Laurel McNall is an associate professor at SUNY Brockport. Jessica Nicklin is an associate professor at University of Hartford. Views are the authors' own.
Work-life balance has been sought after for decades, yet remains problematic for most Americans. The pandemic only exacerbated this issue, especially for working mothers and caregivers. As businesses reopen, many employees are re-evaluating their priorities around work and personal roles, and employers may find themselves grappling with a resignation boom. If better work-life balance is a top priority but also viewed as elusive, what will actually help workers thrive post-pandemic?
Perhaps we need to start with the term "balance" itself, which suggests that work and life are on opposite sides of a continuum. Yet, carving out equal time and energy at work and at home is clearly impossible and only sets us up for failure. Efforts to replace balance with a new noun ("fit," "blend," "harmony," "synergy," "rhythm") have come and gone, but the current term du jour is "work-life integration," which emphasizes the connection between work and non-work roles. Unfortunately, integration is not a panacea either. All too often, the bottomless pit of work tasks and electronic devices comes at the expense of family, health and personal pursuits, especially with blurred boundaries during the pandemic. Integration is a slippery slope, despite our best intentions.
Regardless of what we call it, many workers are looking for better ways to navigate work and non-work roles as we return to a "new normal." We surveyed working professionals before (December 2019) and nearly one year into the pandemic (February 2021) about their perceptions of when they were at their best and worst with managing work and personal life. We intentionally avoided loaded terms like "balance" so we could better understand their experiences in their own words.
We discovered several "at your best" themes across employees in varied occupations that emerged both before and during the pandemic, and are consistent with research on work-life balance. These strategies can guide organizational leaders and employees towards thriving post-pandemic, without the aforementioned hang-up on semantics.
Time Management. Participants perceived they are at their best when they have time to plan, prepare and organize for their week ahead, but at their worst when something unexpected comes up, which requires playing catch-up and putting out fires. Time is our most valuable and limited resource, but employees can also be encouraged to practice self-compassion when plans go awry or tasks don't get done. This means being present in the moment without judgment, offering the same level of kindness that they would extend to a loved one and remembering our common humanity (i.e., no one is perfect).
Boundary Management. Participants reported effective boundaries were critical for allowing them to focus and be fully present in one role at a time. Individuals should determine, reflect and make adjustments to their boundary preferences, and managers should support these efforts with flexible arrangements. For some employees, this could mean moving closer to leaving work at work, but this can only be effective if the larger organizational culture supports this healthy practice. Other employees may prefer more integration of work and personal life. One size does not fit all, and each person needs to decide how to set boundaries in a way that helps them meet their work and life goals.
Accomplishment. Participants consistently reported a sense of accomplishment when they were at their best, and reserach supports progress as one of the most important ingredients for motivation. Leaders should look to remove barriers to progress to help create the perception of making headway. Reminding employees of their progress, even small wins, can show them their contributions are valued, and can boost perceptions of competence.
Relationships. Before the pandemic, participants frequently indicated they were at their best when relationships were going well, yet this was less commonly mentioned one year into the pandemic (perhaps due to remote work and social distancing). Research suggests that a culture of support can go farther than specific policies, so managers should not ignore the importance of day-to-day support from supervisors and co-workers to meet relatedness needs. Managers should help employees re-establish social bonds with their colleagues as they re-enter the workplace and show care and concern about the trauma employees have faced during the pandemic.
Well-being. Not surprisingly, participants described their best as higher levels of physical and mental health. Organizational cultures that support well-being rather than overwork will be critically important. Leaders should also be trained on how to model healthy work habits, like talking (within reason) about their personal life while at work, leaving work at a reasonable time for personal pursuits, taking vacation and parental leave, and avoiding email after hours (or at least making it explicit that a returned email is not expected).
Our study demonstrates that workers' priorities are much the same, pandemic or not. By examining employee "at your best" experiences, we found that work-life balance is not about maintaining equilibrium. Instead, it is our appraisal of the time, accomplishments, relationships and well-being that we derive from our valued life roles, which will be as unique as we are. We need to commit to a re-imagined world of work that fosters these healthy "at your best" experiences.
This paper has been accepted for publication in the European Journal of Applied Positive Psychology and the final (edited, revised and typeset) version of this paper will be published in the European Journal of Applied Positive Psychology, 2021. All rights reserved. © National Wellbeing Service Ltd. For more information please visit: www.nationalwellbeingservice.org.