Work Life balance – Top Ten Tips

A British Labour Force Survey (LFS) conducted in 07/08 indicated that 13.5 million working days were lost because of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in that year. That makes it the most common reason for lost working time.

We all know that work life balance is important. Forward-looking organisations are well aware of it and aim to address it but it’s up to us to look after ourselves – and to look after each other. An organisation can only supply a framework to enable us to take responsibility and make our own choices.

These tips are suggestions about you, both at home and at work. Some will apply to you, some won’t, and some you may have to adapt and adjust. I hope that some of them will be useful.

1. Find your own balance

There are no rules. Balance is an individual thing and everyone has to find their own. Don’t tell yourself  ‘I should be able to..’ or ‘She/he can do it, so I ought to be able to.’ and, very particularly, don’t listen to anyone else telling you what you should or should not be able to do. Pay attention to your intellectual, physical and emotional well being and listen to your intuition. If you feel you’re out of balance, day in day out, then you are! Time to look at what’s going on and re-evaluate!

2. Addictions and habits – Adrenaline and Martyrdom

 This applies to both home and work. Addiction and martyrdom are greedy habits, hungry for fuel. Both are equally bad for you, both can control you rather than the other way round and both raise your stress levels.

Adrenaline: if this is your addiction, you may need some of it to get going. That’s how it starts –  then you’re on a high. If you go to the gym or play sports, you will know that cooling down time is really important after an burst of exercise. It’s the same after an adrenaline high. It’s easy to keep going, hopping from high to high, never giving yourself time to cool down,  and do more and more. Sooner or later you’re running on empty and facing burnout.
Martyrdom:I’ve got so much to do’, ‘I’ve got to do everything round here’. Familiar? Then this is your addiction.  Do you feel put upon and resentful while at the same time hogging all the work? Physically and emotionally, it’s bad news. And here’s the hard word – it’s ego inside-out. The motivation for martyrdom – and the big payoff – is that it makes you feel busy and important. And you think it makes you look busy and important. It doesn’t. It’s infuriating for the people around you and it makes you look like … well… a martyr. 

3. Ask for help

Everyone needs help at some time or another. Confident people are able to do so without feeling that their competence is compromised. If you’re struggling, at home or at work, then ask! That’s what managers, friends and partners are for!
Common reasons for not doing so are:

  • Pride in your work and not wanting to look as if you can’t do it alone
  • Not wanting to bother anyone, be a nuisance or make a fuss 
  • Perfectionism and lack of confidence: you’re afraid to show or talk about  something that isn’t perfect or complete.


Ben started a new job in a new organisation and in a new area of work – he’d moved from IT to HR and change management. Like anyone in a new job, he felt overwhelmed by all the new information, the culture, the scope of the job, the people.

At the end of his first week, his new boss sent him an email saying that she needed to see a plan – to be presented to the board in two weeks’ time. Over the weekend, Ben went into stress meltdown. What did she want?  A plan of the whole of his work for a month – a year – the whole project? In how much detail? He agonised about it until Tuesday, having tried to settle down to the task, at which point he realised that he had to ask her for clarification.

So he approached her and asked to discuss it with her. He said that as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he felt lighter. She had been expecting him to speak to her about it, as she’d only meant to flag it up in her email. They got together, discussed it, clarified the outcomes and overall content so that he could get a draft done for her to comment on. On the day of the presentation, it went really well – making both of them look good.

4. Good enough vs fabulous

When you’re overloaded and some things just need to be done, ask the question and choose:

 ’Is it important that the job is done or that it’s done perfectly – my way?’

Settle for good enough, as long as it’s fit for purpose and meets all the criteria. Don’t put extra pressure on yourself. At work or at home, this may apply to your own projects and tasks or to responsibilities that you delegate.


Martha has traditionally done the family laundry (she has a partner and a toddler) and she’s developed a system that works. However, now she’s working full-time, she just can’t do it all every day, as well as everything else. She held on to it for as long as she could, despite her partner’s offers to do it, because she doesn’t trust him to do it properly.
Finally, after it had become a huge issue, she’s let it go. Her partner still doesn’t do it her way, and she can still get irritated by the way he just piles mangled tee-shirts with their sleeves still inside out on the radiators, but she can turn a blind eye. Better that it’s done and she doesn’t have to do two loads the next day.

5. Say NO – and keep repeating it

This won’t apply to everyone. Only to people who tend to say yes, take on too much and get overloaded.

I’m not advocating saying no all the time, saying no to work within your job description or saying no to exciting extra projects. I’m talking about those extra responsibilities you might say yes to, both at home and work, that you immediately wish you hadn’t.
Firstly. If you tend to say yes without thinking when you’re asked to do something extra, STALL. Don’t answer straight away. Say you’ll get back to the person asking – in five minutes, when you’re near your diary – then use that time to think clearly about whether to say yes or no. If you want to say yes, tip no. 6 may be more helpful to you!

Secondly, IF your answer is NO, the Transactional Analysis technique of ‘broken record’ is really useful here.

  • Keep your eye on the goal – NO
  • Say the word NO and keep saying the word, every time you speak. This is the important part. Don’t justify your actions or give excuses. There’s no need to be nasty or rude. ‘No. I’m sorry, I can’t’  is enough –  with variations - again and again.

Look at the tactics of the person asking you to do whatever it is. Be aware of what might hook you.  The three most common ‘hooks’ that might break down your resistance are:

  • You want to help/look good/get on/progress in your career/add to your CV
  • You are flattered at being asked
  • You don’t want to let him or her down.

Be aware of your hooks, override them and keep saying NO.


6. Project in – project out

This applies to both home and work. If you have to or want to take on an extra project, work responsibility or task, negotiate a way of getting rid of one that you already have to make time for the new one. If you’re already overloaded, then in no time at all even the most wonderful-looking project, course or commitment will become just another chore.

7. Keep a weekend free

Keep one weekend every 4-6 weeks free from ANY COMMITMENTS, plans, work, activities etc. Spend it with your partner, your family or just dossing at home by yourself. This isn’t to say don’t do anything, rather that it is unstructured time, not filled with plans in advance.

8. Do something for yourself every week

That’s something you enjoy and look forward to rather than something you feel is good for you or that you ought to do for yourself. It needs to be something that seems like an oasis in a week from hell. Keep one evening, or at least an hour or two, free for it  per week . Whatever it is, make it non-negotiable.  Stick to it and don’t put it off. Turn off your mobile, don’t check your emails, screen incoming calls and only ring back if it’s a real emergency.

 9. STOP! Breathe. Then think

 This technique is adapted from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and is used on anger management programmes. This is how it works:

  • Stand up with both feet on the ground, feeling the ground solidly beneath your feet 
  •  Put your hand on your diaphragm, feel it expand as you breathe in (not from the top of your lungs)
  • Breathe out as you say STOP out loud. Hear it echo in your head for a few seconds
  •   Then breathe in …..and out again.

That few seconds will provide a firebreak between one state of mind and the next, rather like a mini-meditation  – just enough to let you rebalance and think more clearly.

10. Draw a line between home and work

Once again, this will only apply to you if you feel there’s a need. If you’re rushed and overloaded, what can happen – and it’s very common – is that while you’re at work, you worry about home things and while you’re at home, you’re preoccupied with work. Crazy isnt’ it?

Two things you can do:

  • Download the things on your mind before you leave work (or home). Write a note to yourself in your diary, on your PC, on your Blackberry, on a piece of paper and list the things on your mind. Then shut the diary, turn off your PC, store your message and LEAVE IT! Focus on the image of shutting the diary, saving the message or turning off your PC.
  • This may not always be possible, especially if you’re late and rushing to get home or to work. When you leave the office and the doors shut behind you, turn round, stand and look at them, feeling your feet on the ground. Take a slow breath and acknowledge that you’ve left. If you’re running for a train or a bus, be still (or use the stop/breathe technique) once you’ve sat down and before you start texting, making calls on your mobile or anything else you do and envisage the doors shutting. If you’re driving, sit at the wheel for a short while before you start the engine.