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

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

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

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At times, the simple pleasures of ending work at the end of the day, catching up with loved ones, and devoting days to your personal interests can seem elusive and unattainable. Sometimes, focusing on one aspect can make it seem like you're neglecting other parts of your life. Yet, it's entirely feasible to find a workable equilibrium that aligns with your specific situation and benefits both your work and personal relationships.

The unique nature of our lives means each of our work-life balances will be unique to us. For a university or college student, this might mean forgoing Friday night parties to revise for next week’s exams. For a parent, it might mean adjusting work schedules to spend more evenings with the kids during the school year. A busy nurse or teacher, who spends all day helping others, might set aside specific days for self-care to accomplish her balance.

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, 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 and family, and pursuing your personal interests.

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.

In response, some have begun advocating for the term work-life integration, or the synergistic blending of our personal and professional responsibilities. From this perspective, work is simply one of the numerous aspects of our lives to consider alongside other important concerns, such as our home and family lives, our communities, and our personal well-being. Supporters argue that each of these feeds one another, and 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.
Work Life Integration

Whatever term you prefer, the reality is that both describe our fundamental attempt to manage our various responsibilities and goals. Work-life integration provides a more holistic framework for managing various responsibilities. However, it can also underscore the need for a clear division, especially for those dealing with work intruding into their personal lives due to the prevalence of smartphones. In some cases, you might even find it useful to switch between the two as needed.

The unique nature of our lives and 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 exams

  • A lawyer who dedicates extra time to client work during some periods of the year, but who consciously unplugs during others, such as on holiday

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

  • A custodian who arranges their schedule to work specific days, so they can take care of their elderly parents on the other days

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 serious health issues, such as fatigue, burnout, stress, depression, occupational injuries, anxiety, absenteeism, and lower quality of work [1]. Unfortunately, as such conditions arise they can also affect our work-life balance, which in turn can exacerbate the conditions themselves, leading to a vicious and endless cycle.

While employers and employees may associate long working hours with increased productivity, many researchers say otherwise [2]. For example, it’s been established that productivity in workers isn’t necessarily sacrificed with four-day workweeks [3].

As a result, it stands to reason that achieving a healthy work-life balance can reduce stress, improve emotional states, and increase overall productivity and employers’ performance.

Stress in the time of coronavirus

The pandemic greatly exacerbated stress across Canada. A 2022 survey by the Angus Reid Institute in partnership with the CBC found that 54 per cent of Canadians said their mental health worsened since March 2020 [4]. Meanwhile, the CBC has reported that university students are facing unprecedented mental health challenges caused by the pandemic, according to the chairperson for the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Federation of Students [5].

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


How to improve your work-life balance

Below, you’ll find a method for developing a work-life integration approach adapted from research 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 [6]. Below, these steps have been simplified into a three-step process. They are:

  1. Pause and pay attention.

  2. Re-prioritize and reassess.

  3. Reflect, refine, and repeat.

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

Step 1: Pause and pay attention

Taking time 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. Ask yourself these questions to reflect on it:

  • 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 with 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 answer these complex personal questions, journal your thoughts and feelings as a 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: Re-prioritize and reassess

Once you have a better sense of where your work-life balance could be impacted the most, re-prioritize your personal values and reassess your overall approach to honour them. During this step, identify what is most meaningful to you and why, and 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 can honour more than one at the same time?

Step 3: Reflect, refine, and repeat 

Finally, once you have a better understanding of what you can do to create a more manageable work-life balance, it’s 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 while out of office. For others, it might mean scheduling personal time for self-care. Still, some people might look for more flexible work that allows them to take parental leave when needed or control their work day with flexible hours.

Whatever actions you decide are needed to create a good work-life balance, you should be conscious of the fact that you will likely need to continue refining them 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

To learn more about what you can do to achieve a healthier work-life balance, consider taking a flexible online course to identify the best approach for you. If you decide that a career change is the best option try earning a Professional Certificate to prepare you for your new job.

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Article sources


CCOHS. “Work-Life Balance,” Accessed on September 15, 2023.

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