The Essential Steps to Achieving a Healthy Work-Life Balance, According to Health Experts

Our lives are becoming increasingly busy, and for many of us, finding a healthy balance between our work schedules and our social lives/"me time" is difficult. The elusive "work-life" balance is something we all know and would like to say we have mastered, but for the vast majority of us, it's tricky to balance the two and we may not know how or believe it's possible.  

No matter what field of work you're in, life can demand a lot from you, particularly if you're someone who is highly driven to be successful. Even if you're someone who loves their day-to-day work in the office or as a parent (or both), and can spend most of your time doing this, there still needs to be a balance in the activities you partake in to nurture your mental health and relationships. 

Below, General Practitioner Dr Sam Saling and Psychologist Nancy Sokarno provide their expert commentary on how we can better improve and maintain a healthy work-life balance to optimise our lives.

Work-Life Balance Tips, According to Health Experts

What does it mean to have a healthy work-life balance and why is it important?

General Practitioner Dr Sam Saling

Healthy work-life balance is something we all strive for. It is a state of achieving harmony between work and other aspects of life, such as personal relationships spanning family and friends, caring for others, self-nurturing healthy habits such as good nutrition and regular exercise, spiritual needs, and more. This balance is the key to achieving a happy and healthy life.

Making sure that all priorities are addressed is difficult in today’s modern age, as we only have a finite amount of time with many competing interests. That is why it is important to always be mindful that this balance can be tipped at any point, and is something that has to consistently be worked on, despite your age or life stage.

Psychologist Nancy Sokarno

Being content in investing energy into many important aspects of your life whilst being present in doing so. Having boundaries and standing by them to ensure you are living a life that is aligned with your values. 

Not harbouring shame/guilt about investing time into either side that may not be as important for the next person. Identifying and evaluating the importance of the things you do in your life regardless if its work or life.  

It is paramount that we have this balance, though it may never be split down the middle, we need to prioritise it for many reasons:

  • To avoid psychological burnout from having inadequate rest between arousal; 
  • Maintain good mental health and take care of our physical health;
  • To stay connected to friends and family, ensuring we have healthy interpersonal relationships;  
  • To ensure we are focused on the things we engage in such as being productive, concentrated, creative, mindful.

What are the negatives of focusing too much on one or the other?  

General Practitioner Dr Sam Saling

Sometimes, there comes a time when your focus may hone in on one aspect over another. This is a normal part of life, and is understandable for brief stints, such as when preparing for work deadlines, university examinations, milestones like weddings, births, or moving homes, or family needs. However when this one single focus is amplified for a long period of time, it can start to overwhelm the other parts of your life. 

The biggest complication of this is burnout. Burnout is characterised by feelings of energy depletion, increased negative feelings towards that single line of focus, and reduced productivity in that field. What happens is that you may start to feel a sense of disharmony, a loss of interest or joy, or even dissociation. And this has the capacity to evolve in to a full blown mental health crisis. 

That is why preventing burnout largely relies on consistently re-evaluating your needs and priorities, and working towards achieving work-life balance before it becomes a problem.

Psychologist Nancy Sokarno

When we swing to either side, we lose out on many positive aspects of both, just like in any extremity it can send us into a state of feeling “stuck”. If we are engulfed in our work lives, we can experience psychological burnout, our interpersonal relationships suffer, we neglect our self-care and therefore aid in the deterioration of our physical and mental health.

If we focus too much on “life” and neglect work we can feel unproductive, purposeless and lack drive to achieve things in our lives. Everything in moderation is such a common quote but it really is the way we should be living our lives. 

What are your tips for busy people who can't find time to enjoy their personal lives as much as they would like?  

General Practitioner Dr Sam Saling

We are all busy in our own ways, so each person has a responsibility to find what works for them. My best tips include:

1. Scheduling in “me time.”

This may seem mundane and forced, and the last thing you feel like at the end of a long day or week, but it is a muscle that has to be flexed, with practice.

2. Make self-care a priority and a habit

For example, let your dependents (family, friends, and work colleagues) know that you will be unavailable for a particular time each week. Switch off your devices, make other arrangements if you have children to care for, delegate.

Commit to an activity that gets you out of your own head, or not. Rest, or play. Whatever you need to do to recharge your batteries - do it. It is an essential part of staying healthy. We cannot drive through life if we have no fuel left in the tank.

A very wise clinician once taught me about the concept of being “responsibly selfish." This is now a mantra I teach to all my patients. It is somewhat against what we are taught, especially for women, but advocating for oneself and putting your needs above competing interests is a skill.

3. Let go of the guilt

This will undoubtedly cause some short term stress, but it is in the interest of long term gain, and long term health.

Psychologist Nancy Sokarno

1. Know your values

When prioritising your time, ensure you are engaging in the things that are valuable to you rather than obligations or expectations. 

2. Learn to say "no" more often

Having boundaries in your life is imperative to maintaining a life you are in control of, as much as possible of course. 

3. Pair things that you need to do with things you want to do

E.g. go for a walk and respond to emails or make calls that you need ticked off your to do list.

4. Allocate yourself "free time" 

Block out “free time” so you allocate specific time to do things for yourself, instead of “trying to find the time.” 

What strategies can people use when they feel overloaded with work? 

General Practitioner Dr Sam Saling

1. Learn to say "no"

One of the most important strategies I recommend to my patients is to learn to say "no." This takes practice, as many of us have been brought up to be people pleasers. The discomfort of saying "no" eases over time, and that it is an essential skill we all need to master to take care of ourselves.

2. Take a step back

Another strategy I recommend to my patients is to take a step back. This may mean a big step back, such as taking a sabbatical or a long annual leave break, but smaller step backs make a big difference as well.

This may mean negotiating to work remotely, therefore cutting your commute and giving you more time to yourself. I see this as one major perk of the pandemic, making flexible work arrangements widely acceptable.

Going part time and reducing your hours at work may be another option - and no, I don’t see this as only an option for parents - but for non-parents too. 

3. Delegate responsibilities

Delegating responsibilities is another thing that takes time to master. For senior colleagues, this is something that can come naturally, but for junior staff members, it can be difficult advocating for oneself. This is a skill that you can master with practice, and in most cases, it will grant you even greater respect among your peers.

I am hopeful that the current cultural shift in workplaces is here to stay, with mutual respect and psychological safety at the forefront of change. 

4. Talk to your GP

For those who feel overloaded and overwhelmed, and are getting nowhere with their work colleagues, I suggest speaking to your General Practitioner - your primary care specialist. Don’t forget we are here not just to heal the sick, but to advocate for our patients as well.

This is a big part of primary care, advocating for healthy lifestyles not only at home, but at work too. If workplace issues start to affect our patients’ general health, we are here for advice and advocacy. 

Psychologist Nancy Sokarno

1. Be assertive

Discuss capacity with work colleagues or clients: Being assertive about where you are at can aid in being able to place more stern boundaries with people at work.

2. Plan your leave

Assign yourself time off in advance, ensuring you have allocated time to look forward to.

3. Focus on time management

Revaluate and prioritise the importance/urgency of the work you have taken on. More often than not we put everything in the “to do now” pile, become overwhelmed, and then procrastinate doing anything at all which makes us more stressed. 

4. Build a healthy routine

Build routine and structure in your life to ensure you are placing high importance on things for your mental health such as exercise, meditation, journaling, therapy, eating, staying hydrated, and sleeping well

If you or someone you know needs help, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency, call 000. If you are concerned about your health, wellbeing or sleep, you can also speak to your GP, who will advise a correct treatment plan.

For more from Sam follow her at @drsamsaling

For more from Nancy follow her at @psychwithsokz

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