The concept of work-life balance arose in the 1990s after a decade of being told that “you can have it all” and women discovering that, really, they couldn’t—at least not without a cadre of domestic and professional assistants. Since few working parents actually can afford crews of servants to keep the house and grounds in tiptop shape and assistants to fetch dry cleaning, perform administrative tasks, and mitigate the drudgery of everyday life while still raising families, they sought other options and made difficult choices. One of those choices returns to the traditional, 1950s model of one parent (usually the father) working to support his family in the manner to which they are accustomed and the other parent (usually the mother) taking care of the household and the children and performing all domestic tasks. When the at-home parent adds the responsibility and obligation of a work-from-home job that offers benefits such as flexible hours, that parent often succumbs to the lure of filthy lucre or the demands of an unsympathetic supervisor and loses the delicate balance between work and home life.

Why is work-life balance important

Ask Google why work-life balance is important and the search engine will deliver at least 120 million results, an indication of the enormous body of work testifying to the importance of the issue. The Happiness Institute notes that companies benefit from helping their employees maintain work-life balance simply by improving worker productivity and reducing the cost of employee churn. The costs are real. According to the Huffington Post, “employers lose up to $300 billion annually due to employee stress.”

For individuals, the benefits of work-life balance mainly affect health and morale. Workers who avoid a constant state of overwork and stress also avoid health problems such as compromised immunity, respiratory problems, heart disease and high blood pressure. The mental benefits of more healthful distribution between job and family result in better focus, higher engagement, and a more positive attitude.

Consequences of imbalance

The failure to juggle the demands of a job and the rest of your life affects your health. Time put it boldly: working too much can kill you. Overwork causes stress and exhaustion. Stress impacts the heart and increases blood pressure and can result in heart failure. The Harvard Business Review states: 

Considerable evidence shows that overwork is not just neutral — it hurts us and the companies we work for. Numerous studies by Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and her colleagues (as well as other studies) have found that overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. Of course, those are bad on their own. But they’re also terrible for a company’s bottom line, showing up as absenteeism, turnover, and rising health insurance costs.

Early experiments in limiting hours of labor and confirmed by modern studies show that regularly scheduled breaks in work increase productivity. That applies to work in both the domestic and corporate realms.

However, every parent knows that taking care of children is a 24-7-365 responsibility. Children, especially babies and toddlers, require attention around the clock. Even older teens need their mommies and daddies, often at odd hours: “Hey, Dad, my car won’t start. Will you come pick me up?”

Beyond the negative personal impact upon the worker, chronic overwork (i.e., lack of work-life balance) leads to exhaustion which leads to errors, absenteeism, and lower productivity: all affecting an employer’s bottom line. Even the least sympathetic of bosses ought to recognize the costly consequences of overworking his employees and offer them every opportunity to stay fresh and energized.

According to Sara Robinson, “most people do their best work between hours two and six of working in a given day. By the end of an eight-hour day, their best work tends to be behind them -- and by hour nine, fatigue begins to set in and productivity levels drop.” Overwork “can make it far more difficult to do everything that a modern office requires, including interpersonal communication, making judgment calls, reading people, or managing one’s own emotional reactions.” The loss of self-control over one’s emotional reactions can have terrible consequences for the children under the care of an exhausted parent when a baby won’t stop crying or a parent’s already thin patience finally snaps.

Work-life balance benefits

The struggle to balance work and personal responsibilities gives those companies that promote and follow through on work-life balance initiatives the edge in hiring top talent in a tight job market. While access to higher quality talent combined with higher productivity and lower employee cost all have positive effect on the company’s bottom life, the employee benefits, too.

The key to work-life balance is control. Someone who feels in control of her working life not only enjoys the advantage of improved physical and mental health, but also has the increased ability to enjoy life outside the workplace—and not worry so much. When one has a healthy work-life balance, says Certified Life Coach Sonia Gallagher, J.D.,

You also have a much easier time getting to sleep and staying asleep. Long gone will be the days filled with anxiety and the sleepless nights you’ve gone through while worrying about work. You will feel a much higher level of relaxation overall. You’ll be able to truly enjoy the time you spend with your friends and family. This will make you a better spouse, a better parent, and a better human being.

How to manage work-life balance

Even if your unreasonable boss expects you to be accessible every hour of every day, it helps to make deliberate choices to schedule downtime into your daily routine. Yes, sometimes life circumstances such as a sick child, accident, or weather-related catastrophe takes priority; however, your long-term health and productivity depend upon your ability to take care of yourself.

Manage your time.

Especially for freelancers, the urge to chase after every gig often overwhelms good sense. Having the flexibility to schedule your own hours doesn’t matter when a freelancer accepts so much work that he or she finds himself putting more and more hours into work. In order to place some realistic limitations on hours worked, it helps to define one’s personal meaning of success and to understand what’s needed to achieve it. Then, to add another layer of complexity, factor in time management to ensure you don’t overwork yourself in the effort to achieve success.

Success may mean earning a certain minimum income or it may mean “having emotional energy at work and at home.” The Harvard Business Review notes gender differences in personal definitions: “Men still think of their family responsibilities in terms of breadwinning, whereas women often see theirs as role modeling for their children. Women emphasize (far more than men do) how important it is for their kids—particularly their daughters—to see them as competent professionals.”

Turn off electronic devices.

Technology poses another pitfall. With the demands of modern business requiring an constant accessibility via social media, email, and cloud computing, workers feel obligated to remain connected all the time and, therefore, put themselves at the beck and call of others. It’s important to disconnect from technology: turn the computer and smartphone off. Focus on something other than the screen. Allow your brain to disengage, whether that happens through reading a printed book, taking a walk outside, pumping iron in the gym, or gathering with friends. Psychology Today warns that “screen addiction” results in brain atrophy. In other words, too much screen time impairs your ability to think and reason. Other physical effects include eye strain, cramped muscles in the neck and hands, and overeating.

Build support networks.

Seventeenth century English poet John Donne said “No man is an island” to express the idea that human beings need social connections and community to thrive. These connections also help isolated, work-from-home employees remain emotionally, psychologically, and physically connected to the world beyond their front doors. When one works at home, one never truly escapes from work. Going out with friends and family, even just for coffee, hones those social skills with interaction between real persons, not digital ghosts. The Harvard Business Review notes personal networks and trusted colleagues can serve as sounding boards for problems and bring fresh perspectives to decisions and issues, so that personal interaction also confers potential business benefits. Not only that, forming close, strong relationships with your spouse or partner, colleagues, and people outside your sphere of business also helps to secure their compassion and support when circumstances such as ailing parents or children, injury, or other catastrophe overwhelm you. These people keep us grounded and remind us what it is to be human as well as humane.

Prioritize activities—and drop those that sap time and energy.

First decide what must be done, then decide what you want to do, then delegate those tasks that you need not perform yourself, and abandon what needs not be accomplished. In that way, you will accomplish something every day and not waste your time on stuff that doesn’t matter or that isn’t a good use of your time and energy. For instance, hiring a housekeeper liberates hours you could spend doing something else, like earning a living or taking the kids on a field trip. Whether it’s that constantly whining and complaining colleague or a habit of allowing social media to draw your attention away from the task at hand, figure out what distracts you from your work (domestic or professional) and leave it behind, set it aside, excuse yourself from participating. This may require asserting yourself with a polite statement that you are busy and don’t have time. WebMD offers several feasible suggestions for improving work-life balance.

The illusion of control

Studies show that many people work long hours because they feel a sense of control at their jobs that their home life does not deliver. Humans have long needed to feel in control of themselves and others. Any religious or spiritual authority, however, will tell you that control is an illusion. They, as well as Fortune and Fast Company, say that one can gain control by giving up control. Writing for Fortune and targeting his article toward an executive audience, Justin Kitch says that CEOs and founders typical micromanage which “inevitably leads to a frustrated, demoralized, and even paralyzed organization.” He implemented processes and procedures that gave employees autonomy and authority to do what he hired them to do without holding them hostage while he deliberated on decisions. Fast Company states: 

Many leaders are over-controlling, and they need to micromanage. … When leaders apply too much pressure to increase productivity, there may be a temporary spike in performance, but over time, as motivation drops off, so does productivity. Relinquishing control encourages subordinates and colleagues to thrive because as the leader relinquishes control, subordinates are empowered to show initiative.

The same principle applies to managing work-life balance. Empower the people with whom you work and live to do their jobs, gain control over your life, and relax a little. You don’t have to do it all.