What are your key priorities in life? How much time do you currently devote to each? How much time would you like to devote to each?

How do you divide your time and resources between attending to the needs of others and yourself?

How is your work-life balance?

Work-life balance can be difficult to pin down as a concept, but knowing when it is out of balance tends to be clear for most people. Regardless of what clients bring to coaching whether it be career advancement, developing their leadership, or learning how to communicate more effectively, work-life balance is one of those themes that inevitably surfaces within the coaching experience. It also transcends gender, age, status, hierarchy, and virtually any other distinction we can make. What I find interesting in my work are the many, many different ways it surfaces. Do any of these client experiences resonate with you?

You have a strong work ethic and you may feel guilty about easing off the accelerator and giving yourself a break from work occasionally.

You’re keen to achieve, or ambitious to succeed in your career, and you may be neglecting to take care of yourself, and take enough downtime.

You are a talented, ambitious professional who is rewarded for your performance by yet more work!

You are a working parent with a focus on parenting and have less time for work and to develop professionally.

Some combination of the above…

Work-life balance can impact anyone, anytime and is ultimately concerned with being clear about the choices you want to make in how you spend your resources (time, energy – mental, physical, money, etc) and feeling that you have a certain amount of control over those factors.

What’s most important to you?

Work, work and more work…

As the American writer Annie Dillard famously said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” According to one estimate, the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. Hence it is fair to conclude that your job can make a huge impact on your quality of life. Add to this the complexities of 21st-century work which is often characterised by continuous change, diversity, team work, collaboration, independence, boundarylessness, and mental and emotional demands– all in the larger context of globalisation, offshoring, right-sizing, changing demographics and multiple generations in the workforce, job insecurity, zero-hour contracts, virtual workers and teams. For most of us our relationship to work is complex, and many of us feel the need to work longer and harder than ever before which can lead to imbalance.

Spending too much time and mental bandwidth on work can lead to stress, sleeplessness and eventual burnout. Research by Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado in 2015 found that managers give more work to people they see as responsible and more competent. The sole reward for great work is extra work. High-performers stated they felt “burdened” and were unhappy with people relying on them too much.

Overwork can lead to sleep deprivation – and its accompanying health problems. Lack of sleep also harms our brain’s executive functions, as a 2016 McKinsey study stated. If they are not operating well, these valuable functions – reasoning, problem-solving, and the ability to organise – not only adversely affect the individual, but the organisation they work for: damaging financial performance, and organisational health.

A Harvard Business Review article quotes a 2017 survey by Kronos and Future Workplace, which “reveals that the restructuring of work has resulted in significant burnout. Nearly half, or 46% of the human resource leaders surveyed, reported that employee burnout accounts for 20-50% of their companies’ annual employee turnover.”

According to Christina Maslach (1982), burnout is defined as a psychological syndrome involving emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment that occurred among various professionals who work with other people in challenging situations.

Not only is burnout bad for your health and your career, it’s also bad for business.

Employers’ responsibilities

Organisations need to look to their structures, culture(s) and working practices, to ensure that people are supported to balance their lives more effectively. Although telecommuting and flexi-time are offered by managers to individuals when needed, a Sloan Centre and Boston College study discovered that companies have actually cut “some critical work-life balance options like reduced hours, part-time work, job sharing, and paid family leave.” (Harvard Business Review)

Too many organisations expect staff (and managers) to work excess (and excessive) hours. But this kind of work-obsessed culture leads to illness, unproductivity, poor performance and high staff turnover. It damages organisational effectiveness. Leaders also have a duty of care to staff – and leading by example is one way to model acceptable working practices.

I worked with one director of a large development NGO who regularly sent her managers emails during the early hours of the morning. Her behaviour caused them to believe that they were expected to work all hours, too. Although the director had no expectation of this happening, she recognised that her behaviour was unhealthy, and realised that it instigated a culture of dis-ease in the whole organisation, too.

Leaders would do better to model good work-life balance. Show staff that it’s fine to leave work on time – or even early, on occasion, – take vacation, – and to prioritise family commitments or self-care. Leave work, physically and mentally, back at the office and enjoy the rest of your life.

Do you live to work, or work to live? Strike a balance, and you will be healthier, and more productive.

A balancing act


‘Balance is not better time management, but boundary management. Balance means making choices and enjoying those choices.’ Betsy Jacobson

Setting and maintaining your boundaries will help. Here are some strategies for developing better work-life balance.


Work Smarter

The Mental Health Foundation advises: “Work smart, not long,” explaining that in practice, “This involves tight prioritisation – allowing yourself a certain amount of time per task – and trying not to get caught up in less productive activities, such as unstructured meetings that tend to take up lots of time.”


Pace Yourself

Plan for a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t have to throw all your energy into work, during every minute. Endurance is what counts, rather than speed. Stay the course, at a steady pace, rather than burning yourself out.

Switch tasks

You might feel the need to focus wholly on one problem or project for hours. However, concentration on one tough task isn’t the best way to solve problems or be productive. Have a coffee, get away from your main task, or do some ‘mindless’ filing, to give your brain a break. In one study, Inspired by DistractionBenjamin Baird et al found that: “Compared with engaging in a demanding task… engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problems.”


Breakthroughs often happen during ‘idle’ daydreaming moments. Einstein valued imagination over knowledge. Richard Feynman, another physicist, gazed at students in the canteen, who were spinning plates. For fun, he started calculating the wobbles. What he refers to as his “piddling around” resulted in the Feynman diagrams that explain quantum electrodynamics – gaining him a Nobel Prize.

The Science of Mind Wandering, a study from the Universities of York and of Florida, found that at least 40% of our most creative ideas come from letting our minds

wander, or during breaks from work.

Take time out and time off

Schedule appointments into your diary to commit time to spend with your partner, family and friends, and to go on holiday or to take time for yourself. These are just as important as work commitments. Probably more important, over all.

Do you have plenty of relaxation time in your week, opportunities to spend quality time with family/friends, or leisure, sport or hobbies? Or are you too busy working?

And before you get back to work, ask yourself some coaching questions –

  • What could you stop doing that would give you the space to do the things you want?
  • What does a ‘good enough’ (mother, father, professional…) look like?
  • How do you reward yourself?

If you feel that you or your organisation would benefit from better work-life balance, through coaching and mentoring, please get in touch to explore the possibilities open to you. I look forward to hearing from you!

We’re piloting a programme of one-to-one mentoring – Mentoring Exchanges – that matches established, experienced leaders and managers (as mentors) with mentees in development organisations that do not normally have resources for in-house development opportunities. If you’re interested, please get in touch.

If you would like to, please download my coaching programme brochure – Women’s Leadership Coaching – For Women in Development – specifically designed for women working in global development.

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Email me: palena@unabridgedleadership.com

Visit my website: www.unabridgedleadership.com 

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