The Evolution and Current State of Work-Life Balance

At the busy intersection between “drop the kids off at practice” and “finish one last project,” American workers will find the very definition of the term work-life balance. The concept of a work-life balance was sparked by 19th-century factory workers during the Industrial Revolution, who often worked 100-hour workweeks in dangerous conditions—risking their health, wellbeing, and sometimes their lives for their jobs.1

The rallying cry during the first decades of the 20th century was “8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for what we will.”2 After decades of protests and labor movements, the U.S. signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law in 1938, which limited the workweek to 44 hours. Two years later, Congress amended the Act to restrict a regular workweek to 40 hours. Forty-hour workweeks meant more time for family, home life, and leisure for many workers.

There’s a stark difference between the lives of turn-of-the-century factory workers and today’s workforce, especially in terms of work-life balance. Although 40-hour workweeks are still the norm in most companies—with overtime offerings for some classes of employees—constant connectivity and high expectations for productivity have blurred work-life boundaries to the point they may feel non-existent. Although remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic was a boon for work-life balance, about 22% of workers reported unplugging for the day as one of their biggest challenges.3

Constant connectivity has skewed work hours from 9 to 5 to 24/7. If a person Is still answering work emails “after hours,” is it truly after hours? Have the scales tipped to the work side of the work-life equation?

Today, we’ll dive into what work-life balance means to modern workers and share ideas for setting and keeping work-life balance boundaries for a healthier life and better mental health.

Work Life Balance for Today’s Workers

Simply stated, work-life balance means a person prioritizes work and career goals the same way as personal or family goals. Still, work-life balance in daily life is more nuanced—and can feel unattainable in the modern world.

Work-life balance is highly dependent on employees’ attitudes and priorities, but corporate decisions play a part. Here are a few ways to ensure your work-life is balanced.

Define what a healthy work-life balance means to you

Individuals often have different perceptions of achieving work-life balance based on their career stage, long-term goals, and family or marital status. Instead of an equal work-life balance, most individuals look for a harmonious balance that feels rewarding personally and career-wise and complements their lives. Work-life balance is also fluid and can change throughout the years—a worker new to the workforce may enjoy an emphasis on their career, while an employee with young children may want a more integrated balance.4

Set reasonable goals

Some of the most significant barriers to work-life balance include the work itself and the leaders helping you manage your workload.5 Carefully assess your roles and responsibilities and track the time you spend on tasks. If you discover you lack resources to complete your job or have more tasks than there are hours in a day, discuss your concerns with your manager or leaders who can help you set goals and priorities for your work.

Get rid of guilt and ditch perfection

Personal perfectionism is the top cause of disproportionate work-life balance.5 Performing well and paying attention to detail are good qualities but may not be the best use of your time. Reassess your standards, make checklists to ensure your tasks are complete, and don’t spend time ruminating on a problem you can’t solve. You can enjoy guilt-free leisure time when you know you’ve done the best job you can do—even if it’s not perfect.

Create boundaries

Boundaries apply to both work and life and are especially important for remote workers who do both in one location. Some examples include setting a start time and end time for your workday, limiting personal calls or errands while you’re working, removing work apps and email from your phone, and shutting your office door when you’re “out of the office” as a physical reminder that it’s time to take a break.

Discover more work-live balance resources

Stay on top of a healthy work-life balance with Uprise Health’s digital EAP program resources. You’ll find self-guided cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) modules with live and asynchronous coaching, short-term solution-focused counseling, and work-life services to help you strike a balance between your work life and leisure time. Log in with your access code to discover more.

If you’re not an Uprise Health member, we invite you to learn more about our digitally enabled Employee Assistance Program can support your mental health.