Work-Life Balance in Psychology: 12 Examples and Theories

Work-life BalanceWe exist in multiple domains throughout our lives.

We might be a professional, a parent, a partner, a sports person, a community member, a friend, a child.

Our roles and responsibilities differ for each role, and the challenge is to meaningfully satisfy these requirements with as little conflict as possible. This is known as work–life balance.

In this post, we explore the concept of work–life balance: what it is, why it’s important, and if it’s possible to achieve.

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What Is Work–Life Balance?

Work–life balance (WLB) is a somewhat recent phenomenon, arising from employees’ concerns about the demands expected by their work (Guest, 2002). The perceived increase in these demands can be traced to three factors (Guest, 2002):

  1. Changes in the work environment
  2. Changes in life
  3. Changes in individual attitudes

History surrounding the concept of ‘work–life balance’

In the 1970s, the concept of WLB was initially framed as one concerning work–family balance (Lockwood, 2003). This was partly due to concerns surrounding women joining the workforce (Fleetwood, 2007). The workforce primarily comprised men, whereas women were often employed informally. However, when women could engage in formal employment, the result was that they had to juggle both work and family-life responsibilities.

However, the concept of WLB doesn’t affect women only.

For example:

  • Men also play an essential role in child rearing.
  • Men are not always the primary breadwinner in heterosexual couples.
  • Gay couples also have to juggle both work and family-life responsibilities.

Furthermore, couples who do not have children and individuals who are not in relationships should not be excluded from issues around WLB.

Thus, societal pressures for equal labor opportunities and conditions, coupled with general shifts in industries and attitudes toward gender roles, resulted in more attention on WLB.

This is why the concept changed from work–family life balance to work–life balance, since our personal lives are not limited only to familial needs (Lockwood, 2003).

Other changes in the work environment have contributed to concerns about WLB.

For example:

  • Technological advancements have increased work pressure.
  • Deadlines have become increasingly tight.
  • The expected response times for communication have become shorter.
  • Expectations of superb customer service have become higher.

These changing work demands lead to inevitable changes in personal lives. For example, working overtime and on weekends leads to less time available to spend on personal life interests.

WLB has also been driven by changes in individual attitudes and values. One such example is how societal attitudes toward work and life have changed from one generation to the next (Thijssen, Van der Heijden, & Rocco, 2008; Wey Smola & Sutton, 2002). Specifically, the likelihood of remaining employed at one company has declined since the 1990s (Eby, Butts, & Lockwood, 2003). As a result, some workers may consider work as a separate, dynamic aspect of life that doesn’t require absolute commitment.

Definitions of WLB

There’s no cohesive, agreed-upon definition of work–life balance in the literature (Kalliath & Brough, 2008). However, the common understanding is that there are (at least) two domains in life: work and personal. Both domains require attention and investment, but not at the sacrifice of each other.

Kalliath and Brough (2008) provide the following set of statements that synthesize the various definitions of WLB provided in the literature:

  1. People perform different roles in their life, including a work role and a personal life role, and the demands of one role can carry over to the demands of another.
  2. People should be able to commit equal amounts of time and energy to all roles.
  3. People should feel satisfied with their own performance in various life domains and should function optimally in these domains. Their performance and function across life domains should not clash.
  4. The roles that people perform in their life and the importance they assign to these roles change. Therefore, satisfaction with WLB depends on which roles people have prioritized now and whether their expectations are met.
  5. WLB is achieved when there is little conflict between individuals’ work and personal roles.
  6. WLB is considered to be the degree of autonomy that people have over the demands of various roles and their ability to meet these demands.

4 Real-Life Examples

Work-life ImbalanceThe desired outcome for WLB is one where we feel satisfied and have the necessary resources to function optimally in multiple domains.

Before becoming a professor at the University of Arkansas, Ryoichi Fujiwara was an academic in Japan. She shares the harmful physical symptoms that she experienced from overworking. She lost 22 pounds, was never hungry, couldn’t sleep, and was working every weekend.

At the advice of her doctor, she decided to start keeping regular work hours and avoiding overtime. She also started exercising regularly. After a few months, her appetite returned, and she has maintained a healthier work–life balance (Fujiwara, 2021).

Mohadeseh Ganji was the recipient of the Women Leading Tech Award for Data Science in 2020. She is aware that the nature of the job is to spend most of her working time in front of her computer.

To counter this, she makes an effort to be outdoors, even if only for a short period, and she tries to set boundaries around her working hours. Admittedly, sometimes she cannot maintain these boundaries, but she is aware of this and is always actively working to reinforce them (Fleetwood, 2021).

Monash University interviewed five women researchers at their university and asked them about the challenges that they experience in their jobs.

Most of the researchers touched on the idea of work–life balance, specifically juggling a heavy workload with family responsibilities. For example, Professor Andrea Reupert, Professor Jane Wilkinson, and Associate Professor Ruth Jeanes emphasized that:

  1. Sharing caregiving roles and responsibilities helps to ease stress experienced by working moms.
  2. Clear work–life boundaries with time dedicated to specific tasks helps achieve work–life balance (Allen, 2021).

Nigel Marsh worked in a corporate industry and experienced a common challenge: working too much with little time for his family. In his TEDx Talk, he gives his suggestions for what contributes to successful work–life balance.

In his often humorous talk, he argues that it’s difficult to achieve work–life balance, because core issues are not addressed.

These issues are:

  1. There is a societal emphasis on materialism.
  2. Individuals must be responsible for their own lives and must be allowed to set their own boundaries.
  3. Work–life balance isn’t achieved in a single day but could be achieved across a longer period of time.
  4. Balance means that multiple domains need to be attended to, and micro changes can have macro effects.

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Is Balance Important? 3 Benefits According to Research

Before heralding WLB as an optimal way of living, let’s first explore some assumptions about WLB within the extant literature.

Assumptions about work–life balance

The first two assumptions about WLB are that there are multiple domains in our lives, including work and personal, and that these domains can be separated (Eikhof, Warhurst, & Haunschild, 2007). However, the degree of separation differs among people and industries. For example, someone who runs a home business may find it more difficult to separate their work life from their personal life.

Another assumption is that we typically dedicate too much time and energy to the work domain. These resources are finite and can include time, energy, and motivation. The result of this imbalance is that we have too few resources to dedicate to other domains, specifically the personal domain (Eikhof et al., 2007).

Studies on WLB do not investigate an imbalance where too few resources are available for work.

Another assumption is that work is a negative domain that results in unhappiness, stress, and other negative states (Eikhof et al., 2007). Presumably, if a balance is struck between these two domains, then the negative effects of work are negated by the positive benefits of personal life. However, the WLB argument ignores how fulfilling and satisfying work can be (Eikhof et al., 2007).

Benefits of work–life balance

Achieving WLB benefits both work and personal lives (Chimote & Srivastava, 2013; Lockwood, 2003).

These benefits include:

  • People have more time available to run personal errands, such as servicing cars, and address personal issues, such as going to the doctor. As a result, people are less likely to use work hours on non-work-related issues, use fewer sick days for personal errands, and can also look after themselves through regular medical checkups.
  • People who have more time for their personal life report high job satisfaction and, as a result, are less likely to resign. They are also more motivated at work and more productive.
  • Happier people who have high job satisfaction and more time for their personal life are less likely to develop illnesses and stress-related conditions.

8 Psychology Theories & Models

Finding balanceEight theories/models explain the relationship between the domains of work and personal life (Bakker & Demerouti, 2013; Edwards & Rothbard, 2000).

One limitation of these theories is that the two domains are purposely considered to be separate constructs, and the people in the two domains are different. Therefore, these theories do not extend to situations where work is a family-run business (i.e., when your sibling is also your coworker).

The models are described below.

  1. Segmentation: The two domains – work and life – exist separately from each other, and there is no relationship between these two domains. Experiences in one domain do not affect experiences in the other.
  2. Spillover: Work and life domains are separate, but factors in one domain can affect the other. These effects can be negative or positive. Edwards and Rothbard (2000) provide the following definition: the behaviors, feelings, and values of the two domains become more similar.
  3. Compensation: Experiences and feelings in one domain can be used to make up or compensate for the gaps in another. A typical example is where dissatisfaction in one domain is negated by satisfaction in another. The process of compensation is an active and conscious decision (Edwards & Rothbard, 2000).
  4. Resource drain: Optimal functioning requires the availability of resources such as time, energy, and motivation. These resources, however, are finite. Sometimes, optimal functioning in one domain might require more resources from another. The transfer of resources is not considered an autonomous process, like in the compensation model (Edwards & Rothbard, 2000).
  5. Instrumental: The choices in one domain allow for maximum success in another.
  6. Congruence: Due to the presence of a third variable, the experiences across domains are similar. Examples of these third variables are individual qualities, such as personality or coping styles, or external factors, such as social influences.
  7. Conflict: The choices and needs of all domains compete for our limited resources, causing stress and/or unhappiness. As a result, our roles across various domains conflict with each other. Conflict may include reduced functioning in personal life due to work pressures (known as work–family conflict); it can also be the other way around, where family pressures impair occupational functioning and performance (known as family–work conflict; Bakker & Demerouti, 2013).
  8. An eighth theory, the spillover-crossover model, was posited by Bakker and Demerouti (2013). They argue that positive or negative experiences in one domain can spill over to another, but their effects can cross over and impact the wellbeing of other people.

Is It Possible to Achieve Work–Life Balance?

Admittedly, the jury is still out on this question.

Some researchers and professionals have reservations about whether it is possible to achieve WLB (McCormack & Niehoff, 2019).

Although the definition of WLB has its shortcomings, there is enough research to suggest the following:

  1. It is possible to increase employee job and life satisfaction by improving workplace conditions.
  2. Stress can affect life satisfaction.
  3. Healthy WLB can positively affect health (Jones, Burke, & Westman, 2013).

The aim is not to treat WLB as a single goal, which, once achieved, is ignored and never addressed again. Instead, consider WLB to be a kinetic balancing toy.

Sometimes the balance will shift toward work; sometimes it will shift toward personal life. The point is to be aware of feelings about work and personal life and to engage in behaviors that will buttress against the negative effects of stress and of the scale shifting too much toward one particular life domain.

Another consideration is that WLB is not a universal, absolute value. In other words, two people can achieve balance in different ways and at different points along the work–life spectrum.

Reiter (2007) makes a convincing argument that ‘balance’ is subjective; instead of striving toward an absolute value of WLB, it is better to strive toward optimal functioning within different life domains with as little conflict as possible between them.

Work–Life Balance vs Work–Life Integration

Is it possible?Another model of the relationship between work and personal life is called work–life integration (Morris & Madsen, 2007).

Work–life integration challenges some assumptions of the typical argument of WLB, specifically that work and personal life are separate domains.

Work–life integration is considered the midpoint between zero and complete segmentation of work and personal life (Morris & Madsen, 2007).

One unique contribution that work–life integration brings to the debate surrounding WLB is the function that the community can play. Researchers who promote work–life integration argue that people in the work, personal life, and community domains can work together to help one another achieve their goals in each domain.

Unfortunately, these same people can also impair success in various life domains. As a result, work–life integration can be considered as an ecosystem containing different people with different roles, and their actions with one another in multiple domains can help or hinder successful work–life integration.

Morris and Madsen (2007) argue that for successful work–life integration, people should consider the following points that can contribute to success and happiness across domains:

  1. Identifying, addressing, and supporting role demands in various life domains
  2. Identifying, addressing, and supporting relationship demands in various life domains
  3. Identifying, addressing, and supporting different responsibilities in various life domains
  4. Outlining a set of rules about behavior in various life domains but also identifying different responses to these rules and clarifying whether these rules are malleable or concrete
  5. Identifying the rituals (i.e., structured behaviors that are expected) in different domains and addressing whether these rituals hinder or help domain success
  6. Identifying the resources that are needed to achieve domain success but also assessing the availability of resources in each domain

Consider this example: Bjorn is newly wed and a new parent. He often works long hours at the local pharmacy. By coming home late, he has less time to spend with his wife and their new baby, and consequently he cannot offer as much emotional support to his wife as he would like. Bjorn is unhappy, and there is some tension between him and his wife; as a result, Bjorn feels angry toward his boss.

Work–life integration theory argues that people are not limited to their roles within only one particular domain; their actions in one domain can affect others.

Therefore, Bjorn’s employers and colleagues must recognize their role in his performance in other domains and put into place certain systems that can lead to optimal functioning in other domains.

Examples would include:

  1. Recognizing that the long hours are causing tension between Bjorn and his wife
  2. Recognizing that having a newborn is a stressful experience in general
  3. Allowing Bjorn to take parental leave
  4. Allowing Bjorn to work flexible hours so that he can help at home and make up the lost time in other ways
  5. Allowing Bjorn to take leave in order to take his baby to the doctor or run errands
  6. Organizing social events so that Bjorn and his wife can meet his colleagues and get advice from other experienced parents
  7. Communicating clear deadlines and tasks so that Bjorn knows that he is still on track at work and contributing meaningfully
  8. Communicating clearly with Bjorn if superiors/colleagues feel Bjorn is struggling to meet his deadlines

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We have several tools that can help your client achieve WLB, and a great start is this coaching article – Coaching on Work–Life Balance: 11 Strategies & Questions with practical strategies.

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If your client approaches you after a negative experience, then you could consider using the Vicious Versus Virtuous Stress Thinking worksheet. In this worksheet, clients can use a table to consider unhelpful versus helpful thinking regarding an event.

This tool is very helpful for clients who may struggle with stress that is perpetuated by negative (vicious) cycles of thinking. Clients learn a useful technique to reframe unhelpful beliefs and thinking and adopt a virtuous cycle of thinking to make the best of what is outside and inside their control.

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A Take-Home Message

Maintaining work–life balance is a continuous lifelong process, and the balance will tilt toward different domains. This tilting is normal; sometimes we need to give more to work, other times to family.

The goal is not to ‘achieve’ work–life balance, because this implies that there is some type of finality to the journey. Balance achieved? Check. Move on.

Instead, the journey toward WLB is dynamic, requires regular reflection, and is different for each person. Therefore, the goal is to be aware of the different roles that we are balancing and to evaluate whether we are meeting those responsibilities in a way that we are satisfied with. Through self-evaluation and self-awareness, we learn more about what balance means to us.

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