01.12.2015 Natural Health

Finding Work - Life Balance

Do you 'work to live' or 'live to work'? The answer, says Peter Dingle PhD, can have a major effect on your health.

As Gandhi emphasised, "The purpose of life is not to increase its speed."

In the early 20th Century, George Bernard Shaw predicted that we would need to work two hours a day in the year 2000. While good in theory, many people now find it hard to get out of the office but, even worse, they find it hard to get the office out of them.

For most workers, work-life balance is a cultural fantasy. Changes in the work environment within the past decades have led to steady increases in work intensity and job demands. The increase in dual-career couples and single-parent households, and the associated decrease in traditional, single-earner households, suggests that responsibilities for work, housework, and childcare are no longer limited to traditional gender roles.

With all the conveniences of modern technology - laptop, mobile, pager, email - it is even easier to cram more into our overused system. 'Call waiting' now means we can speak to a few people on the phone at any point in time. Modern technology, far from increasing our leisure time, has enabled us to take our work wherever we go. Instead of freeing up more time for leisure, the progress of technology has, in fact, done the complete opposite for many of us.

Modern technology, far from increasing our leisure time, has enabled us to take our work wherever we go.

For many people, it is probably acceptable to sacrifice long hours at a time to complete a professional project, as long as such a period of professional productivity is followed by something that replenishes us personally or financially. And we keep working until we get through this tough patch or crisis. But for some the crisis never ends or just joins onto the next one. We can no longer separate work and life; there are now often no boundaries or rules except that work most often dominates. Many jobs now entail high flexibility and permeability, facilitating role blurring, and unclear boundaries for work and home time.

Flexibility seen as a plus

On the positive side, results of most studies indicate that perceived job flexibility is related to improved work-family balance. Perceived job flexibility appears to be beneficial both to individuals and businesses. Given the same workload, individuals with perceived job flexibility have more favourable work-family balance. Likewise, employees with perceived job flexibility are able to work longer hours before workload negatively impacts their work-family balance (1). The only problem with these and other studies is that they ask the person involved with the work about their perceived work-life balance, not their partners or family who may have a different perspective.

Historically, it was easy to separate out work and our other life activities but now it is hard to distinguish between work and life by the tick of a clock.

The concept of work-life balance, or the idea of the work-leisure split, dates back to the mid 1800s after long days working in factories through the Industrial Revolution. These laws have been passed in most countries to bring some ideal of balance back to working hours, even though we don't always follow them.

Our history enables us to get a view on what work-life balance really is. If we look at great apes or early hunter-gatherers, in times of abundance, they only worked around four hours a day. Of course, they had to work more in the harder times. Ever since the Agrarian (farming) Revolution, farmers have been renowned for their long days, particularly during harvest. However, the jobs were largely physical and involved family members. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, work changed and people inside factories began working very long hours, too.

Now however, work-life balance is more than just the time allocated to work or non-work activities but rather the smaller categories of time that fit within these two big time frames and many other pieces of the puzzle. Such pieces as 'me time', meaningfulness of work and even work and home relationships tend to skew our perspective on what a good work-life balance really is. Studies where individuals scored high on self-reported 'me time' also scored higher on self-reported health measures.

'Work to live' or 'live to work'

People's views of their work, whether it is 'work to live' or 'live to work,' also have a major impact on the perspective of balance. One study of 6,091 female and male employees reported greater time-based work-to-live conflict than time-based live-to-work conflict. And work-to-live conflict appeared to be strongly associated with burnout (2). The value of work-life balance in baby boomers is probably different to the X or Y Generation and how we might feel about work-life balance can also be influenced by many other factors including job tenure and job security (3), as well as our determination over our work schedule. How meaningful the work is also has a critical role on our perception.

More meaningful work adds significantly to a sense of work-life balance and our sense of wellbeing. It is about overlapping our work time and our personal needs based on our values.

More meaningful work adds significantly to a sense of work-life balance and our sense of wellbeing.

Many non-work domain variables can also influence our perspective on work-life balance, including relationship status. For example, having a spouse or partner in the household generates responsibilities that can create competing demands for work and family-related roles. Childcare studies have shown that employees with multiple roles of childcare and job responsibilities tend to have reduced job satisfaction with increased work-family life interference. Low-income employees are reported to be predisposed to poor work-family life balance as a result of reduced access to leave, income replacement, greater care-giving responsibilities and inability to benefit from childcare services.

Impact on Health

The difficulties faced by workers trying to balance excessive work and life/family demands is a significant challenge, and failure to achieve balance can lead to a variety of serious negative consequences for both individuals and organisations.

These can include higher stress levels, increased absenteeism, lower productivity and poor health.

Weekly working hours (excessive work demands assessed by intensive or long working hours of more than 48 hours a week), is reported to be the most consistent predictor of poor work-life balance and is linked with psychological ill-health, and adverse physical effects such as occupational injuries and accidents, musculoskeletal disorders and unhealthy behaviours. The consequences of poor work-life balance (or the absence thereof), include depression, diabetes type 2 (4), metabolic syndrome, increased blood pressure and increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

From a business perspective, workplace burnout lowers productivity, and increased absenteeism and presenteeism (5). In a large study of 4186 workers aged 15–65 years from Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway, poor work-life balance was associated with a 38% increase of self-reported sickness absence and more health problems. Interestingly, being in a relationship reduced this likelihood of absence by around 25% (6).

Risks of long work hours

Working long hours at the office is not only counter productive, but can also be destructive.

We begin to work out of obsession, not passion, and it starts to slowly cause harm. At work it begins with poor decisions and presenteeism, along with poor health. Most heart attacks occur when people are too busy. A study in Finland of 9000 government employees aged between 40 and 60 found that those who worked overtime (more than 40 hours per week) were significantly more likely to gain weight in the previous year. This was also found for those who reported difficulty balancing work and family life and individuals who made statements such as, 'I feel totally worn out after a day at work' (7). In a study of 7095 adults (2109 women and 4986 men) aged 39 to 62 years working full-time found participants working 11 hours or more per day had a 67% increased risk for CHD compared with participants working 7 to 8 hours per day (8). A meta-analysis about long working hours and chronic heart disease found a 51% increase compared to those without long-term work. Another study showed significantly increased diastolic BP (9) and weight gain (10) associated with increased overtime.

Most heart attacks occur when people are too busy.

A number of studies have shown long work hours significantly increased the risk of anxiety. The results indicated that the risk rose among participants working >55 hours/week, 260–279 hours/month, or ≥280 hours/month. Many studies have also found a significant negative effect of long working hours on sleep quality. One prospective cohort study that evaluated cognitive function found significant cognitive decline associated with long workdays and poor work life balance.


Burnout has become a key issue in the modern day work environment and is a situation in which an individual can no longer sustain any further pressures from his/her job and feels totally overcome by stress (11).

Back pain and headache have been identified as adverse consequences of occupational burnout.

Studies suggest that employees experiencing prolonged or excessive job demands have a higher risk of burnout. Other signs of such burnout include irrational anger and irritability, insomnia, fatigue, headache, misdirected anger, feelings of isolation, tiredness (11), problematic alcohol use (12), broken relationships (13) and suicidal ideation (14). This literature has identified low job satisfaction and organisational commitment and desire to quit as aftermaths of occupational burnout (15).

Busyness has never made anyone happy.

Poor work life balance also impacts our quality of life and can cause a spillover to home. The costs of a life out of balance are poor health, decaying family and friendships, unhappiness and misguided superficial goals (16). We spend so much time doing things that do not bring us joy or happiness but we are busy. Busyness has never made anyone happy. You cannot be truly happy if you are too busy to really live your life and you cannot be happy if you focus on only one part of your life, like work, as many of us do. We need balance.

Signs of a life out of balance include:

Not noticing things


Poor sleep

Addictions and escapism (need television to go to sleep)

Missed family appointments

Lost relationships and family or seeing your partner or family in transit

Too much caffeine

Alcohol every night to help you slow down.

Dr Peter Dingle is a researcher, educator and public health advocate. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor.


Peter Dingle

Dr Peter Dingle (PhD) has spent the past 30 years as a researcher, educator, author and advocate for a common sense approach to health and wellbeing. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor. He is Australia’s leading motivational health speaker and has 14 books in publication.