The pressure of an increasingly demanding work culture is one of the biggest challenges to society’s mental health.
*Last updated: 21 September 2021
What does a good work-life balance look like?
A healthy work-life balance will mean different things to us all. It’s not so much about splitting your time 50/50 between work and leisure but making sure you feel fulfilled and content in both areas of your life. A healthy balance might look like:
- meeting your deadlines at work while still having time for friends and hobbies
- having enough time to sleep properly and eat well
- not worrying about work when you’re at home.
This can be challenging if, for example, we also have caring responsibilities, a demanding boss or health difficulties.
How do I know if my work-life balance is unhealthy?
It can be easy to normalise working long hours or being under an extreme amount of stress, especially if we’ve been doing it for a long time or all our colleagues are in the same boat. Our assumptions and habits around work can become deep-rooted unless we take a step back once in a while.
It’s not always possible to make changes at work: if you’re on a zero hours contract you might not feel comfortable speaking up, for instance, or you might need to work long hours to earn enough money to pay your bills. But for those who can make changes, recent research suggests regularly checking your work-life balance by following five steps.
- Pause. Ask yourself: what’s currently causing me stress or unhappiness? How is that affecting my work and personal life? What am I prioritising? What am I losing out on?
We often don’t take the time to reflect on work until there’s a major life event such as the birth of a child or the loss of someone close to us. But just pausing and thinking about your priorities can help you discover whether the way you’re living and working is right for you.
- Pay attention to your feelings. Now you’re more aware of your current situation, how does it make you feel? Are you fulfilled and happy, or angry and resentful? Being aware of your feelings can help you decide which changes you want to make.
- Reprioritise. Think about what needs to change. For example, you might want to ask yourself if working long hours is worth losing out on family time, or whether working weekends is worth losing out on your social life.
- Consider your alternatives. Is there anything at work you can change to meet your new priorities?
- Make changes. Maybe that’s asking for flexible hours, making sure you use all your annual leave or not checking your emails at the weekend, for example.
There are steps you can take to improve your work-life balance.
It can be difficult or impossible to stand up for yourself at work if you’re precariously employed or worried about losing your job. Make sure you know your rights (see below) and see if any of our tips feel safe for you to try.
- Understand your rights at work. Citizens Advice has information on contracts, working hours, sick pay, parental leave and more. For example, if you have a disability (which can include mental health conditions as well as physical ones), your employer might have a duty to make reasonable adjustments. This could include changes to your working hours.
- Speak up when the expectations and demands of work are too much. Your manager and employer need to know where the pressures lie in order to address them.
- Try to 'work smart, not long'. This involves prioritising - allowing yourself a certain amount of time per task - and trying not to get caught up in less productive activities such as unstructured meetings.
- Take proper breaks at work. For example, take at least half an hour for lunch and get out of the workplace if you can. You’re legally entitled to certain breaks during the day and working week: Gov.uk has more information.
- Try to draw a line between work and home. If you work from home, try to keep to a routine, make a dedicated workspace and switch off when the working day is over. The NHS website has more tips on working from home.
- Work-related stress can seriously affect your mental health. Our page on stress has ideas to reduce it, for example through exercise, eating well or supportive friendships.
- If work is making you feel you don’t have quality time for your partner or friends, read Relate’s tips on realigning your work-life balance. They include scheduling time together, getting help with chores and childcare and making every second count if you don’t have much spare time.
- Keep track of your working hours over a period of weeks or months rather than days. This will give you a better picture of your work-life balance. Factor in hours spent worrying or thinking about work too – they’re a good indicator of work-related stress. If possible, assess your work-life balance with your colleagues and management staff. The more visible the process, the more likely it is to have an effect.
You could also download our guide How to manage and reduce stress. It looks at how stress impacts your life and how to deal with it, and includes 101 of our supporters' tips on how to reduce stress.
How your workplace can help
Finding a balance shouldn’t just be down to you. Your manager and workplace also play a role. They should:
- encourage a culture of openness so you can speak up if you’re under too much pressure
- train managers to spot stress and poor work-life balance
- offer flexible and remote working where possible
- encourage breaks, whether that’s during the working day or by using annual leave
- regularly review your workload to make sure it’s achievable
- give you time off to volunteer
- increase support for parents and carers so they’re not forced to leave
- allow you to attend counselling and support services during working hours as they would for other medical appointments
- encourage stress-relieving activities such as lunchtime exercise or relaxation classes
- ask employees what would improve their work-life balance.