What does work-life balance really look like in the 21st century?

Work-life balance’, it’s a phrase we’re confronted with constantly when talking about wellbeing, but often it can feel beyond reach. Many of us know that mastering this juggling act will, supposedly, boost our wellbeing and unlock a new level of freedom, happiness, and resilience. But what does achieving that fate actually look like? And what are the realistic steps we can take to get there?

We speak to psychotherapists Priya Mishra and Allegra Vaselli, from the global educational organisation The School of Life, to dive below the surface of this modern-day expression.

What are some of the contributing factors to the poor work-life balance that we face today?

For those of us who have our basic needs, like food and shelter, well-sorted, we may have lost track of how to fulfil our higher needs, such as the search for meaning, need for intellectual growth, and emotional connections.

Consumerism seems to have separated us from the ability to look after our higher needs: we meet friends at restaurants and bars which automatically includes spending money; we are told that we will create a special bond with people, including our family, thanks to expensive holidays; and access to higher education often comes with an eye-watering price tag.

So, unconsciously we have come to associate growth in our spiritual, emotional, and intellectual life with a cost. We feel we have to work more in order to access wellbeing, but the goalposts keep on shifting and, paradoxically, the more we work, the less time we have for time-consuming – but free – activities such as learning or bonding.


What are the obstacles to achieving better balance?

An increase in expectations around both work and home, especially for parents. Society today tells us we can achieve anything we want, we should pursue work we love, and we should find and express our true selves through that work. While intensely liberating and encouraging in some ways, this can create pressure around the significance of our job.

John Bowlby explains in Attachment and Loss that an adult’s sense of self is built up through the relationships they had as a child. While parents have always known their primary task was to ensure their children’s safety and welfare, we now know for an inner sense of safety, a child needs to be set up emotionally, which is an ongoing, seemingly intangible task for parents. The definition of what we see as being a good parent has changed massively over the years.

Bowlby’s insights into child development coincided with the moment in the history of capitalism where governments began to fully appreciate the concept of competition, so societal expectations of what we should be at home and at work have increased at the same time. Add to this the technological advances that mean there are now few instances when one is legitimately out of reach, it’s no wonder we can feel pulled in multiple and opposing directions.

What is the relationship between work-life balance and wellbeing?

We are easily misled or slightly off the mark with how to achieve a work-life balance. We work towards a goal, but sometimes we are led to take the wrong path to get there, and end up at a dead end: the new sofa to watch TV did not bring us closer together, as it was pictured in the advertisement; the exclusive restaurant did not make us more sophisticated. If we understand what we’re really yearning for – be it to restore a lost connection with a partner or more acceptance of our body – we are then free to decide how to best address it.

What are your tips for achieving a better work-life balance?

1. Be kind to yourself

If you’re struggling with work-life balance, remember this is an almost impossible task to ‘get right’, and it’s a problem much bigger than the individual – even though we as individuals have to navigate it. We happen to be living at a time where increasing demands and ambitions, both at work and home, have come into collision. We are all imperfect human beings, and there can be a lot of relief in acknowledging that. We can draw on psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott here, who spoke of the need for parents not to be perfect, but to be ‘good enough’. This idea of ‘good enough’ is one we can apply to lots of different aspects of our lives – good enough is, after all, good enough.

2. Be curious about why things are the way they are for you

Did you grow up feeling as if you were more acceptable to your parents when you achieved good grades? Has that translated into using work as an adult to define your worth? Or perhaps you learned that sacrificing yourself for other people is a noble way of being, and that thinking about your own needs is selfish. If you find yourself dissatisfied in any area of your life, there may be unconscious drives and deeply held beliefs at play that are worth exploring.

You may find that you carry ideas that belong to other people, or beliefs that are no longer useful to hold onto because they aren’t supporting your fulfilment. While finding work-life balance is a common struggle, we all have our own particular version of how it shows up for us based on our histories.

"Societal expectations of what we should be, both at home and at work, have increased at the same time"

3. Reflect on your values

While we consider ourselves to be inherently free, we are shackled by the need to conform. This is especially easy when there are so many ‘shoulds’ that we carry from our families, and wider society, about how we ought to be and live, and we don’t have time to stop and question the plan. Many of us are better at executing plans rather than stepping back to evaluate whether the plans are the right ones. Within the system we find ourselves in, we each need to work out how we want our lives to look, and where we will find meaning.

Furthermore, advertising might sidetrack us and give us the illusion that we can ‘buy’ our way into fulfilment and balance, which locks us into a vicious circle of working more and moving further away from reaching that balance. At the same time, work may be the healthy enabler to reach that balance: for example, we may find that a rather boring job would allow us to live by the sea, which in exchange would bring that balance in life that we were seeking.

4. Don’t look at ‘achieving balance’ as the Holy Grail

Instead see it as a ‘balancing act’ that needs constant readdressing: it is highly correlated to your environment in that specific moment. For example, adding an extra training session may be beneficial if you have decided to run a marathon, while sharing lunch with a colleague might work better if, lately, you have been feeling isolated.

‘How to Survive the Modern World by The School of Life’, is available now in hardback

To connect with a life coach, or learn more about the work-life balance, visit lifecoach-directory.org.uk