Work-Life Balance: What It Is and How to Achieve It

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn what experts say about work-life balance and what you can do to find yours.

[Featured Image] A woman is sitting on her couch drinking coffee while reading a book.

Work set aside at the end of the work day. Time spent catching-up with loved ones. Personal days devoted to pursuing personal interests. 

At times, these simple pleasures can seem elusive and unattainable. As we commit time to one side, the others seem to inevitably shrink. Yet, despite how it may sometimes seem, it is possible to achieve a healthy balance that both fits your particular circumstances and supports your professional goals and personal relationships. 

The unique nature of each of our lives, though, also means that each of our work-life balances will be unique to us. For a college student it might mean forgoing Friday-night parties this weekend to study for next week’s midterm. For a parent, it might mean adjusting their work schedule to spend more evenings with their kids during the school year. For a busy nurse or teacher, who spends all day helping others, it might mean setting aside specific days for self-care. 

In other words, there is no universal approach to achieving harmony between work and life – but there are methods that can point most of us in the right direction. 

In this article, consequently, you will not only learn what work-life balance is and why it matters but also the steps you can take to start achieving yours. 

Work-life balance meaning

Work-life balance is typically defined as the amount of time you spend doing your job versus the amount of time you spend with your friends, family, and pursuing your personal interests [1]. 

In recent years, however, the term has come under scrutiny due to its suggestion that our work and personal lives exist in separate, adversarial spheres that are constantly fighting for our time. The result is that we might inadvertently reinforce unhealthy concepts about how to view either our work or personal life, such as feeling guilty when we forgo one responsibility for another [2]. 

In response, some have begun advocating instead for the term work-life integration, or the synergistic blending of our personal and professional responsibilities [3]. From this perspective, work is simply one of the numerous aspects of our lives, which needs to be considered alongside other important concerns, such as our home and family lives, our community, and our personal well-being. Supporters argue that each of these feed one another and that each is subsequently necessary for us to thrive. 

Rather than resembling a scale with two competing sides, work-life integration more resembles a Venn diagram of overlapping interests. 

A Venn diagram for work-life integration.

Whatever term you prefer to use, the reality is that both describe our fundamental attempt to manage our various responsibilities and goals. While work-life integration might give you a more holistic framework for understanding how to manage your various responsibilities, work-life balance might emphasize a much-needed sense of division for those who find work creeping into their personal lives, particularly with the rise of smartphones. In some cases, you might even find it useful to switch between the two as needed. 

The unique nature of each of our lives and our fluctuating responsibilities means that work-life balance and integration look different for everyone. Some examples include:

  • A stay-at-home working parent who tackles assignments while their newborn is napping 

  • A student who forgoes a Friday-night party to study for midterms 

  • A lawyer who dedicates extra time to assignments during some periods of the year, but who consciously unplugs when on vacation during others

  • An immigrant who uses their work breaks to study for their citizenship test 

  • A janitor who crafts their schedule to work specific days so that on other days they can take care of their elderly parents  

Importance of work-life balance

Improving your work-life balance can potentially improve your overall well-being, including your physical, emotional, and mental health. 

Studies have found that working long hours can lead to such serious health issues as “impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease” [5]. Unfortunately, as these conditions arise they can also exacerbate our work-life issues, which in turn can exacerbate the conditions themselves; thus, leading to a vicious cycle. 

While employers and employees might associate long working hours with increased productivity, many researchers say otherwise. A 2014 study, for example, found that after workers hit a certain number of hours, their productivity began to decrease as the potential for mistakes and injuries increased [6].

As a result, achieving a healthy work-life balance can not only potentially reduce stress and improve emotional states but also increase overall productivity and employers’ bottom-line. 

Stress in the time of coronavirus

The ongoing pandemic has greatly exacerbated stress across the United States. According to one study, 49 percent of workers worldwide feel “at least somewhat burned out” during the pandemic, a number which researchers say is likely much higher [7]. Meanwhile, a 2020 study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 87 percent of Gen Z college students in the United States felt their education was a significant source of stress for them [8]. 

As you are working to manage your work responsibilities and personal life, remember that you are not alone and that we’re all facing unique challenges. Making life changes is a process that requires repeated adjustment and re-evaluation – perhaps now more than ever. 

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How to improve work-life balance 

Below you will find a method for developing a work-life integration approach  adapted from research originally conducted by Ioana Lupu, Mayra Ruiz-Castro, and Bernard Leca. In their study, the researchers interviewed 78 professionals about work-life balance and identified a five-step process that helped others achieve theirs [9]. Below, these steps have been collapsed into a three-step structure to help simplify the process. These steps are: 

  1. Pause and pay attention 

  2. Reprioritize and reassess

  3. Reflect, refine, repeat

As you work through these steps, recall that finding an approach that works for you is a process that will likely require several attempts. Rather than being a sign of failure, modulating your approach is an integral part of the process. 

Step 1: Pause and pay attention

Taking time out to understand how the various parts of your life are impacting one another is a necessary step in developing a new work-life integration that serves your needs. 

As you pause to consider your current work-life situation, ask yourself how you feel about your current situation. Some questions you might reflect on include:

  • Am I spending enough quality time doing what I really want? 

  • Am I committing enough time and energy to people or things that are meaningful to me? 

  • Do I still feel aligned to my professional or personal goals? Why or why not?

  • Where do I feel the most stuck? What is it about this situation that makes me feel that way?

As you are thinking through these complex personal questions, journaling your thoughts and feelings can be a good way to identify the areas you feel need the biggest adjustments. Ultimately, these questions should help you gain greater clarity on your current situation. 

Step 2: Reprioritize and reassess

Once you have a better sense of where your work-life balance could be most impacted, next you will want to reprioritize your personal values and reassess your overall approach to honoring them. During this step, identify what is most meaningful to you and why, but also consider alternatives to pursuing them in your life. 

Throughout this step, some questions you might ask yourself include: 

  • What really matters to me and am I doing enough of it? 

  • Where can I make compromises? Where can’t I? Where have I been making too many compromises?

  • What are some alternative actions I can take to ensure I am devoting enough time and energy to my goals and relationships?

  • Where can I integrate my responsibilities so I honor more than one at the same time?

Step 3: Reflect, refine, repeat 

Finally, once you have a better understanding of what you can do to make a more manageable work-life balance, now is the time to implement those changes. 

This step will be different for everyone. For some, it may mean setting firm boundaries at work about when you can be contacted out-of-office, while for others it might mean scheduling personal time for self-care. Still, others might look for more flexible work that allows them to take parental leave when needed or be in control of their work day with flexible hours. 

Whatever actions you decide are needed to create a good work-life balance, though, you should be conscious of the fact that you will likely need to continue to refine it over time. Big life changes can take time, so reflecting on your approach and refining it periodically will likely be integral parts of the process. 

Work-life balance: Next steps

If you would like to learn more about what you can do to achieve a healthy work-life balance, you might consider taking a flexible online course to identify the best approach for you. In some cases, you might even decide that a career change is the best option and, consequently, prepare for your new job by achieving a Professional Certificate

Related articles 

Article sources 

1. Cambridge Dictionary. “Work-life balance, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/work-life-balance.” Accessed December 14, 2021. 

2. Berkeley Haas. “Work/ Life Integration, https://haas.berkeley.edu/human-resources/work-life-integration/.” Accessed December 12, 2021.

3. US Chamber of Commerce. “Work-Life Integration is the New Work-Life Balance. Is Your Team Ready?, https://www.uschamber.com/co/grow/thrive/work-life-integration-vs-work-life-balance.” Accessed December 9, 2021. 

4. Berkeley Haas. “Work/ Life Integration, https://haas.berkeley.edu/human-resources/work-life-integration/.” Accessed December 12, 2021.

5. Harvard Business Review. “The Research is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and Companies, https://hbr.org/2015/08/the-research-is-clear-long-hours-backfire-for-people-and-for-companies.” Accessed December 8, 2021.  

6. IZA. “The Productivity of Working Hours, https://ftp.iza.org/dp8129.pdf.” Accessed December 12, 2021. 

7. McKinsey & Company. “People and Organizations, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/what-employees-are-saying-about-the-future-of-remote-work.” Accessed December 8, 2021.

8. APA. “2020 Disruption to Education, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report-october”. Accessed Dec. 12, 2021. 

9. HBR. “Work-Life Balance Is a Cycle, Not an Achievement, https://hbr.org/2021/01/work-life-balance-is-a-cycle-not-an-achievement.” Accessed Dec. 8, 2021.

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