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.

[Featured Image] A person in a mustard-colured sweater is sitting on their couch drinking coffee while reading a book.

Setting work aside at the end of the day and catching up with loved ones is personal time, often 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 shrink inevitably. Yet, despite how it may sometimes seem, it is possible to achieve a healthy balance that fits your particular circumstances and supports your professional goals and personal relationships. 

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

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 learn what work-life balance is, why it matters, and the steps you can take to start achieving yours. 

Work-life balance meaning

Work-life balance is the amount of time you spend doing your job versus the time you spend with your friends and family and pursuing your interests. 

However, the term has been scrutinised recently because it suggests that our work and personal lives exist in separate, adversarial spheres, constantly fighting for our time. We might inadvertently reinforce unhealthy concepts about how to view our work or personal life, such as feeling guilty when we forgo one responsibility for another. 

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

Work-life integration

Whatever term you prefer, 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 managing your responsibilities, work-life balance might emphasise a much-needed sense of division for those who find work creeping into their personal lives, particularly with the rise of smartphones. Sometimes, you may find it helpful to switch between the two as needed. 

What does work-life balance look like?

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 assignments during some periods of the year but who consciously unplugs during others when on holiday

  • 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

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

Studies have found that long hours can lead to serious health issues such as ‘impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease’ [1]. Unfortunately, as such conditions arise, they can also affect our work-life issues, which in turn can exacerbate the conditions themselves, leading to a vicious cycle. 

While employers and employees may associate long working hours with increased productivity, many researchers say otherwise. One report by Stanford University and IZA, 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 [2].

As a result, achieving a healthy work-life balance can reduce stress, improve emotional states, and increase overall productivity and employers’ bottom lines. 

Stress in the time of coronavirus

The ongoing pandemic has greatly exacerbated stress in India. According to a 2021 survey by the insurance broker firm Mercer Marsh, 59 per cent of  employees in India reported feeling extremely, highly, or somewhat stressed daily [3]. Meanwhile, another 2021 report found that the pandemic and school lockdowns negatively impacted students' mental health, especially those from impoverished families who didn’t have access to online classes [4]. 

As you work to manage your job responsibilities and personal life, remember that you are not alone, and 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 work-life balance 

Below, you will 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 [5]. 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. Reprioritise 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

Understanding how the various parts of your life impact 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 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 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 most significant adjustments. Ultimately, these questions help you better understand your current situation. 

Step 2: Reprioritise and reassess

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

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

  • Where can I integrate my responsibilities to honour more than one simultaneously?

Step 3: Reflect, refine, repeat 

Finally, once you understand what you can do to make 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 whilst out of the office, whereas 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 control their work day with flexible hours. 

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

Work-life balance: Next steps

If you want to learn more about what you can do to achieve a healthy work-life balance, consider taking a flexible online course to identify your best approach. 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

Article sources


Economic Times. "Killing me softly," Accessed March 3, 2023.

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