What Is Work-Life Balance, And Why Is It Important?
The definition of work-life balance is an equilibrium between time spent on professional endeavors and investment in non-work priorities such as health, family, and school. Oftentimes, people think of overwhelm and overwork when they hear that phrase. Professional responsibilities tend to be pressing, urgent, and time-consuming. So, it feels like work-life balance is continuously under threat for most people.
The Work-Life Balance Vs. Work-Life Integration Debate
Most people agree that it’s important to strike a balance between personal and professional time, but the term “work-life balance” has come under fire in recent years. A person’s career is part of their life, of course, so some people argue that the term “work-life balance” creates a false dichotomy. Others take issue with the choice of the word “balance.” They say this puts unnecessary pressure on people to make their work and non-work hours perfectly equal.
Regardless of exactly how you define it, you’re probably struggling to achieve work-life balance if you’re a busy professional. If you’re working more than 40 hours per week—like most Americans—you may be neglecting your family duties, hobbies, or self-care. You haven’t taken a vacation in a while. And there is probably a long list of things you’d like to do but just can’t seem to find the time.
Striking the perfect balance is especially difficult today. It’s no longer good enough to check your physical mailbox once a day. You’re also expected to reply to dozens of text messages, instant messages, and social media alerts as quickly as possible. You likely get dozens or even hundreds of emails per day between your work, personal, and other email accounts. All of which puts you under pressure to be always available to clients, colleagues, and friends.
Given how difficult (some might say impossible) it is to achieve work-life balance, some are calling for a new approach. Rather than drawing strict boundaries between the various aspects of our lives, they say we should aim to merge them. This new strategy, which asks us to blur the lines between our personal and professional lives, is called “work-life integration.”
What Is Work-Life Integration?
Proponents of work-life integration urge professionals to stop viewing work and personal time as black and white. By identifying areas of potential compromise, overlap, and synergy, busy professionals can get more done and introduce a bit more flexibility into their lives.
It’s easier than ever before to work remotely. If you’re so inclined, you can check your email while sitting at your son’s baseball game or join a conference call from your beachside cabana. It’s also possible to accomplish personal tasks at the office. You can pay bills, connect with friends, or shop for groceries all from the comfort of your desk chair. You can even see a doctor or talk to a therapist online, assuming your office is private enough.
The ability to do anything from anywhere eliminates the need to dedicate large blocks of time to any particular activity. You no longer have to commit yourself to work from nine to five. Nor, are you barred from professional activities in the evening. This allows for greater schedule flexibility and control.
Examples of Work-Life Integration
Sounds pretty good, right? If you’ve tried to keep your personal and professional life separate up until now, you might have a hard time imagining how to achieve work-life integration. The concept is all about compromise and flexibility. So, you can decide for yourself what it means for you. That said, here are a few examples of work-life integration:
- Leaving early and bringing work home instead of staying late at the office
- Taking frequent “working vacations” instead of one or two longer work-free trips
- Holding walking meetings with colleagues instead of sitting inside all day
- Working when you’re at your most motivated instead of forcing your way to 5 o’clock
- Attending a work-sponsored yoga class instead of finding an outside studio
- Bringing your child to work when needed rather than taking that time off
- Making personal phone calls or listening to an audiobook during your commute
- Sitting in on a conference call while you fold laundry
- Taking frequent breaks during the day and making up lost time in the evenings
As you can see, the concept of work-life integration opens up many possibilities. However, it does have downsides. Many of the examples above would involve some level of multitasking. This forces you to repeatedly switch back and forth between tasks. If you’ve ever tried to console a two-year-old while leading a Zoom meeting, you know how difficult this can be. In fact, research suggests that multitasking reduces productivity and work quality.
Is Work-Life Integration Right for You?
Fortunately, you aren’t obligated to follow the work-life integration strategy if it doesn’t work for you. You get to decide whether the concept of balance, integration, or something else will serve you best in each area of your life. Taking each approach for a trial run is the only way to know for sure whether it will align with your goals. In the meantime, it can help to ask yourself the following questions:
What’s going on in my life right now?
For example, your biggest question right now might be how to balance work and family responsibilities. If you’re up for a promotion, it might make sense to spend more time at work for the next month or two. On the other hand, you may want to focus on your family right now if you’re expecting, have young children, or are working on your relationship with your partner. Is your physical or mental health slipping? If so, you may decide to prioritize self-care for the foreseeable future. Life is in constant flux, so it’s okay if your work-life strategy changes from day to day.
What is your working style?
You may be the sort of person who loses focus quickly, in which case you might benefit from frequent breaks and flexible working hours. Conversely, perhaps switching back and forth between tasks is incredibly draining for you. In that case, you’ll want to schedule long stints of uninterrupted work time. The more productive you are, the more time you’ll have left at the end of the workday for other things.
Are you missing out on multitasking opportunities?
Even if you’re not a great multitasker, there may still be ways you can accomplish more than one thing at a time. Could you listen to that employee training while you commute or fold laundry? Might your colleague be willing to meet you for a walking meeting? Do you really need to create complicated meals, or could your dinner be cooking itself up in your crockpot while you work? Thinking creatively can help you identify opportunities for synergy, integration, and balance.
Which priorities are non-negotiable for you?
Even if you recognize the benefits of work-life integration, you’ll still need to maintain boundaries. If you don’t, what began as an integration may soon become a complete takeover of your personal life. I recommend setting aside blocks of time—however small—when you will only focus on self-care, family, work, or some other priority. Once you’ve identified which priorities are open to negotiation and which aren’t, be sure to communicate those boundaries to your boss, partner, and anyone else who tries to cross them.
What can you eliminate from your schedule?
FOMO (fear of missing out) is a powerful force in the digital age. Unfortunately for us, there is a limit to how much any one person can do in a day, year, or lifetime. If you try to do it all, you may have a lot of variety in your life, but you’ll also probably have a lot of anxiety. Learn to resist FOMO. Say “no” when needed, and eliminate goals that have a negligible effect on your happiness. If you can manage it, you’ll have more time and attention for those activities that enrich your life.
What Does Work-Life Balance Mean to You?
Your priorities and challenges are unique, and your work-life strategy should be as well. Just because a particular approach works for your friend or colleague doesn’t mean it will work for you. Trust and honor yourself by getting in touch with your needs and shortcomings. You may need to go through multiple iterations to find strategies that bring out your strengths and align with your working style.
If you’re wondering how to balance work, school, and family life, it may take some time to find the right approach. Once you land on something that works, run with it. You may need to convince your boss or partner to make some adjustments, but when your overall productivity and life satisfaction increases, the results will speak for themselves.
As a licensed psychologist specializing in executive coaching, I can help. Visit my specialty pages to learn about my approach to helping both adolescents and adults accomplish their professional goals. You can also schedule a free consultation to learn more about my counseling services.