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Is Work-Life Balance a Myth?

The phrase “work-life balance” gets tossed around a lot these days, but is it even possible? Should we be striving to balance our careers with a separate home life, or is there a better way to reach an equilibrium? Here, we’ll look at what exactly the phrase means, where it comes from and what readers can do to pull themselves into a better balance. 

Why Do We Call It a “Work-Life Balance”?

By now, most of us are familiar with this term as it relates to the constant struggle to keep our work and home lives in harmony with one another. But the term “work-life balance” has been around since the late 1990s and early 2000s, with its origins in British workplace regulation. In 2000, something called the Work-Balance Campaign was created in an attempt to enhance the quality of lives of British workers, who, at the time, worked more hours per week than workers in any other country (British Journal of Industrial Relations).

The idea behind this campaign was to help British workers better balance their work and private lives, whether this included a family or not. Some of the possible solutions included encouraging employers to offer more flexible working hours, at-home working hours and state-funded nurseries. While these solutions aimed to benefit the employee without being detrimental to the employer, this obviously wasn’t always possible.

In reality, achieving the perfect work-life balance, if there is such a thing, requires a much greater push and pull from both employees and employers. To put it in more realistic terms, a 2003 paper published in the British Journal of Industrial Relations discusses this same concept, but in different terms. 

Instead of “work-life balance,” this paper introduces the term “negative job-to-home spillover.” In essence, the two terms are describing the same issue, but with different connotations. The idea of a “work-life balance” sounds positive, uplifting and easy to achieve, whereas “negative job-to-home spillover” has a much more challenging, and probably more realistic, tone.

Signs of Too Much Job-to-Home Spillover

Take a second to think about how much work overflow seeps into your home and personal life. If you’re guilty of many of these dead giveaway signs, your work-life balance or job-spillover rate could be out of whack:

  • You can’t turn off. If you’re lounging on a beach chair listening to the waves in the background, but all you can think about is what’s going on in the office, you’re probably a workaholic. Let yourself relax, unwind and totally forget about work while you’re away from it.
  • Your relationships are suffering. Is your partner constantly upset with you? Do your kids ask why they never eat dinner with you anymore? Are your friends texting to ask if you’re okay because they haven’t heard from you in ages? Don’t put everyone else in your life on the backburner for the sake of working long hours. Take these as important signs that you need a break.
  • Your body feels run-down all the time. Grabbing quick meals and eating them while you run around between meetings, sitting in front of your computer for hours on end and spending little to no time in the great outdoors can quickly add up and have adverse effects on your health. One British study even found that those who work more than 55 hours per week have an increased risk for heart disease and stroke (The Lancet).
  • You measure your self-worth based on your career success. It’s perfectly fine to take pride in what you do and to want to succeed, but it’s another story if you view your entire self-worth and even your self-image in terms of how far up the career ladder you are. You’re more than just your work productivity and salary combined. What hobbies do you enjoy? What successes have you had as a parent/partner/friend?

Tips for a Better Work-Life Equilibrium

So what can you do to realistically juggle work and personal events and stressors so that you can get the most out of both pieces? Here are a few tips to remember:

  • Nobody’s perfect, and working an extra 10, 15, 20 hours a week isn’t going to change that. Know when to accept things for what they are and let go of your perfectionism.
  • Put the phone down. In case you didn’t know, your family and friends see you sneaking those quick email checks under the table. Schedule some time at work each morning to take care of emails. Avoid the temptation to let these spill over into your personal life.
  • Exercise. Don’t let work edge out your exercise time. Think of it as a necessary component of your health, like seeing your doctor or taking your prescribed medications. Exercise has such a lasting positive impact on your health and wellness that dropping it out of your life should not be an option.
  • Check your social media usage. This isn’t to say that you can’t allow yourself the luxury of plopping down on your couch and scrolling through Facebook or internet memes to unwind. But if you catch yourself hopping on social media throughout the day when you could be getting more done at work so that it doesn’t have to spill over into your personal time, consider keeping your phone out of reach or even installing apps that “lock” you out of these time-sucking habits (NPR).

The Bottom Line

It’s tough to balance your career and personal life, there’s no doubt about that. But if you approach this problem with realistic goals in mind, you can set yourself up for success–both at work and at home. There are feasible solutions that will fit your specific situation, just as long as you’re prepared to make some sacrifices along the way. Even small changes to your routine, like drinking your morning coffee at home with your partner instead of grabbing a cup on-the-go, can help you to find a better balance and ultimately get much more satisfaction out of life.

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