30 May 2023

2.5 Work-life balance

work life balance
Author/Compiled by
Hannah Wuzel (cewas)

Executive Summary

In this factsheet you will learn why it is so important to know yourself and what sort of lifestyle fits well with your unique personality, needs, abilities and limitations, in order to find a job that allows you to have a healthy work-life balance. You will get some tips and tricks for identifying a work-life balance that works for you as well as how to avoid blurring the lines and what to do if you don’t think the balance is right. We will introduce some hypothetical scenarios that will help you better understand the importance of respecting a healthy work-life balance.


Self assessment

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Ask yourself a couple of questions before you continue reading this factsheet:

  1. Think back to your student days and reflect on what your working style was? For example, did you wait until the last minute to submit assignments or did you prefer to hand things in as early as possible?
  2. Reflect on your values and what really matters to you personally.
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Holistically speaking, we consider work-life balance as the ability to adequately distribute an individual’s time between professional obligations and a healthy private life, which includes social activities, friends, family, and hobbies. Cambridge Dictionary similarly defines work-life balance as:

“The amount of time you spend doing your job compared with the amount of time you spend with your family and doing things you enjoy.”

But this definition is not always black and white: people’s understanding of work-life balance may differ, depending on both their off-work obligations (such as caring for small children or elderly family members, or pursuing further education), but also their mental and emotional need for time “off the clock”.


Historical background

The concept of “work-life balance” first emerged in the second half of the 20th century alongside a shift in mentality, particularly in countries that had, at that point, undergone an Industrial Revolution and restructured towards a liberal-capitalist democracy. Preceding that point in time, people would structure their lives around their work - your work and salary set the means and limits within which you could build your private life. Especially with the rise of gender equality movements, this concept was increasingly questioned: it is not difficult to see why women would be heavily disadvantaged in such a system, with the social expectation of having and raising children, alongside shouldering most of the household work, disproportionally more than men – a type of care work that is still not compensated, despite its clear economic and social cost (FERRANT et al., 2014) the prevalent system at the time made it quasi-impossible for women to build a lucrative career while also starting a family. This was contrasted with the need for double-income households vis-à-vis rising prices across developed nations. While the situation today is still not ideal in many places, employees in most sectors have come to expect a consideration of their personal lives when negotiating the terms of their employment. In order to attract and retain talent, employers go to great lengths to promote the workplace’s work-life balance measures and offered perks. Often and unfortunately, this is smoke and mirrors.


Work-life balance in the 21st century

In recent years, the term “work-life balance” has garnered renewed attention, as work is no longer considered to be the main deciding factor in how you run your life. This shift in mentality is much more inclusive and allows for differing lifestyles, also encouraging employers to create appealing work-life models to attract quality employees. Many came to think of work-life balance along the lines of an 8-8-8 formula (8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for free time) (CHILES, 2021). The concept is, yet again, increasingly being re-evaluated in the face of a global pandemic that has forced people (mostly in service industries) to work from their own four walls and as a result having the lines between their private and professional lives blurred. Suddenly, it became the norm to receive work calls after hours, because what else would one be doing during lockdown than sit at home and stare at a wall? Might as well work a bit right? This expectation, however, has given rise to an increase in burnouts and “Zoom fatigue” as people struggle to separate the different components of their life. On the other hand the pandemic has also brought about changes that are welcomed by employees, such as the flexibility to work from home more frequently, or even permanently. Beyond the pandemic, our ability to be constantly connected has proven to be a double-edged sword: while it is highly convenient to be able to react to problems instantaneously and always have a wealth of information at your fingertips, it may also make it difficult to justifiably ignore your boss’ urgent text while you’re out at dinner with your friends. Switching off in the 21st century is close to impossible.


Values vs. work

When performing a “normal” job that just pays the bills, it may be easier not to take your work home. But this is extremely challenging for young professionals in the water and climate sector. Firstly, the majority of us employed in this sector evidently care about the challenges we are trying to tackle and consider them as topics we would also dedicate ourselves to in our private lives; and secondly, the abundance of bad news when it comes to our environment can be mentally taxing. So, in many ways you are rather lucky as your values match with your chosen career. But, of course, your work shouldn’t be the only thing you value in your life. Think about what else is important to you: Family, a relationship, your pet, art? Try to prioritise these different values and assign a time to each one of them that you consider necessary to fulfil your respective needs. You may also notice that you draw more energy from certain activities (or people) rather than others. You should aim to assign extra weight to such activities for a significant boost. Of course, there is a flipside to the coin: Your personal circumstances should not permanently affect the quality of your work which you have been hired to do. Do not think of your work and personal life as items on a scale – you will rarely be able to balance them completely equally. In that sense, “balance” is a misnomer, and for many, “harmony” would be the more accurate description of what you should aim for (FLETCHER, 2020).

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  • Why is it important to strike the right balance or “harmony” between work and personal life? What could be the consequences if you don’t get that balance right?

A solid and individualised work-life balance is key to achieving a healthy work environment. You should aim to communicate your needs and boundaries early on when entering a new profession. Pressure on young professionals is high to just put up with anything and work “crazy” hours to prove their dedication to their job, but once you take a step back, you will notice that this is not conducive to yourself or your job. The last thing you and your employer should want is for you to suffer from extreme stress or even a burnout – not only would this decrease your productivity, but it could lead to mental health issues that may take a lot of time and effort to address. Not to mention that your physical health may also be negatively impacted by a work-life imbalance: Having less time to yourself may impede you from giving your body the sustenance it needs, such as physical activity and healthy, home-cooked meals. Especially in the water and climate sector, the seemingly steady flow of tough news may motivate you to work even harder, but it also makes it a necessity to disconnect regularly and frequently. In your personal life, try to find activities that have little to do with your sector to make sure you manage to establish a healthy balance – such as playing with your pet, pursuing an artistic endeavour or simply switching off your phone and reading a good book in the evening. We should not compare our work-life balance with other peoples’. We are all different and have different skills, needs and limitations and it is about making the best of what we have, not trying to fit into an ideal. Different people have different needs and expectations when it comes to their work-life balance. It can be intimidating when you look over at your colleague who regularly brags about clocking sixty-something hours a week, but know that you do not need to measure yourself against that. While it is perfectly fine and encouraged to do overtime when crucial to your project’s success, you should ultimately aim to balance this out. In a healthy work environment, excessive overtime should not be glorified, and managers should keep an eye on their employees’ hours precisely to ensure that they are not being overworked. Also, based on their personal circumstances, people may have different needs: If someone has to pick up their children from school or is pursuing evening classes, they are bound to a more rigorous schedule. Those needs aren’t static – while you may currently be in a position that allows you to assign a higher priority to your work, this may shift with changing life circumstances. Such shifts are perfectly healthy and normal and should be accommodated by your employer.

In addition, some people might require more “down time”, i.e., time spent doing nothing or very low-intensity activities, while for others, an hour of their favourite activity can have the same nourishing effect as a full day of rest.

  • Work-life balance when working in the water and climate sector and dealing with heavy topics (e.g., climate change) that you feel very committed to. How to protect your mental well-being.

Work-life balance does not necessarily only refer to the moment when you switch off your computer after a full workday and head home. In our sector, due to the emotional connotations it carries, it might even be more important to find creative ways to strike a balance. To ensure that you can put your abilities to use to fight global challenges such as climate change, you should protect your capacities wisely. If your work gets too overwhelming or frustrating, know when to draw a line and disconnect, for example by going on a 30-minute walk in between meetings or hitting the gym during your lunchbreak. Speak to your employer about your concerns – more likely than not, they will be understanding, as long as you still meet your deliverables.

You may feel like you need to give your everything to fight climate change and to make the world a better place. But you can only do so if you protect your mental health and avoid burnouts. More often than not, the latter has led to cynicism in our sector, and cynics aren’t known to make the best changemakers.

Questions to help you understand yourself better and what work-life balance would work best for you (could have a sort of quiz here?)

  1. What are your values?
  2. What do you value the most?
  3. What do you want to prioritise (right now, knowing that this may shift with changing circumstances)?
  4. How many hours on average do you work more than your contractually agreed upon work hours?
  5. The day only has 24 hours. What percental distribution would you consider ideal to ensure that your work-life balance satisfies your values?
  6. If your personal situation changes, what may need to change in your professional life to allow you to fulfil your personal desires and goals?
  • Tips and tricks for avoiding and dealing with unhealthy work-life balances

The most straightforward option is to search active exchange with your supervisors in case you feel like your needs for work-life balance are not being met. Understandably, this may seem intimidating to young professionals, as they do not want to seem disloyal to their employer or even lazy. But the real cost (a staggering 190 billion USD in the United States alone (Borysenko, 2019)) of having to fight the physiological and psychological effects of a burnout are way more severe than ensuring a healthy work environment from the get-go, and most managers know this nowadays. Likewise, if you feel like personal circumstances may be affecting the work you deliver, it is better to raise this early in the game and try to find a middle ground with your employer, rather than underperforming and risking getting let go.

If you do not have a traditional 40 hours/5 days a week job, but a more time-intensive one or one that is stressful in waves, it will be tricky for you to use the traditional 8-8-8 formula. In those instances, it is important to outweigh your more intensive work hours with especially fulfilling activities. So, think about your work-life balance also in terms of quality, rather than only quantity. Doing something you’ve always wanted to do or that is especially important for you, such as, say, skydiving or attending a premiere of your favourite movie on your day off, could give you more energy and fulfilment than four hours per day of reading books. Again, this depends a lot on your personal needs, priorities, and flexibility.

Another very important trick is to see the more engaging aspects of your job as something that you can also draw upon to fulfil your personal needs: the water and climate sector thrives on connecting with others, whether it be at conferences, networking parties, or meetings. Enjoy those encounters and opportunities to exchange with fascinating people (bonus: most of them will have, by default, similar interests to you), and look at them not only as work, but also as something fun and pleasurable.

While the pandemic has come with many challenges, it has also brought opportunities for employees: the flexibility to not be in the office permanently is, for many, a door to unexpected new horizons. Firstly, it may not be necessary anymore to live in expensive cities close to your employer’s office, which may allow you to live in a less expensive place and accordingly lower your cost of living and increase your proximity to nature. Secondly, you may discuss with your employer the feasibility of working partly remote, for example a place that you’ve always wanted to try living in, while subletting your permanent residency. A change of scenery can do wonders for your work-life balance and give you a whole new sense of fulfilment! (Note that the letter is strongly influenced by your workplace and insurance regulations and personal/financial capacities.) If you do work from home, make sure to create a dedicated work and leisure space, even if it is just a fold-up desk you can store away at the end of the day, and establish a routine as much as possible.

Last, but certainly not least: while time management is an essential skill to master work-life harmony, do not over-schedule. It can be just as wonderful to be spontaneous and enjoy the surprises life has to offer when you least expect them.


Hypothetical scenarios: good vs bad work-balance

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Abebi's personal and professional life

Abebi has been working in a small environmental consulting firm for three years. She joined the organisation right after graduation and is happy with her tasks and level of responsibilities, which grows incrementally. For the past month, she has been working overtime due to an important deadline set by one of the NGO’s key donors. Knowing that her workload would be intense during that period, Abebi has scheduled a two-week holiday shortly after the deadline, which she will use to disconnect and visit her parents. To balance the late work hours, Abebi has taken to prepping fresh meals twice per weeks to make sure she eats healthily and keeps up her energy levels. When she gets home at around 9pm, she calls her best friend or her grandmother for a quick chat over dinner, then switches off her electronics and snuggles on the sofa with a new book she has been wanting to read. She goes to bed at around 11pm and wakes up at 7am. During lunch hours, no matter how busy it gets, Abebi doesn’t schedule any meetings but tries to go for a run or do a quick workout at the gym instead to keep working towards achieving her fitness goals. While she sometimes has to work on the weekends, she uses the rest of the time to attend concerts or just sit in the park with her friends.

Dylan's personal and professional life

Dylan is a young professional who began working for a brand-new water-related social start-up a year ago. He loves his job, as he feels like he can make a more tangible impact than if he worked in a large institution. Dylan considers himself a workaholic and is eager to climb up the career ladder and make a difference in the young organisation, so he does not say no to any new tasks that are assigned to him. He even takes on responsibilities of his co-workers that are not in his job description to appear especially dedicated. Dylan never leaves work before sunset, and often comes into the office on weekends. He hasn’t seen his boyfriend in over a week, and usually does not have time for anything else but fast food once he gets off work. Dylan’s boyfriend has been pushing to go on a vacation, but Dylan does not see a gap in his calendar over the coming 12 months. Also, given the absence of proper structures, his salary often arrives with several weeks’ delay. During the day, Dylan often feels tired, which is exacerbated by his ability to fall asleep and sleep through the night. He has noticed that lately, his quality of work has been slacking. He struggles to finish projects and has twice been called into his supervisor’s office because of errors in his work. Although he does not have any financial stakes or ownership in the start-up, he feels personally responsible for its success.

Do they have a good work-life balance? 

Abebi has a healthy work-life balance. While her job has stressful phases, it fulfils her career goals. She knows her capacities and is aware that she will need a break after a high-intensity period. By already having scheduled her vacation, she draws a line and ensures that the phase has a clear end and does not become the norm. She fills the time she does have left with either personally valuable activities, such as connecting with her loved ones and pursuing her hobbies, or physical engagement like sport and meal prep to keep her body healthy during the stressful work., Abebi has set herself clear fitness goals that she keeps working towards, which carries a higher motivating factor than just milling about at the gym. She also chooses to read a book she really wants to read during this period, to give her brain additional stimulation as opposed to just reading a random book or magazine.

Dylan, on the other hand, is both overestimating his own capacities and scared of saying “no”, as he does not want to be seen as lazy in a high-pressure environment. This comes at the expense of his personal relationships, but also of his mental and physical health. The latter is beginning to impact the quality of his work, which has been noticed by his supervisors. Even though Dylan loves his job and thrives on the pressure, he must find mechanisms that allow him to keep the intensity up over extended periods of time. Part of this is wisely managing your time – the fact that he cannot schedule a break is indicative of his inability to do so – and learning how to say “no” to new tasks. Dylan’s work is his highest priority, and he appears wired to gain much fulfilment from it. But if he does not assign enough value to his boyfriend and other relationships, he risks losing them, which may exacerbate the cycle of overworking. While his supervisor has noticed that something is off, they should support Dylan in re-establishing a healthy work-life balance. If the start-up continues to implement such unhealthy practices, Dylan may want to pursue employment elsewhere, as this indicates an organizational deficiency (GARTON, 2017), which tends to be common in both younger and established organisations.


Useful Exercises

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  • First, you can start by assessing the quality of your current lifestyle. Ask yourself what you are truly happy with, what you would change, what could be better, and what is very concerning in your status quo. Life Assessment tools could help in this process.
  • To get a better sense of how you distribute your time during the week, you can write down the different segments of your day or use a work-life balance calculator. Note that the time spent on work should not exceed 35% of your time over an extended period. But keep in mind: measure your work life balance not only in hours of free time, but also in the quality of how you spend those hours. Check out this example!  


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2.6 Building a team I

Library References

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