Practical Tips for Finding a Healthier Work-Life Balance
It was a good day for Paige Hansen* when the Kansas City Chiefs were playing.
Not because she’s a diehard football fan. The associate attorney knew her boss would be watching the game, and therefore he wouldn’t contact her. If the Chiefs won, even better. “I wouldn’t hear from him for the rest of the day,” she says.
Logging 60- to 80-hour workweeks was the norm for Hansen—and she’s hardly alone. Twenty-five percent of salaried employees work a whopping 60 hours a week. And it turns out the “40-hour” workweek is not, in fact, 40 hours. The average number of hours worked a week is 47.1
“I worked when my boss worked,” Hansen says. “No time was off limits.” She recalls scarfing down her dinner on an anniversary date with her husband so she could leave and handle a message from her boss. “Everyone expects everyone to be available 24/7 because you have your cell phone and your laptop with you always.”
“Hustle culture”—a prevalent societal attitude that promotes working long hours at the expense of meeting personal needs—is not without cost.
Glen Kreiner, who earned his master’s degree in organizational behavior from BYU Marriott and now serves as chair of the Department of Management at the University of Utah, published a study with his colleagues on how setting work-nonwork boundaries acts as a buffer against burnout. The study states that burnout is a response to emotional and mental stress and that it has three classic symptoms: emotional exhaustion, a sense of failure or incompetence, and cognitive distancing from the job.2 Checking all three boxes is a sign that it’s time to reevaluate and be proactive in seeking positive change.
And So It Begins
“Publish or perish,” they say. For Mike Gore, chair of the Plant Breeding and Genetics section at Cornell University, publishing was just the tip of the iceberg. He put in the additional hours to ensure that he earned the prestigious title of tenured professor.
“There was a lot of missed family time, and no one on their deathbed ever says, ‘I wish I had worked more,’” Gore shares. “It’s unfortunate that I didn’t have any senior mentors to tell me that. There are certain professional milestones that you need, but you don’t need to grind yourself down to a nub to get there.”
In fact, he’s learned that it’s counterproductive. “I’ve charted it over the years,” Gore says. “If I’m working past 50 hours a week, my productivity declines.” He adds that people are more mistake prone when working to the point of exhaustion.
Indeed, research suggests that overworking doesn’t actually result in more output. In a study of consultants by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, managers couldn’t distinguish between employees who worked 80 hours a week and those who pretended to work said hours. Reid found no evidence of higher productivity among the overworking employees.3
A report in Harvard Business Review included this analysis of Reid’s findings: “In sum, the story of overwork is literally a story of diminishing returns: keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.”4
Not only does one become less productive the more they work, but overworking can be hazardous to one’s health and relationships. A slew of studies, including those by Marianna Virtanen and her colleagues at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, reveal that the stress of overworking can result in myriad problems: depression, impaired sleep, hindered memory, even heart disease.
Other research shows that stroke is a major risk for those putting in too many hours. One study revealed that those who worked beyond 55 hours a week were at a 33 percent greater risk of having a stroke and 13 percent more likely to have a heart attack, compared to those working 35-40 hours a week.5
These effects are markedly bad on their own, and they can also translate to negatively impacting a company’s bottom line. Think work absenteeism, productivity loss, increased turnover, and rising health insurance costs for a company. Healthier employees equal a healthier workplace—in more ways than one.
Leading by example for his graduate students, Gore serves as the mentor he wishes he’d had early in his career. He counsels them to prioritize their well-being and set work boundaries to avoid the hazards of overworking.
Mitigating the “Always On” Mindset
With a little care, it’s possible to cultivate healthy habits to stave off burnout and achieve a work-life balance to feel good about.
Habit #1: Prioritize self-care.
On any given day in southern Arizona, you might see Scott McCown riding his one-wheel electric skateboard to pick up his mail. “It’s kind of cathartic because it feels like I’m snowboarding in the desert,” says McCown, who earned his master of information systems management degree from BYU Marriott in 2011 and works remotely. “Getting outside is incredibly important for mental health.”
McCown finds impromptu opportunities to take work breaks, such as when a meeting ends early. He also touts the value of carving out a trip each quarter to spend time in nature. He recently participated in a Young Men camp for his ward. “I definitely felt my stress levels change,” he says.
Getting outside has also proved invaluable for Gore—even on the coldest of days in Ithaca, New York, home of Cornell.
Gore starts his day with prayer, scripture study, and breakfast with his family. The professor transitions to his workday by arriving on campus early, parking far from his office, and walking a mile. When he walks before sitting down at his desk, he’s laser focused and can maximize his work time. Gore utilizes his lunch break to log another mile, and he walks yet a third mile at the end of the day—a practice that allows him to decompress before heading home.
Besides getting fresh air at every chance, McCown, a manager at a Fortune 500 tech company, has also started digging into mindful meditation using an app. He takes a 15-minute break each day to slow down, settle his mind, and think clearly—completely disengaging from work.
“I’m constantly thinking about the future—how to shape our teams and our strategy. I do a lot of planning, and I am concerned about a lot of things. I can easily get caught in the trap of thinking about this all day, which distracts me from being present with my family and friends. And honestly, thinking about it all day doesn’t help me come up with the right solutions either,” McCown says. “Mindfulness meditation helps me slow down, stop the train of thoughts, and focus on what’s happening around me. It helps me focus my attention on a few things that matter now and let go of all the other risks or challenges coming down the pipeline in the future. While it’s important to consider the future, I find that deliberate, focused planning is more effective than letting something dwell in my mind.”
In addition, be sure to prioritize sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet—all tools to minimize burnout.
Habit #2: Find trusted colleagues and good mentors.
McCown understands the critical importance of having a few trusted colleagues who understand your work demands. “We can talk about the craziness of things and make light of them. I find it really helpful on more stressful projects or those with constant changes to have a trusted friend in the trenches. We can talk candidly about what’s happening. Part of it is just to listen and chat about how things are affecting each of us. After talking about it, we might come up with some solutions, but even just joking about the craziness of it all helps it feel less stressful.”
Be careful, though, about how you select those people, McCown warns. “Don’t go vent to the manager of a team that’s causing issues.”
While working crazy hours at the law firm, Hansen felt fortunate to have good mentors in her corner. “To the extent that they could, they helped protect me from burnout,” says Hansen, who graduated from BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School in 2018. “When you don’t have control over the workload, having people share the load and help you out is the only way to survive.”
Her mentors covered for her when she took three months for maternity leave. Hansen notes that she’ll always be grateful for that time.
Finding a good mentor might be easier than you think. Identify someone you admire in or out of the workplace and send a simple email asking if they’d be available to meet for lunch. Prepare for the meeting by thinking of a few open-ended questions: how they got where they are today, how they achieve work-life balance, or anything else you’d like to glean from the conversation. Follow up by sending a thank-you email for their time or, better yet, a thank-you card. Then work to develop the relationship, being sure not to overwhelm them.
Habit #3: Know when to call it quits for the day.
By maximizing your time at work and prioritizing projects, it may be easier to turn off work for the night. It’s helpful to plan what you want to accomplish the next day before heading home, Gore says. “If you don’t, you’re thinking about it that night.”
Apps such as DOL-Timesheet can track the hours spent on the job so workers are given a nod to call it quits for the week. Of course, there are days when late nights are inevitable. The key is to make them the exception.
Have something to look forward to after work—playing with the kids, getting outside, or transitioning to dinner. This will make it easier to shift into “nonwork” mode. And remember to foster your identity outside of work.
“We need to start viewing free time as time for rest, recharge, and the cultivation of new skills and interests, some of which may eventually benefit our work roles as well,” reports a Harvard Business Review article.6
Habit #4: Don’t let electronics overpower your life.
Gore deleted Slack, an instant messaging app, from his phone so he’s not tempted to check messages after work.
At the end of the workday, McCown switches from his work email to his personal email on his phone. If he forgets and sees a work email pop up on his phone, it will loop him back in: “That can wait until tomorrow; I have to tell myself that regularly.” Truly, he says, 99 percent of things can wait until the next day. His company uses pagers for the other 1 percent.
Habit #5: Maintain positive relationships.
Hansen says building a good relationship with her boss was critical to being able to set boundaries. “In the end, he liked me so much that I did have a little more clout to say, ‘I can’t right now.’ If you don’t have a good reputation and try to create boundaries, no one will respect that.”
This translates to personal relationships as well. Gore says it’s important to be intentional about spending time with family. He schedules spouse and family time so it’s accounted for and not forgotten. He also has a weekly calendaring meeting with his wife, Melanie.
“Realize that no one at your company is going to love you or appreciate you the way your loved ones do,” reminds Heather Monahan, founder of a career-mentoring group.7
Habit #6: Talk to your manager or boss if boundaries need to be set.
“Don’t suffer in silence,” a vice president at McCown’s company once told him. “That was really powerful advice. I should feel empowered in any employment situation to have conversations with my mentor or with my manager who supports me or is responsible for my work.”
When work priorities aren’t clear, it creates a state of urgency and time scarcity, at which point there needs to be a conversation, McCown continues. “Especially if you’ve been able to deliver in the past, it’s important to have a candid conversation if you feel you’re being pulled in too many directions.”
How to do that? McCown recommends identifying solutions before initiating the conversation with your supervisor. Make a list of what you feel is the order of priorities. Then you can say, “This is my list of priorities. I’m feeling overloaded. For these at the bottom, I think we should identify someone else who could take these on or they should be dropped. Do you agree with that?”
When approaching your boss, Hansen recommends discussing the projects you’ve excelled at and what you can do that’s above and beyond. This way, you’re taking and giving—not just taking. For example, there was a time Hansen was receiving a lot of emails during church. She approached a trusted colleague to ask for advice. He encouraged her to set boundaries by responding and saying, “I’ll get to this in an hour.”
McCown says if your boss is unsupportive in your need to set boundaries or unload a little work to avoid burnout, it might be time to look for a different manager—perhaps even within your own company. “You can have very different cultures within the same company,” he says.
Habit #7: Set the tone with great leadership.
“It starts with being an empathetic leader,” Gore says. If he sends an email late in the day, he’ll set the email to be sent the next morning so he’s not pressuring people to work at night. He reminds them to unplug. He doesn’t contact them while they’re on vacation and expects the same in return.
Indeed, leaders set the tone for workplace culture. It creates a win-win: managers take care of themselves and prevent burnout in employees. Harvard Business Review reports that “employees who work with a supportive supervisor—someone who offers emotional and practical support, who acts as a positive role model, and who is a creative problem-solver—experience reduced work-life conflict, improved health, and increased fulfillment on the job and at home.”8
Hansen adds that good management can help prevent emergencies. “If you’re assigning things early enough and anticipating client and company needs, then your employees are less likely to work long or off hours.” And never reward employees for working long hours, she says.
Research from the University of Texas at Austin reveals that better results flow from compensating workers for accomplishments rather than for time worked. “When organizations with a mix of high- to low-performing employees base rewards on hours worked, all employees see compensation as unfair, and they end up putting in less effort on the job. High performers resent doing more work than their low-performing peers while getting the same reward. Low performers assume their overachieving colleagues will carry the load, while they’re compensated regardless.”9
Habit #8: Create strategies when working remotely.
It’s no surprise that the number of people working mostly from home soared between 2019 and 2021. Numbers tripled, from 5.7 percent—about 9 million people—to 17.9 percent—nearly 28 million people. In Washington, DC, alone, nearly half of all workers called home their new office.10
The lines between work and home may be a little more blurred when employees are working from home because there’s no physical barrier. Gore advises creating a separate workspace, if possible. When his family moved into their new house, they were very intentional about not putting desks or office spaces in any bedroom.
Even with a separate office, Gore is very intentional about closing it off at the end of the day. “You’re physically shutting the door, but mentally you’re shutting that door as well.”
He puts his laptop in his backpack, puts his backpack in his office, closes the office door, and then puts up a gate to keep the cat out. “It would take extra effort to retrieve my backpack,” he says. “It’s kind of a hassle, so it’s almost like a barrier, and then I don’t go in there until the next morning when it’s time to go to campus.”
He also recommends having a set time to log out. “Working from home, you need to have a very defined cutoff, or your work is definitely going to spill over into your personal time.”
And then, shift gears by doing something completely unrelated to work: transition to dinner, play with the kids, take a walk, or engage in an activity where work isn’t on the brain.
And So It Can End
Undoing burnout may not happen overnight. Identifying it and working to build healthy habits and set boundaries can put you on the right track. As you stay on track—even with setbacks—you’re more likely to arrive at a place where you feel happier, healthier, and more satisfied with your job. And you won’t need to cheer every time your boss’s favorite team plays—that is, unless you’re a big fan too.
* Name has been changed to protect privacy.
Written by Jennifer Mathis
Photography by Brad Slade
About the Author
Jennifer Mathis is a professional writer and editor who earned a master’s degree in mass communications from BYU. She took regular breaks while writing this article to be a wife and also to be a mom to her three children.
- See Lydia Saad, “The ‘40-Hour’ Workweek Is Actually Longer—by Seven Hours,” Gallup News, Economy, August 29, 2014, news.gallup.com/poll/175286/hour-workweek-actually-longer-seven-hours.aspx.
- See Devin J. Rapp, J. Matthew Hughey, and Glen E. Kreiner, “Boundary Work as a Buffer Against Burnout: Evidence from Healthcare Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Journal of Applied Psychology 106, no. 8 (August 2021): 1169-87, psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2021-77825-005.html.
- See Erin Reid, “Embracing, Passing, Revealing, and the Ideal Worker Image: How People Navigate Expected and Experienced Professional Identities,” Organization Science 26, no. 4 (July–August 2015): 997–1017, doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2015.0975; see also Sarah Green Carmichael, “The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies,” Harvard Business Review, August 19, 2015, hbr.org/2015/08/the-research-is-clear-long-hours-backfire-for-people-and-for-companies.
- Carmichael, “The Research Is Clear.”
- See Mika Kivimäki et al., “Long Working Hours and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease and Stroke: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Published and Unpublished Data for 603,838 Individuals,” Lancet, 386, no. 10005 (31 October–6 November 2015): 1739–1746, thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)60295-1/fulltext.
- Marcello Russo and Gabriele Morandin, “Better Work-Life Balance Starts with Managers,” Harvard Business Review, August 9, 2019, hbr.org/2019/08/better-work-life-balance-starts-with-managers.
- Heather Monahan, quoted in Marisa Sanfilippo, “How to Improve Your Work-Life Balance Today,” Business News Daily, February 21, 2023, businessnewsdaily.com/5244-improve-work-life-balance-today.html.
- Russo and Morandin, “Better Work-Life Balance Starts with Managers.”
- University of Texas at Austin, “Employers Should Reward Workers for Accomplishments, Not Hours Worked,” UT News, October 28, 2020, news.utexas.edu/2020/10/28/employers-should-reward-workers-for-accomplishments-not-hours-worked.
- United States Census Bureau, “The Number of People Primarily Working from Home Tripled Between 2019 and 2021,” press release number CB22-155, September 15, 2022, census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2022/people-working-from-home.html.