’s health and well-being.

The signs of an unhealthy work-life balance

According to Family Living Today, not achieving the right balance can have serious short-term and long-term effects. When it comes to home life, a bad work-life balance causes 51% of people to miss important life events. 50% of people spend less time with family and friends, 40% have time spent at home ruined by work calls, and 38% lack focus and engagement — in other words, they can’t switch off from work.

At work, 68% of people with a bad work-life balance suffer from poor morale, 41% feel fatigued, and 36% have poor productivity. And those are only the short-term problems. In the long-term, things get even worse.

Employees working over 55 hours a week are:

  • At higher risk of coronary health disease or stroke
  • 1.66 times more likely to suffer from depression
  • 1.74 times more likely to suffer from anxiety

The study also revealed that employees who are expected to be available for work in their off-hours have higher stress and cortisol levels throughout the day. Workplace stress, for its part in all of this, accounts for up to $190 billion in healthcare costs every year in the U.S. alone.

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Here are some of the signals of an unhealthy work-life balance:

  • Feeling like you always have too much to do
  • Feeling unusually irritable and short-tempered with friends, family, and co-workers
  • Getting into arguments with co-workers over trivial matters
  • Neglecting self-care — Not in terms of brushing teeth or washing your face or other daily habits, but things like shaving, enjoying a relaxing bath, or getting a haircut
  • Getting emotional for seemingly no reason
  • Disinterest in work
  • Feeling isolated or distant from colleagues
  • Diminished feelings of creativity
  • A dip in work performance
  • Taking an increasing number of sick days or being absent from work
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed and being unable to cope
  • Difficulty sleeping
Expert tip

Work smarter, not harder

There aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done and putting in the extra hours at work only causes your productivity to nosedive. Instead, focus on what really matters:

  • Prioritize tasks by order of importance and urgency
  • Stop multitasking. The brain struggles when trying to compute more than one thing at a time.
  • Create a routine and stick to it. Forming habits helps you work faster by removing the need to think so hard or prepare so much. Use a planner or online calendar to build a routine
  • Schedule breaks throughout the day. Use the time to stretch your legs, get some fresh air, catch up on social media, or browse the internet — things that typically distract you from work.

Why having the right work-life balance is important for employers

The belief that more time at work means more work gets done sounds good, but it is rarely true in practice. You can see quite clearly from the statistics above that overworked employees are slow, tired, fed up, and on their way to an early grave. A study by The Mental Health Foundation found that, as weekly working hours increase, so do feelings of unhappiness. And the more hours an employee spends at work, the more likely they are to spend time outside of work thinking or worrying about it.

It’s tough to say how work-life balance and working from home will change if or when life goes back to “normal.” The Harvard Business Review predicts many will end up blending working at home and heading into the office, but theorizes the biggest upside will be an understanding that 24/7 work is not productive.

An employer who helps workers achieve work-life balance reverses the health and well-being issues caused by being overworked. According to a report by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), published by Employee Benefits, this results in:

  • Higher levels of efficiency and productivity
  • Lower levels of absence, sickness, and stress
  • Greater motivation across the workforce
  • Improved customer service
  • Higher retention levels
  • More applicants for vacancies

If you’re reading this as an employer, Family Living Today’s infographic throws up a few ways you can help deliver a better work-life balance for staff. If you’re reading this as an overworked employee, show these statistics to your boss.

  • 69% of employees want employers to offer flexible working
  • 55% of employees want to be allowed to work remotely
  • 27% of employees want unlimited paid time-off
  • 27% of employees to restrict email responses to during working hours only
  • 24% of employees want meeting-free blocks of time

In a 2019 Future of Work survey by Mavenlink, 62% of respondents said work-life balance was the most important aspect of a company’s culture. The right work-life balance makes sense for everyone. Yet here we are, employees and employers alike, making a mess of it.

Expert tip

Take more breaks

Taking breaks makes you healthier and more productive. In a 2013 New York Times article on taking breaks, Tony Schwartz wrote:

A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health. 

In a study by the Draugiem Group, it was revealed that the best schedule is every 52 minutes for 17 minutes. This works because performing tasks in short bursts in the knowledge that a break is coming up helps you stay focused, and enjoying the down time improves health and mental well-being. 

How should you spend your break? Well, according to Kevin Kruse, author 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, exercise is the way to go.It’s no secret that regular exercise improves our metabolism and increases energy levels. But many feel that including exercise within the workday is asking for too much — and that’s why using this longer break for simple exercise is so effective. 

Getting the work-life balance right

Why do people think that work life balance is a myth? Why do Americans, for example, leave themselves with less than three hours a day for eating and drinking and caring for family members? Part of it is that the current situation is atypical. Especially for those caring for children or other loved ones, turning off home responsibilities may be impossible, and interrupted work time is less productive. 

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Maybe “balance” is the wrong way to describe what we’re trying to make happen. A work-life balance indicates that work and life are two separate things; that work isn’t part of life. Which, of course, it is. A massive part. 

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says that “work-life harmony” is a better way to describe it: “I prefer the word ‘harmony’ to the word ‘balance’ because balance tends to imply a strict tradeoff.”

Entrepreneur’s Jeffrey Hayzlett, suggests “work-life integration” is more appropriate, and HR consultant, speaker, and writer, China Gorman, prefers the word “blend.”

Stewart Friedman of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania chimes in with “balance is bunk,” perhaps something that COVID-19 only made more obvious, as The Conversation points out.

Harmony, integration, and blend remove the one-versus-the-other that balance insinuates and are all better suited to the way in which we live, where, as Bezos puts it, happiness at work makes for happiness at home and vice-versa. So while you’re calling it work-life balance (there’s no chance of that changing anytime soon), thinking of it in a different way might make it easier to achieve a happier, healthier life. Which brings us nicely onto the big question:

Well, the good news is, yes — it is achievable. But there are some myths we need to get out of the way first.

Expert tip

Do what you love

If you do what you love for a living, you’ll be happier at work and more content with life. If you can find a job that matches your passion, difficulties become challenges and #MondayBlues becomes #MondayMotivation. But doing what you love can extend beyond work. A passion outside of work can energize and refresh you, improving your mental and physical well-being.

Work-life balance myths

MYTH: Working more hours improves productivity

Studies show that, while two-thirds of employees say they’re working longer hours, only 10% say they are more productive. Because the more time you have to do something, the more time you’ll spend procrastinating. We all do it. There’s even a name for it: Parkinson’s Law.

According to Parkinson’s Law, “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” It’s why, when you’re given three months to complete a university assignment, you find yourself pulling all-nighters in the final 48 hours to hand it in on time.

When you’re given longer to do something, the brain sees it as too huge of a task, which leads to overthinking and procrastination. When there’s less time, the brain knows it has to focus on the task at hand. 

MYTH: A good employee is always on call

A couple of statistics for you:

What links the two? Bosses.

Dinner is spoiled by answering emails at the table and vacations don’t provide an opportunity to switch off because the boss expects an immediate response to emails. According to Forbes, 26% of employees feel guilty about using all of their vacation time — which is ridiculous. On one hand, you have workers who don’t take holidays because they don’t want to let their employer down, and on the other, workers who take holidays but work while they’re away. No one is getting a break! 

But studies show that 67% of employees feel more productive once they get back to work after a vacation. So employers should be encouraging time away from work, for the benefit of their businesses.

Unfortunately, right now there’s nowhere to go, and it shows. A study by Clockwise found that employees are spending 5% more time in meetings, a 29% increase per week in team sync meetings and 24% more time in one-on-ones. They also saw an 11% increase in fragmented time, which Clockwise defined as a chunk of time of fewer than 2 hours before an interruption.

MYTH: Work should always be done at your desk (you mean the kitchen table?)

Work should be done at your desk, no matter where that desk is, or at least in a space designated for work. You may reserve a short time for your personal life at night ... unless I email you. Okay. But you do know it’s 2023, right? 

This is where technology is a benefit. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, and WiFi mean we can work from anywhere we’re allowed to go, during hours that fit our lifestyle. 

Remember those statistics from earlier: 69% of employees want employers to offer flexible working hours and 55% of employees want to be allowed to do part of their job remotely.

Research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) shows that flexible work can improve employee engagement and motivation. Being a slave to a 9-to-5 schedule is old thinking.

MYTH: Life can be compartmentalized

This is the 8+8+8 thing again, which is impossible when you take into account that the average workday for men is 8.4 hours. Life simply isn’t rigid enough to be divided into chunks.

MYTH: The four-hour work week is a thing

Working four hours a week would be the perfect way to achieve the kind of work-life balance at home and at work that you want. It’d certainly mean a lot more life than work. Except, it doesn’t really exist. Even Tim Ferris — the man who coined the term “four-hour work week” and wrote a number one bestselling book on it — knows it’s not really viable. The idea of the book is about being efficient with your time.

MYTH: Work-life balance only counts when you have a family

The idea that if you don’t have a family, the more time you have to work and should, therefore, make yourself available to cover shifts or take on extra work is nonsense. If anything, not having a family gives you more opportunity to pursue hobbies and try different things. 

You may be sympathetic at this time because you are juggling fewer responsibilities than your coworkers with families. It’s fine to offer some assistance — we all need to pitch in when times are tough — but try not to make a habit of it.

Expert tip

Find the right employer

As much as creating boundaries, taking breaks and ignoring emails outside of work can do wonders for balance, you need your employer onboard. If you work for a micromanaging dictator that sucks the life out of every room they walk into, you’re probably never going to enjoy the balance that you’d like.

You’ll be too stressed and too fed-up with work to make it happen. It’s essential that you’re in a job where balance is embraced and this comes from approaching the right employers and tailoring your resume to impress the companies you’d love to work for. 

Check out our comprehensive guide on how to put together a resume to land your dream job.

The myths and realities of work-life balance from an expert

Work life balance, myth or reality? 

In putting together this post, we wanted to know about the work-life balance myths and realities of people in the know; people that teach it and achieve it, and, most importantly, people that have lived the struggle. So we asked them. And the answers we got… Well, we’ll just let you read them.

Jaime Pfeffer

Life Balancing and Success Coach, JaimePfeffer.com

Myth: You must be a workaholic to make — and stay at — the top at work.

Reality: According to Harvard Business Review's book, On Mental Toughness, peak performance in business isn't just sheer brainpower or man-hours on the job. Rather, it is dependent on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual capacities of an individual. The ideal performance state — peak performance under pressure — is achieved when all levels are working together.

Therefore, although many people still believe they don't have enough time to work out several times a week, spending time on fitness activities and physical endurance are vital to excelling at work.

Expert tip

The "How to know if you’re burning out" work-life balance quiz

When you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to know whether you’re doing okay with the work-life balance thing or you’re on the verge of crashing and burning.

To help you figure out if your week leans more towards work or life, take this quiz from Mind Tools.

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Work-life balance is important to your health and well-being, and your work performance. And whether or not balance is the right word for what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s essential that you don’t let work become the dominant part of your life.

If you’re worried about burnout, act immediately to address your work-life balance.

  • Understand the myths of work-life balance and what’s acceptable for an employee to do outside of working hours
  • Stop bringing work home and checking emails during time you have designated as “off”
  • Create boundaries
  • Take regular breaks
  • Learn to say no to work tasks that encroach on your personal life.

Don’t look back in retirement and regret the fact you worked too hard. The best memories are of the times you spend with your friends and family. Get your balance right.

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