The holy grail of adulthood is the elusive work-life balance, being able to achieve and develop a career to its fullest potential whilst still having enough time to do all the things you want in your down time. Some of us nail it, some of us are forever in search of it and some either aren’t interested in it or resign themselves to the fact they’re not one of the lucky ones.
We’re taking a dive down into the depths of the search for work-life balance, taking a look at the impact it has on mental health, both the positives and negatives, what the balance means to the individual and steps you can start taking today to get control of the work-life balance.
Work – life balance can be explained as feeling that you are able to be productive and manage workloads in your job whilst still having time to switch off and enjoy social and leisure activities. The United States is ranked 30th out of 38 countries who have a positive work-life balance. Americans generally work longer working weeks compared to other countries, with 11% working over 50 hours a week with 33% working weekends and holidays (entrepreneur.com, 2018). You would think that with so many clocking the overtime the US would have one of the most productive workforces in the world, sadly not. In fact Denmark is ranked 2nd in the world for productivity and only 2% of their workforce work longer hours similar to Americans.
How does Denmark do it?
On average workers in Denmark clock in a 37hour working week, however the majority are finished by 4pm allowing them to get home and enjoy their evening or collect their children from school. Once work is done, it’s done. Working overtime or completing work in your personal time is deeply discouraged which could explain why Denmark has one of the most productive workforces in the world, workers are encouraged to get work done efficiently and timely so they can relax and enjoy their leisure time (demark.de). With 5 weeks paid vacation for all workers there’s plenty of time for Danes to switch off from work and be present in their social lives. The trick is to keep workers happy and healthy, happier workers results in better working conditions, improves workplace safety and promotes good work-life balance. It is not just for show as every year Denmark is ranked in the top 3 happiest countries in the world.
The Danes aren’t the only ones getting work-life balance right. The Netherlands has one of the lowest working weeks in the world averaging at 4 days a week (approx 29hours) and only 0.5% of the workforce working over 50 hours a week that’s a big difference compared to America’s 11% working similar hours. On average workers in the Netherlands have an extra 4 hours per day to dedicate to leisure /personal care in comparison to Americans alongside other employment perks such as paid maternity and paternity leave and the right to reduce to part time hours without the risk of employment being terminated (entrepreneur ).
One of the biggest takeaways from Denmark and The Netherlands working practices is the great emphasis on time to switch off and enjoy life outside of the office. Although not the only factor, being able to leave work at the office and have activities that are meaningful to us outside of work contribute to supporting good mental health and wellbeing.
How can too much work and less life affect mental health?
One of the biggest reported disruptions a negative work-life balance has is the impact on family. This can be spouses, children, parents, siblings, any of your close family who have to get used to the phrase “I’m sorry it’s work”. Most families are supportive of the fact there has to be some sacrifice to socialising or engagements when working towards the career you want, but after time losing out on those moments with family or big events that you’ve had to duck out on to claw back some office time can start to take its effect, especially if the sacrifice isn’t paying off.
Feeling like all you do it work or think about work is incredibly stressful which can trigger negative thoughts and thinking processes which can bring on low moods or anxiety around deadlines this can build up and lead to serious mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders.
Is it all linked to stress?
Stress is one of the most underlying contributors to mental health conditions. Everyday each of us can experience stress in different ways, how we manage and deal with that stress depends on a number of factors. Stress is recognized as the reaction to meeting demands that are higher than your ability at that time to cope with, this can change over time depending on the amount and types of demands and the person’s resilience to stress. If you imagine a pan on the boil, the pan being your containment or resilience and the water your stress levels. Each time a new demand of stressful experience is added the heat raises, things can simmer or even boil away nicely whilst still contained within the pan but there is a point where the heat raises and the water starts boiling over. This boiling over can represent the negative impact stress can have on mood and mental health. Alongside affecting a person’s mental health sustained stress can contribute to physical health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and weight gain. In the workplace, increased stress is linked to burnout which costs the American economy over $1 billion dollars a year in healthcare costs (forbes). Not only does it have serious health implications it can also lead to negative and unproductive working environments with stressed employees often becoming irritable, experiencing mood swings and being unproductive in reaching targets.
The effects of positive work-life balance
If you can hit the work-life balance right, the positive impacts are quite endless. The first biggest win of a good balance is the reduction in stress which naturally improves physical health and mental health outcomes, it also improves your resilience to be able to manage stressful situations as they arise. Feeling like you can enjoy life outside of work naturally boosts your mood and well being, being able to spend time with people you care for and doing the things that are meaningful to you allows you to see the benefits of knuckling down during your working hours. Seeing these achievements increases your drive and motivation to meet your next target or deadline, improving productivity without having to put in more hours.
Taking back control
On the back end of 2019 many of us decided 2020 was going to be THE year, the year of change and time to take back control. The end of a year brings hope and new found motivation but many people find once the new year starts it takes more than just hope, it takes action.
Has your 2020 gone to plan so far?
Have you managed to create the work-life balance you were hoping for?
We’ve put together three things you can do today to get back on track
Self reflection is an attribute of success, looking back on what you’ve done and reflecting on how you might have done something differently for a more positive outcome. This can apply to reflecting on your career choices to how you managed time on your last project. Make a list of three things you should concentrate on changing to make more positive outcomes.
- Going head on with change
Change can be as scary as it is exciting. Many of us hide away our true aspirations because of the fear of failing or the worry others might judge us. Those initial conversations with family about the changes you want, talking to your boss about reducing hours/workload or taking the first steps to changing careers can be daunting but so rewarding afterwards. Try writing down the steps needed, the main points of who you need to talk to and what needs discussing to help these conversations flow.
Reaching your desired work-life balance is going to take motivation and determination. Start being accountable for your time and progress, the most successful people who report having a positive work-life balance have systems in place to make sure in their work time they remain productive and striving towards their goals. This might mean putting in boundaries to how you work or how you manage your workload. Equally, it also applies to your life outside of work, making your home life as much of a priority as your working life.
Boundaries might include:
- Reducing the amount of unproductive time in the office i.e. using headphones so you don’t get distracted
- Making sure you exercise daily to reduce stress and boost mood
- Taking work email off your phone so you don’t check them at home
- 1 hour a day working on ‘you’, this could be self-reflection or working on a new business plan.
From taking a deeper look at the buzz-phrase ‘work-life balance’ we’ve learnt that it’s more than just having more time off from the office. Obtaining a positive work-life balance can have benefits on mental and physical health and is about finding a level of type of work that is not only fulfilling but also allows you to enjoy the achievements of hard work.
Denmark.de (2020) Work Life Balance [online] available at: https://denmark.dk/society-and-business/work-life-balance
Entrepreneur (2018) Is work-Life Balance Even Possible? [online] available at: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/309121
Forbes (2018) The Evolving Definition of Work-Life Balance [available at: