What exactly is a ‘healthy’ work-life balance?
You’ve just got the kids to school on time (each with their correct lunch box, library bag and hat). Next up are back-to-back meetings with no time for lunch. Right now, you’re probably thinking that buying a pet unicorn is more realistic than achieving a healthy work-life balance.
And if you’ve ever wondered, “Does work-life balance even exist?” you’re not alone. Balancing work (including unpaid domestic labour) with health and happiness while trying to do all the things is not easy.
So we asked Psychologist Dr Bronwyn Coward for her expert advice on what a healthy work-life balance actually is and how to make it happen.
First, rethink what work-life balance really means
The line between work and the rest of life has blurred since the term ‘work-life balance’ was first coined in the mid-1980s.
Dr Bronwyn says that it can be a bit of a trap to think you can easily separate your work from your life. “Both work and life depend on, and affect, each other,” she explains. “For example, losing your job will have a huge impact on your life.”
That’s not to say that the blurred lines between work and life in modern times make work-life balance unattainable. It’s still possible, says Dr Bronwyn, if you redefine what you mean by ‘balance’.
“A healthy work-life balance doesn’t necessarily mean that each component of your life has an equal share of the pie. Instead, balance is something that looks different for everyone.”
“The way we want to spend the 24 hours we each have in our day is a unique and individual choice,” she continues.
“What affects our sense of work-life balance is becoming more aware of what we want in our lives and what we value. Workplaces play a role in this, but ultimately, we’re each responsible for our own work-life balance.”
Spend time on what you value
To work out what a healthy work-life balance looks like for you, Dr Bronwyn recommends asking yourself:
- What are you trying to carve into your life?
- What's most important to you?
- What are your values?
- What's your end game?
- How are you spending your time?
Dr Bronwyn then says to dig deeper if you discover that the things you spend time on don’t line up with your values.
“Be really honest with yourself about where your values lie and how you want to incorporate them into your life,” she advises.
Consistency is important
Creating new habits and routines, and then figuring out how to stay consistent with them is vital in achieving a healthier work-life balance. Dr Bronwyn recommends using helpful techniques like anchoring to make consistency easier.
“If you’re trying to incorporate a new habit like meditation into your routine,” she says, “try anchoring it to another activity that you already do consistently. For example, every time you finish breakfast, do your meditation. Anchoring acts as a cue and a reminder, which means you’re way more likely to do the habit.”
If you need a little extra help with consistency, you could:
- start using a work-life balance planner
- try some expert techniques for when you can’t get motivated
- work with a therapist or life coach
Small changes can make a big difference
Thankfully, creating work-life balance doesn’t necessarily mean making massive overhauls to your routine. “It might just involve making tiny tweaks to things you're already doing to make your life more balanced,” says Dr Bronwyn.
For example, she recommends taking regular, quick screen breaks for a couple of minutes during the day to help
give your brain some recovery time. “Go outside. Get a cup of tea. Take some time away from technology every hour. You’ll come back to work feeling fresher.”
Playtime is for adults too
Additionally, Dr Bronwyn strongly recommends making time for play.
“Think about how you can be creative in adding aspects of play to your life,” she says. “It could involve incorporating a joke at the end of every meeting at work, trying a new hobby or giving mindfulness colouring books a go. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s fun, enjoyable and that you want to do it regularly.”
The real deal on work-life balance
We all want to lead happier, healthier lives which is why work-life balance is so important. But with all the hectic busyness that surrounds us, that can feel like something out of a fairy tale.
Unlike unicorns, though, people with healthy work-life balances do exist. As Dr Bronwyn says, it’s all about aligning how you spend your time with what you truly value. Making small, consistent changes in your life can go a long way towards living happily ever after.
Want to look at other ways of improving your routine and productivity? Read about brain-healthy foods, cutting back on alcohol, brain fog and how to boost your energy when you’re tired.
- Can’t get motivated to do all the things? Try these 10 tips
- What is a life coach, and do I need one?
Dr Bronwyn Coward is a registered Psychologist, an endorsed Clinical Neuropsychologist and an AHPRA board-approved supervisor who draws on over a decade of experience to bring solution-based assessments to her clients.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board August 2021.