The expression ‘work-life balance’ covers a range of ideas, from businesses offering flexible working hours to employees making more of their leisure time. Here’s where the phrase comes from and what it means to your business.

Work-life balance – can it be defined?

There are plenty of articles and studies out there on work-life balance, but surprisingly few definitions of what it actually looks like in practice. And maybe that’s not surprising.

As Forbes points out, the concept of work-life balance is continually evolving, with workers across different generations having their own take on what it means and how it should be achieved.

Because work-life balance is so personal, it’s natural that its definition will vary according to many factors such as life stage, family commitments, health conditions, personal events and changes, and our personality types and attitudes to life.

In fact, there are almost as many definitions of work-life balance as there are people in the working population.

But if there’s a common thread in the various thoughts on work-life-balance, it’s the minimization of work-related stress, and the establishing of a stable and sustainable way to work while maintaining health and general wellbeing – something that may not always be achievable within the 9-5 desk-based working week.

Why do we work 9 to 5 anyway?

‘The 9 to 5’ – which more realistically tends to be 9 to 5.30 or 9 to 6, if not longer, describes a working pattern that most business use as a standard full time schedule. 9 to 5 is so normalized in the white-collar world that we rarely consider its origins, but they bear examining, especially if we’re thinking of taking a fresh approach to how and when we work.

The eight hour workday and two-day weekend was adopted and popularized by Henry Ford after the Industrial Revolution, a time when industry went into overdrive and workers in factories found themselves working around the clock in the name of progress. The pattern quickly became standard and has since been established around the world as a basic full-time work week.

Interestingly, the Ford company didn’t just implement the shorter working week for philanthropic reasons. Their motivation was productivity – and they quickly found that rested workers with more time for their families did a better job on the production lines.

The tradition that wouldn’t die

There’s no question that things have moved on since the industrial revolution. But although we live in a dynamic, progressive age when it comes to technology and culture, the 9 to 5 norm has changed remarkably little. Exceptions exist, but the full-time 40 hour week remains a default for most companies, along with the sit-down desk, the lunch hour and the daily commute.

Those who work part time or with flexible arrangements are often seen as needing a special reason to do so, such as managing childcare or juggling work with other commitments. If you’re not filling up 40 hours of your week with work, the unspoken question goes, then what are you doing with it?

Research suggests that our attitudes towards work life balance are based on those of our parents, which could explain why the same norms around work, and how much of our lives it takes up, have stuck around even as society and technology have evolved at breakneck speed.

But should we be content to stick with what worked in the past? And what are the alternatives?

Does 9 to 5 still work in the 21st century?

We’ve painted the 9 to 5 as a bit of an anachronism, but there are arguments for and against a traditional full-time work structure, even in an age of cloud-based software and digital nomads.

In most jobs, it’s clear that we no longer need to be present in a physical office 5 days a week. Thanks to the internet and the high standard of video and telecommunication tools available to the average employee, it’s easy enough to work from anywhere and still have close contact with our colleagues.

But for many businesses, the benefits of physical co-location outweigh the costs. Many people find it easier to collaborate and work spontaneously together if they’re in a shared workspace, and it means everyone has access to the same tools and the benefits of a positive working environment. Being physically present also means it’s easier to build and sustain a workplace culture.

Then there’s the question of time spent working. Do we need to be ‘on’ for eight hours a day? And is the human brain even able to perform optimally for that length of time? Henry Ford made the connection between shorter working hours and higher productivity, but he didn’t have access to the kind of psychological research that’s been done since. Maybe if he were around today he’d be sending his workers home at 2pm instead of 5.

Shorter working hours, or the flexibility to work more on some days and less on others, may result in higher productivity and better employee engagement than a one-size-fits-all approach.

It’s also worth examining whether allocating a continuous eight-hour window for work is the best choice for everyone. Some of us do our best work in the evening, or wake up early with a bolt of inspiration that demands a few hours at our desks as the sun comes up. Then there are those who prefer a little-and-often approach, with work spread out across a long period with frequent breaks to rest and re-calibrate.

For some though, the structure of the 9 to 5 provides a clear, healthy boundary between work and play. Without it, they may find themselves unable to ever fully switch off from work. The same is true for some ‘full time’ employees who find their leisure time being eaten into by work-related smartphone notifications or out of hours calls and emails coming through on their personal devices.

Defining work-life balance in your business

Work-life balance isn’t a static objective that a business can tick off and forget about. It’s a learning process. Understanding the right approach for your business rests on an understanding of what kind of company you are and what makes your employees the most productive and engaged.

Personality types, life stages and the other employee-specific factors we’ve touched on all play a role. So too does the kind of work you do and the country – or countries – you’re based in, including the kind of technological and transport infrastructure available and whether you’re in a rural or urban location.

It’s also worth noting that what work-life-balance looks like for your organization will change over time, as your workforce, industry and available technologies mature and evolve. Maintaining an ongoing dialogue with staff about what works best for them is crucial.

Maintaining work-life balance through feedback and data

In developing your strategy for work-life balance, we recommend taking feedback and suggestions from staff at every stage of the process. As well as collecting ideas, you can measure staff responses against indicators of employee experience like intention to stay and eagerness to go to work each morning.

Doing this will point towards the deeper relationships between work-life-balance factors like stress levels, employee perception that the company cares about work life balance, how well management supports them in achieving work-life-balance. A statistical analysis of these metrics can help you reveal the key drivers of employee engagement at your business, and point the way towards improvement.

Variables you can change might include flexibility of working hours and introducing new workload management skills and tools.

Work-life balance books

Dive deeper into the ideas around work-life balance with our recommended reads:

The 4-hour work week

Timothy Ferriss

This is a trove of mold-breaking ideas about how to outsource your working life and maximize your leisure time. It explains concepts like ‘mini retirement’ and explains how to tune out information overload with an approach of ‘selective ignorance.’ Ferriss’ style is not for everyone, but is guaranteed to get you thinking about working life in a new way.

Off Balance: Getting Beyond the Work-Life Balance Myth to Personal and Professional Satisfaction

Matthew Kelly

Kelly challenges the whole concept of work-life balance as a goal, making the case that we should be striving for whole-life satisfaction. This is a practical workbook with lots of tips and plans to change the way you work and become more personally fulfilled.

Remote: Office Not Required

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

An optimistic deep-dive into the phenomenon of working from home, exploring the benefits and implications of remote working both for employees and organizations.

Happy Hour is 9 to 5 – How to Love Your Job, Love Your Life and Kick Butt at Work

Alexander Kjerulf

This bestseller from CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) Kjerulf is a research-backed instruction manual for leading a happier working life. Using case studies and research, he explains how to build skills and relationships that lead to health, wellbeing and a positive workplace culture.

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