A man is balancing on a rock in front of a sunset

A satisfactory work-life balance is something we all crave, but so few of us possess. The pressures of modern life — long work hours, 24/7 connectivity and painful commutes — can lead to demotivation and burn out.

But this constant pressure can also have a serious effect on our health.

  • Research by the Columbia University Medical Center found that being sedentary for long periods had such a similar effect to smoking that it should come with a health warning.
  • A study carried out over three continents found that people who work more than 55 hours a week increase their risk of a stroke by 33% and coronary heart disease by 13%, compared to those who work up to 40 hours a week.
  • A study in the Lancet shows how stress could be linked to heart and circulatory disease in humans.

Finding that perfect harmony between work time and downtime won’t just improve the quality of your life, it may increase your lifespan.

It won’t be easy — making real and lasting changes to your life isn’t a quick fix — but your bravery and hard work will pay off in a happier and healthier you.

1. Work Smarter, Not Harder

The more hours you put in, the more productive you are, right? But long days filled with pointless meetings, half-completed goals and failed multitasking is just treading water. You’re putting off that new project because it’s so big that it feels insurmountable.

But the only way to climb that mountain is to identify manageable checkpoints on the way and to follow a realistic schedule.

Break down your day or current project into smaller tasks and identify strict but realistic time limits for each one. Not only are you less likely to procrastinate, but you’ll also have the satisfaction of crossing tasks off the list.

If meetings are unavoidable, insist on stand-up ones with clear agendas. People will get to the crux of the matter quicker, freeing up more time for you to get work done.

2. Demand Flexibility in the Workplace

A recent UK survey found that working mothers are 18% more likely to be stressed than other people, rising to 40% for those with two children.

Your place of work may stay the same, but that doesn’t mean your workload, home life and commute is set in stone. For example:

  • You can halve your commuting time if you start work 30 minutes earlier in the morning.
  • Your normal childminder has moved to another city, so you need to pick your child up from school for a while.
  • Your workload is busiest on Mondays and Tuesdays, but Fridays are relatively quiet.

A supportive workplace should reflect any changes or imbalance in our personal lives and work schedules. Don’t be afraid to ask for a more flexible work week that suits your unique setup.

For example:

  • Start work earlier or later to avoid traffic.
  • Work from home on certain days of the week.
  • Save the extra hours worked on one day to leave earlier on a quieter day.

Explain that this is a win-win for the company, as a good work-life balance will improve your productivity.

Woman clutches her head while on her phone
Photo by Kevin Grieve

3. Unplug from Work

Do you check your professional emails under the kitchen table? Does your mind wander off towards work during time with friends or family?

Downtime from work is essential for a healthy, stress-free mind. If you don’t detach from your professional life on a regular basis, you risk becoming burned out.

It’s time to park your professional life where it belongs. Before you leave work each day, write a list of outstanding tasks to leave on your desk for the day after. If you work from home, or your job requires you to check emails out of office hours, try to confine this to a certain area of your home. Then you can close the door on it.

4. Ban Perfection

If you obsess about doing every task perfectly, you may find work intruding on what should be quality time spent with family and friends. 

Everyone strives to do a good job. But a perfectionist can take this to extremes, working long hours or bringing work home in the pursuit of excellence. But all work and no play makes Jack a burnt-out boy.

If this sounds familiar, you need to stick to your goals and time limits, accept that “good enough” is often better than missing a deadline, and move onto the next task.

5. Communicate (Or Just Say No)

You may have times when you’re feeling overwhelmed by your workload, or you’re stuck on a task that feels never-ending. Venting to a colleague over a coffee might do the trick for immediate issues, but to cure long-term pain, you need a plan.

Let your colleagues or your manager know you’re struggling. But don’t just complain about it. Present practical alternatives and be willing to brainstorm with colleagues for a solution.

But if you’re in this situation because you just can’t say no, you may be your own worst enemy. Next time you’re drowning in work and you’re asked for a favour, think: will saying yes push me over the limit? If yes, say no politely and firmly, and stick to your guns.

Woman is cycling through a park
Photo by Fritz Bielmeier

6. Multitask Your Health

If you feel that you don’t have enough hours in the day for self-care, consider multitasking during office hours. Exercise, meditation and nutrition are important stress reducers, but they often fall by the wayside when work gets busy. Do yourself a favour and work them into your daytime schedule. For example:

  • If you take the bus to the office, get off one stop earlier and walk to work.
  • Schedule reminders several times a day to do deep breathing exercises.
  • Find a lunchtime yoga class near your office and block the time off in your calendar.

Over to You

A stress-free you is a better you, whether you are with your family at home or with your work colleagues in the office.

The ideal work-life balance won’t materialise overnight. You may automatically say yes to a task you don’t have time for. You might cave and check your work emails at home.

To implementing a work-life balance, you must take a cold, hard look at your life, your work and your habits. But if you keep at it, you’ll soon reap the benefits of living to work, not working to live.