work life balance is a cycle, not an achievement
Despite overwhelming evidence that working long hours is bad to both individuals and employers, many professionals continue to struggle to alter their preconceived notions — and deeply set habits — about work hours. What does it take to break free from these unhealthy habits and achieve a more fulfilling work-life balance?
We conducted nearly 200 in-depth interviews with 78 professionals from the London offices of a major legal firm and an accounting firm to answer this issue. We spoke with an equal number of men and women, with the majority of interviewees being between the ages of 30 and 50, having at least one dependent kid, and working in middle or senior management positions.
The majority of interviewees rated their employment as extremely demanding, stressful, and chaotic, and most seemed to assume that working long hours was a requirement for professional success. However, roughly 30% of men and 50% of women in our sample appeared to intentionally avoid working excessive hours, citing a range of tactics for achieving a healthier work-life balance. While the specifics of each case varied, our research revealed a similar mental process that regularly assisted this group of professionals in improving the way they worked — and lived.
At a high level, our findings revealed that striking a better balance between professional and personal objectives requires a combination of reflexivity — questioning assumptions to raise self-awareness — and deliberate role redefinition. Our research also reveals that this is not a one-time fix, but rather a cycle that we must continue to engage in as our circumstances and priorities change. There are five distinct steps in this cycle:
1. Take a breather and de-normalize.
Take a step back and consider what is giving you tension, unbalance, or discontent right now. What impact do these circumstances have on my ability to perform and engage in my work? What effect do they have on my personal life? What are my top priorities? What am I giving up? What is going missing? You can only begin to address these issues if you take a mental halt and acknowledge them.
Maya*, a senior associate at a law firm, recounted feeling like she’d struck rock bottom following several years of strong focus on her work. It was only then that she realized the toll her excessive work had taken on her family — and on her own mental and physical health.
2. Be aware of your feelings.
Examine how you feel about your current circumstance once you’ve improved your awareness of it. Do you feel invigorated, fulfilled, and satisfied? Or am I enraged, resentful, or depressed? One respondent, for example, recounted how he realized his present work-life balance (or lack thereof) was causing him to experience some very bad emotions.
Emotional reflexivity — the ability to identify how a situation makes you feel — is just as vital as a cognitive knowledge of the decisions and goals that drive your life. It is critical to be aware of your emotional condition in order to determine the adjustments you want to make in your career and life.
3. Reorganize your priorities.
Increasing your cognitive and emotional awareness will provide you with the tools you need to put things into perspective and evaluate how your priorities should be modified. Consider: What am I willing to give up and for how long? Why do I believe it is vital to prioritize my life in this way if I have been emphasizing work above family, for example? Is it truly required? Is it truly unavoidable? What regrets do I already have, and what will I have if I continue along this path?
Our priorities frequently move faster than our daily time management skills. The interviewees who described a better work-life balance did so by consciously reprioritizing their time such that it aligned with their genuine priorities. One participant noted how he still considered himself as a professional, but that his professional position had been expanded to include other important duties, such as parenthood.
4. Think about your options.
Before you jump into solutions, consider what elements of your work and life should be improved to better line with your priorities. Is there anything about your job that you’d like to change? How much time do you want to devote to your family or to your hobbies? Improving your position takes patience and experimentation, as one response demonstrated.
5. Changes should be made.
Finally, it’s time to take action once you’ve identified your priorities and carefully analyzed the possibilities that could help you better. This can be a “public” change — such as taking on a new role that is supposed to be less time-consuming or allows for a compressed-week model — or a “private” change, in which you informally adjust your work patterns without necessarily intending to change your colleagues’ expectations.
We discovered in our research that both public and private improvements can be effective tactics if they are implemented in a long-term manner. Self-imposed restrictions (such as deciding not to work on evenings, weekends, or holidays – and adhering to it) or declining expectations traditionally connected with your role are examples of private modifications (such as new projects or travel requests, even when you feel pressure to take them on). Obtaining support from key mentors, partners, and coworkers — or, even better, openly applying for a new internal role or a flexible working scheme — is more likely to result in more lasting change than just telling your supervisor that you want more time off or more flexible hours.
Importantly, the five actions indicated above represent a constant cycle of re-evaluation and improvement, rather than a one-time exercise. It’s easy to go back into “business as usual” (whether consciously or unconsciously) if you’re under the grip of an oppressive culture of extended work hours. During our interviews, we discovered that in order to create lasting changes in their life, people must remember to pause, connect with their emotions, reconsider their priorities, examine alternatives, and implement changes on a regular basis – in both their personal and professional lives.