Careers advice

Achieving a healthy work-life balance in 11 simple steps

There’s more to life than work, so here’s how you can get back a bit of balance.

What you’ll learn:

  • What does work-life balance mean?
  • Why is work-life balance important?
  • How to achieve work-life balance in 11 simple steps
  • How to talk to your manager about your work-life balance
  • How to achieve work-life balance when working remotely

In New Zealand, work-life balance has always been important. In fact, we’re known around the world for making sure there's a good mix of work and play.

However, that doesn’t mean that Kiwis never get carried away with their jobs at the expense of important down time.

If you’re spending longer in the office, or home office, checking work emails at home or unable to get tomorrow’s tasks off your mind, you may well need to address your work-life balance.

Let’s look at what this means, how it impacts you, and what you can do to get back on track..

Too many late nights in the office? It's time assess your work-life balance.

What is work life-balance?

Having a good work-life balance means that you’re able to satisfactorily split your time between work and other things that are important to you.

In practice, this means different things to different people. A recent uni grad is likely to have very different life pressures than a parent of young children. But it’s what it says on the tin, a balance – so that you feel fulfilled in both your personal and your professional life.

Why is work-life balance important?

There are several reasons why it’s in your best interests to make sure you have a healthy work-life balance:

  • Your mental health: a poor work-life balance can lead to mental health challenges, including stress and anxiety.
  • Your physical health: a poor work-life balance can also impact your physical health. For example, long days sitting in a chair can lead to back problems, while late nights staring at a screen will likely mean a poor night’s sleep.
  • Your relationships: maintaining friendships and relationships with your partner or family can be difficult if you’re chained to your desk, meaning that your poor-work life balance isn’t just impacting you.
  • Reduced performance at work: while you might feel that, by staying at your desk at all times, you’re being a good employee, the chances are that, if your work-life balance is poor, quite the opposite is true. Taking breaks, exercising or enjoying time with friends means you come to work feeling more energetic and engaged.

Signs of poor work-life balance

  • Feeling stressed or overwhelmed – because you’re struggling to keep up.
  • Constant tiredness – resulting from lack of quality sleep.
  • Personality changes – e.g. irritability or reduced patience.
  • Consistent pain – e.g. tension headaches, or neck and shoulder pain as a result of stress.
  • Difficulty maintaining personal relationships – because work gets in the way.
  • Being glued to your work phone or laptop – is it really just ‘for emergencies’?
  • Creating mess – likely both at home or at work.
  • Aimlessness – being overwhelmed means you struggle to prioritise. Getting behind causes a vicious circle.

Stress and tiredness are symptoms of a poor work life balance.

Achieving work life balance: the steps

It’s important to realise there’s no such thing as a perfect work-life balance. Getting yours right doesn’t mean that everyday you’ll be able to do everything you want.

Instead, this is something you measure and improve over time. Unfortunately, some days you’ll have to work more than others. However, overall, things should equal themselves out and you should feel like you have control.

If you’re looking for a better work-life balance, try:

1. Setting your work hours… and sticking to them

If you’re regularly the last person in the office, ask yourself why. Does the thing you’re doing have to be finished tonight? If the answer is always “yes”, you should talk to your manager about your workload.

Get tough with yourself about leaving the office on time, or perhaps consider changing jobs.

Occasionally, this new regime might mean saying ‘no’ when a colleague asks for a last minute favour that will keep you in the office. This can be awkward, but all you need to do is politely explain that it’s not possible at the moment, and suggest an alternative.

2. Prioritising your time

To help achieve the above, ensure you’re managing your time well at work. This could mean:

  • Drawing up weekly or daily to-do lists, and ticking off tasks as you complete them.
  • Categorising projects by their urgency.
  • Using spreadsheets or dedicated workflow planning tools, such as Trello, to help you plan your workflow.
  • Learning to say no, so that you aren’t constantly adding to your workload due to requests from different corners of the business.

    3. Organising your workstation

    As well as removing clutter, ensure your workstation is set up to be comfortable. In practice, this will depend on the industry you work in, but looking into different tools, keyboard or chairs can reduce work-induced aches and pains.

    4. Talking to your manager

    This might not be one to try straight away, but if you’re really struggling to manage your tasks, have a word with your manager. Ultimately, it’s in their interests that you’re content in your job, and they can help you draw up a plan to get where you want.

    Be strict with yourself about leaving the office in good time.

    5. Getting enough exercise

    Heaps of studies show the benefits of exercise in relieving stress and other symptoms of poor work-life balance.

    This doesn’t mean you suddenly have to get into running, swimming or biking if these kinds of activities aren’t your bag. You’ll likely find that simply walking to a park or open space on your lunch break will help you unwind from intense workplace vibes.

    6. Unplugging

    Free time should be exactly that – free. Make a point of turning off your work phone in the evenings and on weekends. This will let you properly unwind, and gives you time to maintain relationships and do things you enjoy.

    7. Having sufficient sleep

    Hopefully shutting down your work brain at home will mean your mind isn’t still whirring when it’s time to get some Z’s. Sleep is hugely important to your overall well-being, and you’ll find work far more manageable if you’re rested and fresh in the morning.

    8. Getting back into your hobbies

    Whether it’s music or martial arts, paddle boarding or painting, work shouldn’t mean you have to give up activities you love.

    Setting aside some personal time in your schedule for these hobbies will break up your week, and improve your overall satisfaction.

    Make time for the things that matter to you, whatever they are.

    9. Spending time with the right people

    A great way to escape the pressures of the workday is to spend time with people who make you happy – friends and family, and we’ll count your dog in here too.

    Not only can these folk take your mind off the 9-5, this will help you rebuild relationships that might have suffered because of your poor work-life balance.

    10. Taking a vacation

    If you’re really burnt out, the best way to hit reset could be to take some time off. This could be a couple of days just to gather your thoughts, or a more extended break.

    As well as chilling out, you can use this time to plan your new approach for when you get back to work though you want to avoid thinking about work on this time away..

    Remember, with work-life balance, what works for your colleagues might not be the answer for you. It’s important you take the time to draw up a schedule with your specific needs at its heart. Finding a work-life balance you’re happy with won’t happen overnight, but once you start taking the first steps, you’ll soon notice the benefits.

    11. Be kind to yourself

    Perfectionist traits can often lead to a poor work-life balance, as you can’t let go of projects, and you soon find them piling up on top of each other.

    While it can be hard to let go of long held tendencies, try to put some distance between your perception of yourself, and your results at work. We all make mistakes from time to time, and we’re never going to get everything right, so sometimes it’s just better to shut the computer down and do something else.

    How to talk to your manager about your work-life balance

    Good people leaders should care about their team members’ work-life balance. As we mentioned earlier, staff who don’t prioritise this will often underperform relative to those who manage to juggle the two more successfully, and they should also just care about your general wellbeing.

    However, we understand that it can still be difficult to admit you’re struggling, especially to your manager. So, here are some tactics to help you initiate this conversation:

    1. Do some thinking beforehand

    Don’t just turn up and say something like: “I feel swamped. You need to do some digging down into what specifically is causing your work-life balance to be off kilter. For example, you might ask yourself whether this is a long-term problem, or have you just started a project that is causing you to work particularly long hours? Having some ideas of what in particular is causing the problem will both you and your manager come up with practical solutions for how to move forward.

    2. Don’t be overly demanding

    If a poor work-life balance has really been putting the pressure on you, you might be feeling pretty emotional, which is totally understandable. But it’s important that this doesn’t come across in the wrong way – if you start bullishly demanding time off, or saying you simply can’t handle your current workload, your manager might go on the defensive, and then the process of making progress on the original issue becomes all the more difficult.

    The point is to be solutions-focused. It’s okay to get your point across about the fact you’re finding things tough at the moment, but you want to demonstrate that you want to find a resolution that works for you and the wider team.

    3. Have some suggestions

    You might already have some ideas as to how you think you could improve your work-life balance, such as:
    • Re-prioritising your current workload: if you’ve got too many balls in the air at the moment, it might simply be a cause of pushing some projects to the back-burner for now, and focusing all your efforts on a smaller number of tasks.
    • Remote working: perhaps it’s the commute (*cough, Aucklanders) that is contributing to your lack of free time. If so, it could be that negotiating some (more) work from home could be part of the solution.
    • Flexible working hours: similarly, you might find that tweaking the hours you work on some days gives you the time to do those activities you’ve been missing out on, or spend more time with loved ones.

    4. See things from their side

    While your manager should be sympathetic to what you’re experiencing, you also need to try and see things from their perspective. It’s very unlikely that they piled this work onto you for any reason other than it needs doing, so if the solution to your problem involves lightening your workload, that is going to have to be taken up somewhere else.

    Again, this is about offering potential solutions to this issue, such as being absolutely ruthless in your prioritisation, so that you ensure that the fundamentals are done on time.

    How to achieve a good work-life balance when working from home

    1. Assign and communicate your working hours

    While many businesses will continue standard hours for staff who are working remotely, you’ll probably have a degree of flexibility – especially if you’re looking after kids.

    One of the most important things you can do about maintaining your work-life balance is deciding when you’re going to be online, and when you’re going to make time for other things. We advise talking this through with your manager first, and then communicating it to your immediate team, so they’ll know when to expect delays in communications.

    Bonus tip: if you use digital calendars, block out the times you won’t be available so it’s easy for people to check. If your organisation uses instant messaging systems like Slack it’s also possible to update your status to let colleagues know you’re away from your desk.

    Doing this should stop teammates contacting you when you’re busy, keeping the pressure off for a bit.

    2. Designate a workstation

    This won’t be possible for everyone, but if you can choose somewhere to work that isn’t somewhere you’ll later be chilling with family or flatties.

    While few of us miss the commute to work, the process of getting up and leaving a desk before heading home helps us dissociate these two environments. While you can’t do this right now, you can at least choose different areas of your home for work and for play.

    3. Have a plan at the start of your working day

    Rocking up to your workstation with no clue what you’re going to do for the day is a recipe for unproductivity, which can then lead to working late when you suddenly remember that thing you were meant to do.

    We recommend starting every Monday by overviewing what you want to achieve that week, and mapping out your priorities. Even if this changes, and nothing is standing still for long at the moment, at least you have a framework for adapting to new challenges as they arise.

    4. Don’t work late

    It’s very tempting, especially if you’re under the pump, to go back to your laptop after dinner, or before bed.

    “I’ll just check my emails”, you’ll tell yourself, and an hour later you’ll still be neck-deep in your ongoing projects. This can quickly lead to burn-out, which is the last thing you need.

    Part of the importance of work-life balance is giving yourself time to enjoy yourself and, crucially, getting a good night’s sleep. You can guarantee the second of those things won’t happen if your brain is still whirring and your eyes are glued to a laptop screen.

    Nope, when your work hours are over, it’s me-time. Close that email, turn off your work phone, and relax.

    If you’re consistently struggling to get everything done, have a chat with your manager. This is much better than suffering in silence, and they should be able to help you find ways to handle or reduce your workload.

    5. Take your breaks

    Unless you’ve signed a new employment agreement to change your hours, you’re still entitled to the same breaks you always have been while working from home.

    It can be easy to dismiss taking a break as pointless when you’re at home anyway, but trying to work through without any isn’t smart, and will probably dent your productivity in the long run.

    6. Get out of the house

    We’re not saying you need to take up running or cycling if you don’t want to. However, there’s heaps of evidence that even a small amount of exercise is great for both mental and physical health. A simple stroll around your neighbourhood or local park can help you clear your head if you’re finding work stressful.