Work-life balance: What does it mean and how do we achieve it?

Toddler plays with doll while mom works in the background
Experts from the Telfer School of Management share their insights on what it means to strike a balance among our various roles, now that our work and home lives have collided.
Portrait of Telfer Professor Laurent Lapierre

Do I feel positive about my work and life roles? Do I feel effective and sufficiently involved in them? Do I feel like they fit together? According to Professor Laurent Lapierre of the Telfer School of Management, answering these questions can help us determine whether or not we are achieving work-life balance.

“Work-life balance is the degree to which people feel that they are doing well across their various important roles, that they’re able to manage them in a harmonious way,” says Lapierre, who specializes in workplace behaviour and health. “It does not mean that people spend an equal amount of time in their different roles. And it’s different for everyone because it depends on their values, on what they consider important. Two people can lead very different lives and still experience balance because they both feel a high level of effectiveness and involvement across their roles.”

Lapierre points out that balancing roles can be a positive experience. It’s possible to have constructive dependencies between roles, where one role positively influences another.

“If you experience something phenomenal in one role — your work role, let’s say — it can actually raise your energy or your self-esteem, which then carries over to the other role,” he explains. “That’s called work-life enrichment, where one role enriches the experiences in another role.”

According to Lapierre, when people feel that time spent in one role is sucking up the time and energy needed to devote to another, they experience role incompatibility. Research suggests that our sense of work-life balance depends on the degree to which we can avoid circumstances that cause our roles to conflict.

“If people can find ways to avoid work-family incompatibility, either on their own or with the help of their family, friends or colleagues, and experience work-family enrichment, chances are they will feel a high level of work-life balance.”

Portrait of Telfer Professor Jane O'Reilly

So how do we avoid role incompatibility when the COVID-19 pandemic has forced our work and home lives to collide?

According to Telfer professor Jane O’Reilly, who specializes in organizational behaviour and human resource management, work-life balance is all about finding ways to effectively and simultaneously attain our personal work and home goals. One way to achieve this is by identifying the goals that matter to us and deciding how much time we want to devote to each. This can help provide concrete direction, especially when it comes to organizing our time and maintaining our boundaries.

She also points out that how we achieve work-life balance can change over time, even on a daily or weekly basis. Our needs vary depending on our short- and long-term goals and on our evolving life circumstances.

“We are finding that younger generations, millennials for example, are placing an increasingly higher priority on home goals than we have seen in previous generations. Especially men. Employees today want to spend time with their family and be active parents, in addition to having exciting and fulfilling careers. As those needs change, employers also need to be progressive and find creative solutions to help their employees achieve what they consider to be an appropriate balance.”

How to be a family-supportive boss

“Employers have an important role to play in helping employees maintain work-life balance,” says O’Reilly. “That’s why we need forward-thinking organizations that are willing to introduce innovative and courageous systemic changes that prioritize employees’ mental health beyond just focusing on organizational productivity.”

According to Lapierre and O’Reilly, there are four major things family-supportive bosses can do to help their employees avoid work-life conflict or role incompatibility:

Be ready to lend an ear. Be open to hearing and talking about employees’ concerns regarding their personal life, as opposed to the boss who says, “Work is where work gets done. Keep your personal life at home.” Be clearly receptive to employees’ concerns regarding role incompatibilities. There may not be an incompatibility yet, but if an employee seems unhappy or off their game, and it has to do with something that happened in their personal life, show an openness to talking about it. If employees are reluctant to ask for help when their home priorities become too much, they can lose balance and experience burnout.

Be willing to make adjustments. When employees’ work and life commitments conflict, it helps when the manager is open to a positive and productive conversation about how to remedy the situation.

For example, in our current situation, more and more parents are keeping their kids at home during the school year or can be forced to keep them home if someone in the family displays symptoms of an illness. In these cases, it may be difficult for parents to work straight through from 9 to 5. This might require a conversation about a flexible work schedule.

“I often tell my students that if an employee is getting their work done by the timeline you have given them, what does it matter when or where they are doing that work?” says O’Reilly. “Flexible work and space that can accommodate the individual needs of employees can help them establish their own strategies for maintaining work-life balance.”

Model work-life balance. When bosses don’t practise what they preach, employees see that there is a disconnect between what they say and actually seem to value. Bosses need to be role models so that employees feel comfortable enough to dedicate the time that they’d like to their families or their personal lives.

Be creative. To the extent that it’s possible to foresee the team’s work demands in the coming months, have a sit-down with your employees, maybe even a few, to let them know what’s coming down the pipeline and try to plan the work with them in such a way that everyone’s needs can potentially be met. Some people have kids, some don’t. Everybody can contribute in different ways and at different times. Creating a clear work plan with timelines and expectations for employees can help because it gives the latter a good understanding of what they need to do to be successful at work. It just takes foresight and a strategic mindset.