Most, if not all of us, have heard of the term work-life balance. We know we should all be striving to achieve balance in our lives, but that has become more complicated in recent years. In this fast-paced and demanding world, many of us are spending a significant amount of time at work so it’s almost impossible to balance our lives in terms of time spent, because we are almost always going to spend more waking hours at work. Also, a large number of people are choosing careers they’re passionate about, so the lines are blurred between work and that passion which can be energizing for many. So, it’s important for us to change the way we think about balance and the ways in which we approach achieving balance. But first, let’s understand balance as it relates to psychological health and safety, and why it’s important.
What is Balance at Work?
Balance is present in a work environment where there is acceptance of the need for a sense of harmony between the demands of personal life, family, and work. This reflects the fact that everyone has multiple roles: for example, as workers, parents, and partners. This complexity of roles is enriching and allows the fulfillment of individual strengths and responsibilities, but conflicting responsibilities can lead to role conflict or overload.
Why is Balance Important?
Work environments that recognize the need for work-life balance contribute to workers feeling valued and happier – both at work, and at home. An understanding of the importance of harmony between work and personal life necessitates greater workplace flexibility. This flexibility helps minimize conflict by allowing workers to accomplish tasks necessary in their daily lives.
Balance enhances well-being, reduces stress, and reduces the possibility that home issues will spill over into work, or vice versa. This protects physical and psychological health by allowing staff to maintain their concentration, confidence, responsibility, and sense of control at work.
Organizationally, this translates into enhanced employee commitment, job satisfaction, organizational citizenship behaviours (discretionary behaviours that are beneficial to the organization and are a matter of personal choice) and job performance. In turn, balance is associated with enhanced well-being and reduced stress.
What happens when balance is compromised?
Job stress is on the rise – and workers with higher job stress are more likely to be dissatisfied with work, and be absent either physically or mentally. One primary source of stress is a conflict between work and family roles.
When work-family conflict occurs, health and well-being are undermined. This imbalance can lead to constant tiredness, bad temper, and inability to progress. These can, in turn, lead to additional stress-related illnesses, as well as higher cholesterol, depressive symptoms, and overall decreased health. The impact on the organization is increased costs due to benefit payouts, absenteeism, disability, and turnover.
An organization with good balance would be able to state that:
- the organization encourages workers to take their entitled breaks (e.g., lunchtime, sick time, vacation time, earned days off, parental leave);
- workers are able to reasonably meet the demands of personal life and work;
- the organization promotes life-work harmony;
- workers can talk to their supervisors when they are having trouble maintaining harmony between their life and work; and,
- workers have energy left at the end of most workdays for their personal life.
How to improve balance at work
Of course, taking breaks from work and having the opportunity to address concerns regarding work stressors and overall workplace psychological health and wellness is important, but there is more to it than that.
When we think about balance, it is often automatic to imagine a scale. This suggests to ‘tip the scales’, we must invest more time in other aspects of our non-work lives in order to obtain this balance. However, this is not realistic for most in the modern-day economy. So, rather than strictly focusing on balance, we should instead focus on work-life harmony. This means arranging the different aspects of our lives so that they work together in harmony – much like an orchestra.
When it comes to working toward balance for workers, it’s also important to incorporate opportunities for training on topics such as enhancing resiliency, management of work-life demands, as well as on non-job-related topics (e.g., “lunch-and-learn” sessions or webinars on childcare or eldercare issues).
It’s also important to show a commitment to psychological health and wellness at work that promotes balance. This includes people leaders setting a positive example of balance in their work lives, as well as communicating the importance of balance to their teams.
Balance and Workplace Policies and Procedures
There are ways in which principles surrounding balance can be embedded in workplace policies and procedures, such as:
- Provide flexible work arrangements, where possible (e.g., compressed work schedules, work from home, virtual conferencing, part-time work, contract opportunities, job sharing);
- Provide appropriate support for shift workers (e.g., limit split shifts, provide advance notice of shift changes, permit trading of shifts);
- Offer personal and family support for both child and elder care (e.g., comprehensive benefits, daycare, fitness facility access, health education, family responsibility leave).
- Assess staff perceptions of the value of benefits when making decisions concerning these programs (e.g., provide flexible/“opt-out” options);
- Offer opportunities to earn time off during peak work periods (e.g., to use during lower workload demand periods);
- Encourage the use of allocated time off; and,
- Develop parameters around communication, availability and technology use (e.g., email, phone) during off work periods, and have leaders model this approach.
Final Thoughts on Balance – Ongoing Improvement
An ongoing commitment to work-life harmony is important, particularly during busy and stressful times. It’s also important to think about the specific groups that may struggle with balance the most, such as those working from home who don’t have a separation from home and work life, or those working shift work. Regular check-ins with workers and how they are feeling about the balance in their life is important. This is also a great opportunity to check in with regards to how workers are feeling about their workload, as this is a significant contributor to overall levels of perceived stress.
Balance is psychosocial factor 11 from the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety (PH&S) in the Workplace (CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013 – Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace). For more information, see also Guarding Minds at Work (Samra et al.).