How to Build a Better Work-Life Balance

McKenna Princing Fact Checked
A woman sits at a work desk holding her forehead.
© Valentina Barreto / Stocksy United

Not only did the pandemic dramatically change how we work, it also changed how we feel about work.  

Some of us may find being busy a great distraction from all the devastating things that have happened. Others may be more than ready for a vacation. 

And now, just when we’ve (kind of) gotten used to the pandemic, more changes are arriving: Going back to the office means we must interact in person again and try not to get back into bad habits of eating lunch at our desks. Businesses allowing customers to come in without masking up creates new anxieties around safety. 

Whether you’re feeling burnt out or just want to make some changes to your work habits, here’s what you need to know about creating a healthy work-life balance.  

The new normal of work 

When it comes to any less-healthy work habits you may have formed during the last year-plus, consider it Las Vegas: What happened in the pandemic stays in the pandemic.  

Whether you can’t not check emails at night or have become accustomed to working from your bed, it’s important to show yourself some compassion. 

“If you’re reading this, you survived 2020, so give yourself some kudos for that. Beating ourselves up for less than great habits is not as helpful as looking at where we want to go from here,” says Amanda Wood, a clinical associate professor in the UW School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and a clinical research psychologist at VA Puget Sound Health Care System who studies burnout in healthcare workers. 

If you want to make some changes to your work habits or routine, now may be a good opportunity, but approach it with a focus on the future and what you want to change rather than past decisions.  

And if you want to keep working from bed in your pajamas, more power to you. 

Should you rethink your work routine? 

Along with giving yourself grace for any habits you picked up, now is a good opportunity to assess your work-life balance. Once you do, it’s possible you may realize that the problem isn’t with you, it’s with the pressures of your job. (Awkward.)  

Though we can’t do much about the pandemic, we can work on improving work-life balance. If, pre-pandemic, you worked 60-hour weeks, always took on extra work and felt obligated to respond immediately to late-night emails, maybe you’ve realized you don’t want to do those things anymore.  

“Ask yourself, ‘Do I want to go back to that? Did that make me happy? What are some things I learned in the pandemic?’” Wood says. 

Imagine your ideal work scenario. Do you have a more flexible schedule so you can take a break every day to go for a walk? Do you work from home most days and get more done? Do you get to take more time off to spend with your family? 

Think about what the pandemic has taught you about your own work preferences and then think about how you might be able to turn those preferences into your new routine. (More on how to do this soon.) 

How to know if you’re burnt out 

According to Wood, recent studies have shown that burnout has increased among front-line healthcare workers and first responders, as well as workers who aren’t on the front line. A study she is currently working on is showing this trend, too. 

Most of us are at least stressed after everything 2020 and 2021 have thrown us. But how do you know if your stress is approaching burnout levels? It may not be as obvious as you’d think. 

“People may not always be aware that their burnout or stress levels are higher than they were pre-pandemic because over time we have gotten used to it. Or maybe now things feel a little better so you’re not realizing stress is still at a higher level than where you were before,” says Wood. 

One indicator may be your sleep. Are you getting a solid seven or eight hours and waking up feeling rested? Or do you lie awake at night, drag yourself out of bed in the morning and feel like a zombie all day

Another thing to pay attention to is your motivation — or lack thereof. Do you enjoy your work or, at the very least, get some sense of accomplishment from it? Or do you feel like nothing you do matters and dread clocking in each day?  

“Burnout happens when the stress in your environment exceeds the coping resources the person has. It’s always good to improve our personal coping resources but also important to look at what’s going on in the environment that we can change. We can’t change a pandemic, but what else can we change?” Wood says. 

How to cope with burnout 

Beating burnout is a two-pronged approach, Wood says. It’s important to look at what you can do on your own to improve coping strategies but also necessary to consider what about your work environment might need to change — and who can help make those changes. 

Keep your mind and body healthy 

“Our bodies don’t differentiate between actual danger and worry or fear,” Wood added. “What this means is that whether you’re running from a bear or dealing with prolonged work-related pressure, your body will respond in much the same way.” 

“Then we have elevated stress hormones that remain in our bodies for prolonged periods of time, increasing the likelihood of all kinds of physical and mental health issues and concerns,” Wood explains.  

Stress can cause physical symptoms like heart palpitations, headaches, trouble sleeping, upset stomach and tiredness. Prolonged stress can also contribute to medical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease and gastrointestinal diseases along with anxiety disorders, depression and other mental health problems. 

A good strategy to deal with this is to try to manage as much stress as you can and keep your body as healthy as it can be. This includes doing things we often forget to do when we’re under chronic stress: exercising, eating nourishing food, getting enough sleep and finding ways to reduce stress that work for you, such as yoga, meditation or mindfulness

Advocate for yourself 

Maybe you want to keep working from home, have a more flexible schedule or not work as much overtime, but you’re afraid to ask your boss. Maybe you’re worried about getting fired or are experiencing some major imposter syndrome

The thing is, in many situations, your worries may be unwarranted. 

“Sometimes we make assumptions about what’s possible because it’s never been done that way or we don’t want to rock the boat. But it can be empowering to ask for what you need; a lot of people never ask. Your boss may say no, but it rarely hurts to ask. See what accommodations can be made and frame your request on how those things will help you be a better employee,” Wood says. 

A good time to ask is after you’ve done something your boss is grateful for or that reflected well on you and your department, Wood says. 

If you do ask and get a no, instead of retreating try compromising. Maybe your boss doesn’t want you to work from home full time but is OK with it for two or three days a week, for example.  

“We can be more flexible with work than we thought we could, the pandemic showed us that. We got stuff done and work didn’t grind to a halt,” Wood says. 

Set boundaries with others — and yourself 

Whether or not you get to shape your work schedule more to your liking, you can still find ways to set boundaries — even small ones — that help reduce your work-related stress. 

First, work on setting boundaries with yourself. If you find yourself working at all hours of the day and night when you’re working from home, try setting a schedule (and sticking to it).  

“Starting on Monday, schedule the week and look ahead, decide on what your priorities are. If you’re going to flex or shift your work hours, schedule that, too,” Wood says. 

It’s important to set boundaries with others, too. Become an example for colleagues by resisting the urge to respond to late-night emails or make it clear that you’re taking a break each day. Giving your brain some down time instead of working constantly will help your mental health as well as your productivity.  

“Setting boundaries helps everyone. Rather than creating a culture of always being on, it’s better to create a culture of, ‘We work hard from 8 to 5 and then we take a break,’” Wood says. “It can be challenging when you work in a culture where everyone is ‘always on’ but that can be a burden for everyone in the organization. Setting healthy boundaries might not only be helpful for yourself but may be appreciated by your co-workers as well.”  

Learn to let go 

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember what really matters: Our health and well-being is more important than our jobs. (Unless your job involves saving lives — then your job is pretty important, too.)  

“We have to retrain our bodies to identify what a crisis really is. We have to tell our brains, ‘OK, the spreadsheet is messed up, I can deal with it tomorrow,’” Wood says.  

If your work environment, rather than your own routine, is what’s stressing you out, and your manager isn’t willing to compromise with you, it may be time to find a new job — or at least start looking if you can’t switch just yet. 

You deserve to do work that doesn’t stress you out all the time, in an environment that meets your needs. At the end of the day, preventing and managing burnout isn’t just about individual employees, either: it’s about the whole system. By achieving this balance, your contributions both at work and at home are likely to be more productive. 

“It behooves employers to look at ways to enhance employee wellness, because this will increase productivity, and reduce turnover and absenteeism. It’s not just about benefiting the employee; it’s about benefiting the employer and customer. The entire system works better when you have employees who are energized,” Wood says.