Six Tips for Improved Work/Life Balance

Everything in life needs balance so that one may be healthy and happy. To be healthy, one should eat right, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. In the same regard, there needs to be balance in one’s personal and professional life to keep productivity high and stress low. And, when there is an imbalance, it’s easy to feel a loss of control, which is not the case if one follows these tips from seasoned higher education professionals on what it means to have work/life balance. 

One: Define Balance for Yourself

“It is critical for all of us to find the right balance for us personally,” said Pat Brown, director of student life and the Davis Center at the University of Vermont. “Different work ethics and personal needs will shape how one approaches the correct balance. Time away after a long weekend for some is important,” Brown said. “Others might actually get energized from that long weekend and find themselves looking out two weeks for some balance time. What is important is to help a colleague/supervisee to find the right balance for themselves as well as for the duties of the job.” 

Adam Dunbar, assistant director of student affairs at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell, has developed a useful definition of balance for himself: “Work/life balance for me means being able to enjoy my job and have a life outside of work every day. To me, it is important that I know I am taking the appropriate time I need at work or at home, to be happy with all aspects of my life. This makes it so that I am not resentful of anyone or anything at work, as well as anyone or anything in my personal life outside of it.” 

Part of finding the right balance depends on how responsibilities fluctuate.  

“I often consider the dynamic between being a workaholic and a committed career professional who cares about the work, the staff, and the students,” Brown said. “I believe that a dedicated professional might appear as a workaholic whose life is out of balance, when in fact the time away can be strong enough to create a true balance. Another aspect to much of our work is the fact that our work has ‘seasons,’ which create some clear demarcations from the intense season and the off-season. A life in balance would clearly use those down times to recharge and focus on other important life tasks.” 

Balance can also look different depending on where the individual is in one’s life. When starting out early in their careers, new professionals may have a tendency to “burn the candle at both ends” in an effort to impress a supervisor and colleagues, said Katie Bonner, executive director, Office of Student Affairs, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Dr. Krista Harrell, associate dean of students and Title IX coordinator, Student Center, at the University of South Alabama, agrees: “At different points in my life, it has meant different things. At this point in my career, it means that I do not let my work so drain my energy or time that I do not have any left for my family, friends, or personal passions.” 

“Although the percentage of American workers that have to work on any given Saturday, Sunday, or holiday ticked up to 34.8% of all those employed, that’s still only a 2% point increase from 2003. The 5.8 hours the average employee worked on such days was unchanged over the past 11 years, and the time people spent on the phone and reading and answering traditional mail and emails has actually dropped since 2003, from 0.2 hours on weekdays (0.16 on weekends and holidays) to 0.15 hours (0.14 on weekends and holidays).”
— U.S. News & World Report analysis of American Time Use Survey Summary: 2015 

Two: Set Limits

There are so many ways for us to fall out of balance, said Melissia Schmidt, associate director of alumni relations at the University of Rochester: “Obsessively checking and responding to email (and social media). Not taking time away from your desk to stop, breathe, and eat. Not taking time to rejuvenate in whatever way that means to you. Not taking time to de-stress, get enough sleep, and exercise. Not taking time off. Not staying home sick when you are sick. Working through pain and sickness and times of struggle. Not letting others help you when they offer. Working late when you truly don’t need to be there. Stop making excuses to get away with all of the above! We do important work, but we do not do rocket science. Do not fall into the trap of talking ourselves into being more stressed out than we need to be. And pitfall #1: Do not be a martyr.” 

Dunbar agreed and urged people to avoid letting work overwhelm their priorities.  

“It is essential to have work/life balance because it keeps us grounded and able to let life happen without being consumed by our jobs,” he said. “In this day and age with technology, it is so easy to get lost in work, and because of that we need to make sure we set our limits.” 

Those limits might look different from professional to professional. 

“Being clear and consistent about how an office supports individuals and their personal needs is helpful in making things feel more transparent and equitable,” Bonner said. “Failing to be clear about your lines in the sand is detrimental to balance. I had to renegotiate with my students the first semester I had children to pick up from daycare. Suddenly stopping in my office at 4:45 p.m. to discuss an issue was no longer something I could accommodate.” 

In addition, Erin Morrell, associate dean for campus activities and orientation at Albertus Magnus College, said eating lunch in a different location is key to achieving balance. 

“Don’t eat lunch at your desk if you can help it,” she said. “Or at least set a goal of how often you’ll eat somewhere else. It took me a long time to learn this, and now I can’t imagine not leaving my desk. Everyone is busy, but everyone is entitled to eat on their lunch break. [Also detrimental is] assuming that if you work more you will be appreciated more. This is not the case in most places. Just get as much of the work done as you can during the time you are there.” 

“24% of U.S. employees said their work/life balance is getting tougher to manage in an Ernst & Young study released in May (2015). But the annual American Time Use Survey published (in June 2015) found that the average full-time employee in 2014 worked 8.57 hours on a given weekday, compared to the 8.46 hours worked in 2003.”
— U.S. News & World Report analysis of American Time Use Survey Summary: 2015 

Three: Understand the Implications of Lack of Balance

It is important to have balance so that one does not “burnout,” Schmidt said. “We in this field give so much of ourselves on and off the clock. We are passionate about what we do and blur the lines between business and personal. We work nontraditional hours, nights, and weekends often at the expense of our friends, families, social lives, and self-care. It’s very easy to throw oneself into one’s work and before you know it, it is all-consuming; it is your life and your identity.” 

 

Another example of preventing folks from achieving balance includes “overextending oneself to extra work commitments/duties,” Dunbar said. 

Not sleeping enough also affects productivity and clouds judgment.  

“Lack of sleep can have serious impact on health,” Brown said. “I know when we approach opening in the fall, I find myself up at 3 a.m. with just a bunch of work junk going through my head. Ouch! Not good. …  [Additionally,] I know that I get way less creative as my life gets out of balance. As my balance is skewed, I have to work harder to have empathy for that challenged or challenging student.” 

Laura Whittemore, assistant director of student center operations at Central Connecticut State University, said: “Without balance, at least to me, you constantly feel guilty one way or another (for example, not giving enough energy/time to family), and that guilt causes you to stress over the situation even more. If you can achieve work/life balance, you can feel confident in yourself as a professional and as an individual outside of your professional role.” 

Benefits to having balance include being happy and having more energy. “We are healthier, more productive, more energetic, and better role models to our students and our staff … when we practice what we preach,” Schmidt said. “Too many of us learn this lesson too late in our careers and do experience burnout. Stop running on autopilot.” 

Four: Plan Ahead and Empower Others 

Nora Molloy, assistant director, facilities and events, Memorial Union and Student Activities at the University of New Hampshire, said planning ahead so that staff know when they are working, can help the whole team have balance. “From 3 p.m. to 12 a.m. and all weekend my building is 100% run by student staff,” Molloy said. “… I believe that students can rise to the expectations we set for them. …  Once a week I also sit down and go through the event schedule—we have 50-60 events a day in the building—and I make notes about anything that needs more attention. ... They know to pay attention to that list, and it cuts down on the surprises.” 

Schmidt said communication of expectations is necessary.  

“Technology makes it increasingly harder to turn off and really unplug,” she explained. “As a supervisor, it is important to me to be a role model to staff and to set a tone and clear expectations so that staff know when and when not to be responsive from home. As a manager, I try not to send and respond to emails on the weekends or late at night so that staff does not assume they, too, need to follow suit. Often, when I do, I will be clear in the email that something is or is not urgent and that I am or am not expecting a response. This is even more important while on vacation. We all need to be respectful of each other while we are on vacation; I cringe when I see an email with, ‘I know you’re on vacation but ….’ No buts; I’m on vacation. It’s hard enough in our field to be able to even take and use vacation time.” 

Bonner agreed and discussed the importance of everyone vocalizing their needs. “For example, if other staff members fill in for you at an evening event or meeting, be sure to show gratitude and see if you can provide some comp time to demonstrate your awareness of how your needs impact them,” she said. “Ultimately, other people are necessary to make life work when you’re trying to juggle commitments. Let people help and let them know when you need them.” 

“I think it’s essential to realize it won’t always be equal,” Bonner continued. “… Remember that your priorities will shift on both fronts over time and that it’s okay for them to do so. Strong communication with your work family and home family are important in managing expectations. 

“… I think it’s interesting that I’ve actually gotten more mindful of the time I spend on work/at work as my professional responsibilities have grown. This has challenged me to rely on my team more but ultimately, I think it’s made me a better supervisor and provided good professional development for them. … Should something be very important and fall outside of the nine-to-five window, I rely on my very supportive spouse and communicate well in advance. Planning is my best friend these days!”

Five: Leave on Time (When Possible) 

Combat the need to continue working by making plans with family and friends or scheduling a time to run errands.  

For those who struggle with achieving balance, Morrell suggests ending the workday on time when possible. “To me, it means trying to take advantage of the time I do have off and leaving on time when I can,” she said. “I definitely have ‘busier times’ of the year but know that going in and try to prepare myself mentally and physically for it.” 

“Work is work, but it is not your life,” Morrell continued. “Enjoy what life has to offer you. Call a friend or catch up with grandma, go out to eat, sit at home and relax and watch TV, spend time with your family. Those are the important things in life. Don’t take them for granted.” 

Bonner shared how her priorities have shifted over time. “As my personal life has become more full with a husband, dog, and kids, I make more of an effort to leave work at a regular time and preserve time for family,” Bonner said.  

“Employed adults living in households with no children under age 18 engaged in leisure activities for 4.5 hours per day, 1.1 hours more than employed adults living with a child under age 6.” 
— American Time Use Survey Summary: 2015

Six: Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk 

Role-modeling is imperative. “I like to think that me as a happy person outside of work translates to a better me in the office and vice versa,” Schmidt said. “… It provides a wonderful opportunity to model for students and colleagues that you can have full personal and professional lives that don’t require you to sacrifice yourself completely. … I also think that trying to find more balance has forced me to be more efficient at work and to define clear priorities so I can make sure I’m using my time more effectively.” 

Harrell stressed the importance of ensuring learning inside and outside of work is part of your plan for balance. “Feel whole and full of energy,” she said. “Be able to continue to pursue personal passions that keep us learning and growing and laughing.” 

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