Balancing Life and Work

Last Updated May 2, 2007 7:12 PM EDT

With more and more people finding that they have less and less time, many are beginning to think seriously about what is important to them and how to find balance in their lives. Stress affects not only a person's mental and emotional well-being, but their physical health as well. When there isn't enough time in the day, something has to give, but what will it be? Achieving a balance between our work and personal lives has become one of the burning issues of the day.

Here are some of the main reasons why more and more people are addressing the topic of work-life balance:

  • As women rejoin the workforce in increasing numbers, parents must learn to juggle job and family obligations.
  • People are living longer, which means that more workers are caring for both children and elderly relatives.
  • In spite of the promise that modern technology would make our lives easier, in actuality more pressure and longer hours at work have resulted in overflowing inboxes, Internet information deluge, and multiple ringing phones. This means that people are often experiencing burnout at a younger age.

The broad argument for greater flexibility at work is that people with a good balance between their job and other responsibilities and interests tend to be more motivated and productive. Greater satisfaction among employees will result in fewer stress-related illnesses, less time taken off for sickness, lower staff turnover, and higher productivity. In other words, happy people work better.

What You Need to KnowWill my boss really take seriously my concerns about work-life balance?

Some companies will be more receptive to the idea than others, but growing numbers of businesses realize that it is important to allow their employees to strike a balance between their work and personal lives, and you can encourage your boss to take this into account. You might start by explaining that flexibility in the workplace is actually driven by a business need that is arising throughout the global economy. As working cultures and attitudes change in many parts of the world, employers are beginning to see that they have to adapt if they are to stay competitive. One way to do this is to look into what is necessary to recruit and retain their number one asset: their people.

What if my boss won't consider my application for flexible working? Is there a way I can press my case without making my position at work precarious?

First, remember that you are entering into a negotiation, and you must be prepared. Before your meeting, it's a good idea to draw up a wish list for your successful outcome that contains an ideal solution, a realistic one, and an absolute minimum. If you show that you're prepared to be flexible, your manager may be willing to meet you halfway. Be realistic but also be ready to compromise.

If you're worried that your boss may disapprove, and if you belong to a union, find out if your organization will allow you to bring a union representative with you to discuss your application. If you do invite one along, make sure that he or she has read a copy of your application and any related documents. While you may be able to negotiate a more flexible work schedule, it's hard to predict how it will affect your current position. You may, for instance be able to work part time without becoming sidelined in the organization or losing benefits such as sick pay and vacation pay, but don't count on it. If you're concerned about this, look into the matter thoroughly and find out as much as you can about your rights as a part-time employee. Then be prepared to argue your case—at least you will have facts to back you up.

What to DoGain Perspective

The first thing you need to do is to get some perspective on how your current lifestyle fits in with your ambitions and the requirements of both your job and other responsibilities outside the workplace. Planning is essential in order to get the necessary overview. Reflect on your work situation—where you are in terms of your career, how fulfilling you find your present job, how much of yourself you devote to your work life—and then set some career goals. Make sure you give yourself a realistic time frame in which to achieve them, so you don't sabotage yourself.

Consider your personal life

What are the things that are most important to you? Who are the most important people in your life, and how do they feel about your career and the time you devote to it? Are you satisfied with your life, or do you feel that you are putting too much time and energy into work? By asking yourself these profound but crucial questions, you will be able to see what's lacking in your life and what, if any, are the unwelcome infringements upon it. Decide what you'd like to spend more time doing, what you'd like to cut down on, and then plan how to do it.

It's only once you've established some positive goals and the length of time you'll need to achieve them, that you can address if changing your work patterns will help you to get there, and how to go about it.

By taking into account your needs and preferences, there are several key areas in which you can address the challenge of achieving your work-life balance. These include those explained below.

Consider Flextime schedules

People working on flextime schedules are able to vary their start and finishing times, providing they work a set number of hours during a specific time period. This is not only an advantage for parents trying to manage a household as well as a job, but it can be beneficial for anyone who finds working within a strict and unvarying routine every day too constricting. Everyone has times during the day when they feel more energetic, but this varies widely among individuals. People with young children tend to work on an early schedule and often want to be home by mid-afternoon. Others don't really get going until late morning and are perfectly happy to work into the evening. Flextime is thus a good solution to making sure people always work at their peak. Another great advantage, particularly for city workers and commuters, is that flextime gives them the opportunity to avoid the rush hour—probably one of the most time-wasting and stressful parts of the day.

Think About Part-time working

If you are thinking of pursuing a part-time arrangement, you will have to decide whether you would prefer working one or two days less each week or fewer hours in a day. This option also works well for people with parental or caring responsibilities. The other people who are most likely to benefit from part-time work are those returning to work after taking care of young children or recovering or suffering from illness, and people who are trying to pursue other interests or careers.

Look Into Job sharing

This involves two people dividing a full-time workload between them, with each working on a part-time basis. This is beneficial if you want to maintain something of your career while being able to spend more time with your children or pursue other interests outside work. The only drawback may be in arranging a schedule that is as convenient for the person you are job-sharing with as it is for you.

Find out Your Organization's Attitude toward Working from Home

Many jobs now involve computer-based activities that can be done as easily from an Internet-linked PC at home or in a remote (telecommuting) facility. This style of working can obviously be of enormous benefit to parents and caregivers, but it can also have a positive effect for many people without those kinds of domestic responsibilities. It often actually helps them to work more productively, especially if the type of work they do requires a great deal of concentration and uninterrupted peace and quiet. It's unusual for someone to work from home or remotely full-time, but many employers see a cost advantage in this arrangement because of the reduced need for fixed office space.

Do your research

The first step is to make sure that you qualify for flexible working arrangements. Not every organization offers this option. On the other hand, just because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean that you can't be the first one to try. If you work for a small company or a start-up organization that doesn't have a particular policy in place, there's no harm in broaching the subject.

If such an option is open to you, or you think it could be, check the staff manual or consult with your human resources department to see how you should go about applying for it.

Once you've researched your company's policy, you'll also want to speak to friends or colleagues who have applied for flexible working hours or who are already working in this way. Is their situation similar to yours, or did they have different reasons for seeking a new schedule? How did the successful applicants approach their request? Are they finding their new schedule easier or harder than they'd anticipated? Bear in mind that once you change your working arrangements, these changes will probably be permanent unless otherwise agreed between you and your employer.

Put Together a Persuasive Case

You don't want your request to be turned down, so spend some time preparing your case. Try to anticipate the questions your boss may ask you when you meet to talk about your application, and phrase it positively. Managers sometimes fear that flexible working arrangements may affect your co-workers or the business as a whole, so be prepared to give well thought-out, positive responses to questions such as the following:

  • Will you still be involved enough in the organization to be able to contribute as an effective team member?
  • What effect would a change in your working hours have on your colleagues and their workload?
  • How will your decision affect the overall quality of the work that you do?
  • In what way could a change in your working hours have a positive effect on the business?

Suggest a realistic start date for a new arrangement, giving your employer as much notice as possible. This will show that you're still committed to the business and that you are considering not just yourself but also how any changes to your working life would fit in overall.

Try to reassure your boss that your standards and motivation will not drop, even if your working hours do. In fact, it is likely that you'll be even more productive—you'll be taking off fewer days to care for dependents and your stress levels will drop too. Also stress that, as part of a reciprocal arrangement whereby all parties benefit, you'd be willing to work extra hours in times of heavy demand. Finally, and especially if you are a long-time employee, emphasize the knowledge and expertise you've built up while you've been working there and how much the company benefits from it.

Follow up

Once you've come to an agreement on your new working arrangement and a starting date, it's important to set everything down in writing. Then make sure that copies are distributed to all relevant parties (you, your manager, and the HR department or representative if you have one).

Even if your request isn't granted, don't give up. You are entitled to investigate any appeals process open to you

What to AvoidYou Don't Do Your Homework

Doing enough groundwork to support an application for flexible working is essential. Start off by checking your rights thoroughly, before moving on to researching your employer organization's stance on the issue—have others actually succeeded in putting together a flexible work schedule, or is it something that the company approves of on paper but actually frowns on? Then make sure you follow the procedures properly when submitting a written application. Try to put yourself in your manager's shoes and think through the questions that may be on his or her mind concerning the effects of flexible hours on your workload and that of your colleagues. Be sure to have some responses ready that will show the benefits of your proposed schedule.

You Won't Compromise

Bear in mind that while your workplace may give you the right to request flextime, there's no guarantee that you'll automatically get the hours or schedule that you want. Be flexible when you meet with your manager and ready to compromise if your ideal scenario isn't possible. It's then much more likely that you'll be able to negotiate in a positive way and end up with a win-win scenario.

You Forget About Potential Changes to Your Benefits Package

When you cut back on your working hours, more than just your salary may change. Vacation allowances, sick leave, and other benefits may change too. Remember to take all of these things into account, so that you're clear about your potential financial situation should your application be granted.

Where to Learn MoreBook:

Drake, John D. Downshifting: How to Work Less and Enjoy It More. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2001.

Web Site:

Monster.com: http://wlb.monster.com