Work-life balance has become an increasingly common term in recent years. According to the Google Trends survey of 2022 23% of searches indicated how many people were looking to make significant lifestyle changes when it comes to their work-life balance.
The desire may be there for individuals, and indeed brands are talking about it in their employee value proposition, but not all are following through on their words. This blog covers what work-life balance is, what the benefits of it are to a business, and how business leaders can improve work-life balance in their organization.
What is work-life balance?
Greenhaus (2002) defined work-life balance as satisfaction and good functioning at work
and at home with a minimum of role conflict. Felstead et al. (2002) defines work-life balance as the relationship between the institutional and cultural times and spaces of work and non-work in societies where income is predominantly generated.
Most people think of it as having a clear space between work and personal life where both can be as effective as possible, and where work stresses and workload do not infringe on aspects of life such as family, health, fitness, hobbies and leisure.
The determinants of a good work-life balance are varied. Attitudes to work differ between individuals and culturally (for example in many Asian economies long hours are the norm and even a point of pride, and certain industries such as finance or technology are cited as particularly intense fields to work in). While talking to Wysa 35% in Asia and Australia & Pacific Regions expressed feeling low, bad, numb, depressed, and sad throughout the day, compared to only 26% in Europe.
Money and economy are also a driver – if someone is paid hourly and needs to make more money, they may commit more hours to work, so we see that less economically developed countries put in the longest hours at work.
Home life also plays a big role. People who live alone may be more likely to work long hours, whereas people with many relationships may live a more active social life. This can be a particular problem for people with no children, and research from the London School of Economics shows that those who are not married and have no children feel they are expected to pick up extra work than their colleagues with a traditional family set up.
Work stressors and environment play a big role. A working culture where long hours are expected, workload is demanding, or particularly stressful and intense environments can result in poor work-life balance. Wysa supports global employees of All Hands and Hearts, a natural disaster relief organization, and through use of the app reduced distress levels by 70%.
Psychological safety at work is key to a work-life balance. Even if hours are consistent and workload not too high, feeling a lack of ability to speak up or be oneself at work can result in an emotional toll that is difficult to deal with. Unsupportive or even bullying colleagues will cause a stress that can’t be switched off once the clock ticks 5pm.
Benefits of a healthy work-life balance
Numerous researchers have explored the detrimental effects of poor work-life balance, and so it follows that a good work-life balance has benefits. A healthy work-life balance for employees is not only rewarding for the individual, but also for the company.
When people feel energised by work they are more likely to be productive. We know that stronger mental health means that people’s brains are engaged and focused – and this can be enhanced by having rest time and breaks, and a healthy work life balance. Burnout doesn’t mean people are working harder – instead people are less productive, unable to be engaged, and it leads to more sick days and even employees leaving. If you’re seeing productivity drop and quality wane, it might be because employees are trying to do too much work rather than not enough.
Reduced presenteeism and absenteeism
Employees with depressive symptoms are absent for an average of 15 days a year, and this can go up to 34 days in case of severe symptoms. Employees experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety or even extreme stress could also be displaying signs of ‘presenteeism’, which means there’s reduced productivity when employees do come to work but are not fully engaged, or perform at lower levels because of their mental health concerns. Research shows that employees who are depressed are in a state of presenteeism for 17.5% more on a typical working day than employees who are not depressed. In our study of over 11,300 employees’ mental health, we found that the best way to address depression at work, including the resulting presenteeism and distraction, is to offer unlimited access to mental health support to every employee as a preventative, including well-being tools that encourage better focus and productivity.
Innovation and creative thinking
It’s difficult to come up with great ideas when you’re tired. If employees are able to have a positive work-life balance they will be better able to concentrate and focus, which can result in a more innovative workplace. Studies show employee mental wellness is directly related to creativity and innovation at work, and can also help attract the top talent who will contribute to business growth.
Improved mental health
Work-life balance is essential for optimal mental health. By allocating time between professional and personal pursuits, employees can reduce stress and prevent burnout. Excessive hours at work can exacerbate anxiety and lead to cognitive fatigue, poorer decision-making and emotional regulation. On the other hand spending quality time with loved ones, enjoying hobbies, and prioritizing self-care replenishes emotional reservoirs and bolsters resilience. That balance acts as a buffer against the daily pressures of modern living and intense workload, and the mental clarity and rejuvenation derived from downtime can enhance work productivity.
Improved physical health
If people have more time in their evenings and weekends they can focus on fitness and physical health. Those who are chained to their desks may find it harder to prioritize physical health. Even getting out for a walk at lunchtime can reap benefits, including better muscle strength, cardiovascular fitness and reduced tension. Stress also has an impact on physical health, including a heightened risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes. Managing stress can improve physical health and organizations should consider ways that make space for relaxation and recuperation in their personal life away from work.
If work-life balance is too detrimental to an employee’s personal life and wellbeing they may look to move elsewhere to a company that offers a better balance. Recruiting a new member of staff can cost around six months salary, alongside the costs of having an empty seat at work and struggling to fulfil client expectations. By prioritizing holistic wellbeing employers are more likely to retain the best people and top talent.
There are also economic benefits to allowing employees to have a better work life balance. By reducing stress and worry (which 70% of people speaking to Wysa have during the working day according to our comprehensive Employee Mental Health Report data) employees are less likely to need health support through Employee Assistance Programs which could save a large organization many tens of thousands a year.
How to improve work-life balance
Smart companies know that they need to help employees find balance, as it can lead to rewards on both an individual and company level. Here are eight ways to do so.
Lead by example
Senior leadership and management can play a big role in improving employee work-life balance. Allowing people to take lunch breaks and finish on time – and do it yourself can enhance overall well-being as people feel that they are justified in taking the same amount of time to focus on personal interests and personal tasks. Even small breaks can be good – why not encourage everyone to meet for a mid-morning coffee and chat, which will also help boost social connection that can allow for flourishing team work.
Integrate time management systems can help people be productive in their work hours and mean that they get work done without being overwhelmed and needing to work out of hours. A paper from the American Psychological Association shows that better time management correlates with productivity, performance and mental health. Great tools include Toggl and Harvest.
In an always on world it can be easy to be always checking emails or doing calls during personal time, or at the dinner table, but this doesn’t help in the pursuit of achieving work life balance. Make it clear that people do not need to work in evenings and weekends, and that flexible work schedules don’t mean always on working.
Post covid flexible work schedules have become much more common and many people prefer a professional life that fits around their personal lives and demands such as caring or family life. Many organizations now offer hybrid working so that people can choose to work the hours when they are most engaged and able to focus fully on the tasks ahead. According to McKinsey 58% of American employees do some homeworking, and employers are recognising the benefits on mental health and job performance.
Regular days off
Annual leave and paid time off is essential for rest and recuperation. Encourage people to take their paid time off, and to speak up if they need a mental health day. All Worked Up found that only 13% of UK employees would feel comfortable taking a mental health day, and less than half (48%) of US workers say they use all their vacation days, according to a survey from Pew Research Center. Taking time off should be the norm, so that people can look after their physical and mental health before it results in burnout or deterioration.
Mindfulness and meditation
Studies have shown that mindfulness can improve the brain chemistry that affects both physical health and mental health, and a work based mindfulness approach can improve psychological wellbeing. Wysa for employers includes meditation and mindfulness alongside CBT techniques and other structured activities that help people manage their own emotions and reduce stress. These include breathing exercises, acknowledging physical sensation, and focused time.
Mental health support
A poor work life balance, over strenuous working hours, and a lack of leisure time can result in deteriorating mental health. In fact there is a hidden problem, and All Worked Up found that over a third of employees around the world have anxiety and/or depression, and are not speaking up about it.
Proven to improve depression and anxiety scores by an average of 31%, Wysa’s AI-first approach enables employees to improve their mental health before symptoms become severe, by understanding an individual’s needs and guiding them through interactive cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) exercises. Wysa’s clinically safe AI encourages users to take additional support, whenever it’s needed, by guiding them towards Wysa’s human coaching, employer benefits programmes (EAP) or national crisis lines.
It sounds so simple but many employers forget to ask their employees what they need and what a good work life balance looks like for them. Some may prefer extended vacation time, some might like taking breaks, others prefer a morning run to feel energized and more. Finding balance looks different for everyone. Get feedback from your employees and trust that they know what good looks like for them. And if they speak up that something is not right, listen to them and take effective change to make a difference. The Employee Mental Health Barometer can help you measure what the most significant mental health concerns are in your organization and thus help you to take action as a result.