What Is Work Life Balance?

Finding a balance between one’s personal life and one’s work life is desirable to many. At the same time, seeking balance between work life and personal life is not something everyone wants. The use of the phrase also suggests there exists such a thing as “work life balance” as some objective standard against which people can measure the appropriateness of their own work life balance. But there is no such objective standard. The experience of balance in work and in life is inherently subjective: the mix of work and life that some may experience as balanced, other may experience as unbalanced.

Supposing then someone were to ask me “what is work life balance?” I would probably ask what he or she is seeking to learn from the answer to this question. What does the notion of “balance” represent for them? A fuller life? A more meaningful one? More joy? In such cases, making progress on these latter goals may be easier to define and track than pursuing a sense of balance.

In addition, I suggest that a possibly more helpful reference for assessing well-being, and its absence, in life are the criteria of “significant distress” and “impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5). These two criteria underlie most mental health diagnoses and can serve as helpful indicators of mental health. Significant distress relates to one’s internal experience, whereas functioning refers to activity level in the external world. High levels of subjective distress (e.g. constant worrying; depressed mood for consecutive days) or low levels of functionality (isolating; inability to get out of bed all day; not being able to keep a job) can serve as helpful signals of the need for change.