Work-life Balance

by Barbara Buffton

What’s stopping you?

Having a balanced life is important. But if we know it’s important, why don’t we all make sure our own work and life are in balance?

Listed below are the three main factors that seem to reinforce or maintain any imbalance in our lives.

1. Our own passions, interests and ambitions

Sometimes we become focused on one thing to the detriment of other aspects of our lives, especially if this particular thing seems really important to us at the time. We might, for example, work longer hours at the office than usual for one or more of the following reasons:

  • We’re interested in a particular project
  • We feel it might pay off in terms of promotion prospects
  • It’s a really busy period, so we’re needed and we won’t let people down
  • We prefer the office environment to home.

And just as with projects at work, we can become passionate or enthusiastic about a hobby or leisure interest and spend more time doing that than with our family and friends, or we might neglect other important areas of our life – simply because we enjoy it.


Can you relate to any of the above scenarios? If so, does this automatically mean your life is not in balance?

It depends. If it means that by doing what you’re doing, you recognise that you are neglecting other priority areas of your life, to the detriment of yourself or those you care about, it’s likely that there is an imbalance.

However, it may be that you simply don’t recognise this because you like what you’re doing.

On those occasions when you do recognise some imbalance (maybe because other areas of your life, such as your health or relationships, are suffering due to your one-track focus or when someone else close to you points it out), you may still decide to carry on regardless, prepared to accept the consequences of your actions, because you like what you’re doing.

2. The work culture

Technology is blurring the boundary between work and private life. People log on to read work emails at home in the evenings. And of course, whenever your mobile is switched on, you are potentially on call. There is always a part of you ready to turn back to your work.

Often, the culture where we work perpetuates a work-life imbalance. Those business dinners, breakfast meetings, weekend retreats, residential training courses and so on, coupled with an organisational culture of long hours and often with long travel times thrown in, all conspire to keep your life not as balanced as you might want.

And it can be hard to go against such a culture. In a government work-life balance study, 42 per cent of employees said they had too much work to finish in normal working hours. Over half of these said the long hours were necessary simply to get the job done. This also means that quite a few of the employees surveyed did not need to work the hours to get the job done. So why were they doing it? Maybe they just liked being in the office or maybe their organisational culture dictated they stay longer?

Have they bought into a modern-day work ethic? This is an ethic of achievement and success which can, quite literally, kill us: stress, depression and heart disease are just some of the consequences of a ‘long hours, work harder’ work culture.


I had this conversation with my husband’s ex-MD a few years ago when I did some consultancy work for him: MD was telling me how worried he was about my hubby, and that he worked too long hours, spending far too much time away from home (hear, hear!). I smiled sweetly and reminded him that if he really wanted to change that culture within his business, he was the only one who could influence it.

Four years on, my hubby left home (yesterday morning, and his first day back after paternity leave) at 4am and got home at 10.30pm. This year he won an employee award from his new MD (on recommendation from a client) for his ‘can do’ attitude and the fact that they say jump and he does – whatever it takes.

Hubby does what he has to, but not out of love for the job. It’s out of fear that if he doesn’t, he’ll be axed in the next six-monthly restructure. He’s torn between wanting to spend time with me and new baby versus knowing that new baby costs money to keep. Now tell me how that kind of motivation helps productivity.

If the issue is born out of fear of the consequent actions of those above, then clearly it’s only genuine commitment from those at the top of the ladder that can act as catalyst to change the culture.

3. What we believe is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’

Are you the kind of person who frequently thinks (maybe in your mind’s eye) of other things you should be doing, rather than what you’re currently doing? In other words, is your focus often somewhere other than the present? Or do you think you shouldn’t be where you are (such as sunbathing in the garden), but somewhere else (such as in the office or the supermarket)?

Do you have a voice in your head that says something like, ‘You really should be doing x, not y’ or ‘You shouldn’t be spending time doing this – there are other things you should be doing’?

The things we say to ourselves – our self-talk – often reveals certain beliefs we hold about what is right and wrong.

What we feel matters

Do you feel that you have to finish everything on your to-do list before going home? Do you believe that you really shouldn’t relax if there are still chores to be done?

What tells you? Do you get an uneasy kind of feeling (maybe the sort that tells you that you’re wrong to be doing what you’re doing?) even when, logically, you know you deserve some time out?

Where might this uneasiness come from?

Think about when you feel OK.

  • What kind of activities promote the ‘right’ feeling in you (staying late at the office, for example)? And for what length of time?
  • Which activities give you the ‘wrong’ feeling (relaxing, for instance)?

The answers to these questions will give you clues about what you believe and might help you to understand what has stopped you so far from having a good balance in your life. In other words, taking the above examples, maybe one of your underlying beliefs is this: we were put on this planet to work first and play later.

Can you see how this kind of belief could upset your work-life balance? What other beliefs do you have that might stop you getting the balance in your life that you need and deserve?

What’s next?

Now you’re beginning to get a better understanding as to why you haven’t yet achieved your ideal work-life balance, are you ready to do something about it? If so, go to Six steps to balance. If you’re not quite ready and need more convincing, go to The personal case.