What is work life balance?

Work Life BalanceWork life balance refers to an individual’s ability to balance the commitments, responsibilities and goals relating to their paid work (e.g. working hours, expected outputs of the job, career advancement), with personal commitments, responsibilities and desires (e.g. parenting, recreational activities, community commitments, further education). Individuals who maintain a healthy balance between work and life achieve a sense of wellbeing and feel that they not only have control over their working life (e.g. by being able to determine when and how much they work), but also to lead a rich and fulfilling personal life.

On the contrary, individuals who do not find a healthy balance between work and life experience conflict between work and personal commitments, known as work life conflict. These individuals may have to forgo dedicating time to life in order to fulfil work responsibilities or vice versa.

What influences work life balance?

Work Life BalanceAn individual’s ability to maintain a balance between work and life is affected by factors relating to an individual’s workplace and working conditions, including the flexibility and quantity of hours worked, sick and holiday leave provisions and availability of support structures within the workplace (e.g. childcare facilities, breastfeeding facilities).

Government policies regarding employer and employee responsibilities also exert an influence. For example, government provision or subsidisation of child care or parental leave may make it easier for parents to participate in the workforce without interrupting their work life balance.

In addition, the characteristics of an individual’s life are important determinants of their ability to maintain a balance between work and life. Individuals who have many non-work commitments (either permanently or temporarily) face additional challenges when it comes to balancing these commitments with work. For example, those who are involved in community organisations or do voluntary work, those who are studying or pursuing sports and those who spend large amounts of time travelling may find it more difficult to find a healthy balance between work and life. Various aspects of parenting, including child-bearing, breastfeeding and child-rearing also influence an individual’s ability to achieve a healthy work life balance. Employee control over work and work flexibility is of critical importance to employees who are also parents.

How do Australians feel about their work life balance?

Finding a balance between time spent at work and at home can be difficult. Almost half of all Australian men and women report feeling pressure related to balancing time between family and work, and balancing work and family is the most important reason that Australian individuals feel pressured for time.

Work interferes with the personal and leisure activities of more than half the working population and >60% do not spend as much time as they would like with family and friends because of work. Personal commitments (e.g. looking after sick children) may also sometimes interfere with work, but to a much lesser degree than that to which work interferes with family time. Many Australian workers (~25%) report being dissatisfied with their work-life balance.

The nature of working conditions in Australia is a key factor influencing the work-life balance of Australians. The number of hours worked per week by Australians in full-time employment increased steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s, in contrast to most other high-income countries globally, in which full-time working hours decreased in this period. During the same time period, more individuals were engaged in working outside of normal business hours (Monday-Friday, 8am-6pm) and in temporary rather than permanent employment. There was also a simultaneous increase in the number of individuals employed on a casual basis without sick or holiday leave entitlements. While new legislation which gives all Australian workers the right to request flexible working hours is now in place and may assist some workers to achieve a healthier work-life balance, other changes to working conditions such as increasing casualisation and hours of work are likely to negatively affect work life balance.

Difficulty maintaining a balance between work and life has also become more pronounced because of widespread female participation in the workforce. The majority (63%) of Australian mothers of children <15 years participated in the paid workforce in 2008 (if largely on a part-time basis). Workforce participation increased the amount of time women dedicate to earning an income and also influenced the time they spend outside the home by creating more social opportunities for women. However, work in the home has not diminished with the increase in female workforce participation. This means firstly that many women try to juggle work and their traditional domestic responsibilities, and secondly that men are now increasingly expected to contribute to domestic life and responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. Thus both Australian men and women face significant pressures when it comes to balancing their commitments and time between work and their families.

Who is affected by a lack of work life balance?


Work Life BalanceA significant minority (25%) of Australians report being dissatisfied with their work-life balance and being a parent increases the likelihood of an individual being dissatisfied with the way they divide their time between work and life.

Parenting is time-consuming and individuals with children <15 years of age are more likely to be pressed for time than those who do not. Men with children <5 years of age are more likely to feel pressured for time than those with children 5 years or older. However, for women time pressure does not reduce as children age. Women with children aged 5-14 report feeling equally stressed for time as those with children <5 years.

More information on Parenting and Work Life Balance

More information on Breastfeeding in the Workplace


Individuals who care for other adults also experience greater difficulty balancing work and life. Some 2.7 million Australians provide care to a disabled or elderly relative in their home and an estimated 13% of Australian households have a member dependent on care because of age or disability.

Life expectancy in Australia has increased considerably in past decades and the Australian population is increasingly ageing. For working age individuals this means that their elderly relatives are more likely to be alive and require some sort of care to help them carry out essential day to day duties. For some individuals this may mean increased demands for family time, to pay for care and social visits to relatives in their home or institutional setting.


A survey of Australian workers reported that female workers with children are particularly affected by time stress, compared to childless men and women. 73% of working women with children feel always or often pressured for time compared to 46% without children. On the contrary, working men with children are less likely to feel rushed for time than those without.

Women report poorer work-life outcomes compared to men working the same number of hours each week. However, men typically work more hours which increases their likelihood of being dissatisfied with their work-life balance.

Income and working hours

Work Life BalanceBoth men and women who work longer hours (≥45 hours per week) are more likely to have difficulty balancing their work and personal lives. In Australia, individuals who work ≥60 hours per week are twice as likely to report that work interferes with non-work activities as those who work normal fulltime hours (35-44 hours per week).

Men with higher incomes are also more likely to feel pressured for time than men with lower incomes. This pressure is thought to stem directly from the pressure associated with earning a high income and is likely to be at least in part related to the number of hours worked.

Working fewer hours is generally thought to improve work-life balance but Australian women working part-time for 16-34 hours per week (two-thirds of female Australian workers) reported poorer work-life outcomes than women working full-time.

The times of day and days of the week on which an individual works also influence the quality of their non-work activities. Those who work “anti-social” hours, for example, on weekends and weeknights had more difficulty finding quality time for family commitments because much of the time families spend together coincides with these anti-social working hours. Rituals such as the evening meal and bed-time stories may be missed by individuals working on weeknights. Weekend workers may miss the opportunity to participate in family outings, which typically occur on Saturdays and Sundays.

Type of employment

The type of employment in which an individual is engaged influences their chance of being satisfied with their work-life balance. Women who are self-employed are more likely than those working as employees to report time strain and family duties interfering with their work. Men who are permanently employed report better work-life outcomes than those who work on contract or casual basis. However for women, permanent employment does not significantly improve work-life outcomes compared to other types of employment.

Difficulty maintaining a work life balance is also greater for those with poor quality jobs, for example in which security is minimal, flexibility of working hours is limited, and there is little autonomy or job satisfaction and too much work.

Workers in some occupations are less likely to be satisfied with their work-life balance. These occupations include:

  • Management;
  • Community and personal services;
  • Technical and trade workers; and
  • Professionals.

Individuals in other occupations are less likely to experience work life conflict or interference. These include:

  • Administrative workers;
  • Sales people; and
  • Clerical workers.

Commuting, age and level of education

Work Life BalanceOther factors which influence an individual’s work-life satisfaction include:

  • Commuting – Australian workers who spend ≥10 hours per week commuting are more likely to be dissatisfied with their work life balance than those who spend less time travelling;
  • Age – an Australian survey reported that workers aged 25-34 had significantly poorer work-life outcomes than those in other age groups;
  • Level of education – Australians with university qualifications report the poorest work-life satisfaction. However, this relationship appears to be due to the type of work individuals with such qualifications do (e.g. more demanding jobs with longer hours), not due to the qualifications themselves.

Benefits of work life balance

An Australian survey reported that individuals with a healthy work life balance were less likely to report:

Being dissatisfied with various aspects of work (which increases the likelihood of dissatisfaction with work life balance) is also associated with poor health outcomes. For example, another Australian survey reported that individuals who experience job strain and insecurity were approximately two and a half times more likely to experience depression or anxiety, and that they were also more likely to experience poor physical health. A further Australian survey reported an approximately 13 times increased risk of depression or anxiety amongst managers and professionals who experienced job strain, compared to those who did not. There is also evidence that long and/or atypical working hours are associated with depression and other psychological conditions such as anxiety. Highly demanding and stressful jobs have also been associated with poor emotional and physical health outcomes. Thus, finding a secure and satisfying job can considerably improve psychological and physical health amongst workers.

Risks associated with work life conflict

Work Life BalanceWhile maintaining a healthy work life balance has demonstrated health benefits, experiencing work life conflict, is associated with poor health outcomes, and particularly poor psychological health outcomes. In addition, work life conflict can lead to:

  • Increased employee absenteeism;
  • More difficulty attracting employees (for companies) and particularly skilled employees;
  • Increased staff turnover;
  • Increased recruitment costs;
  • Reduced morale amongst employees; and
  • Reduced workforce diversity.

Experiencing work life conflict may also reduce a worker’s productivity and performance when they are at work, a phenomenon sometimes termed presenteeism. Presenteeism refers to a situation in which workers present at work but do not function at optimal capacity. It may occur when a worker is ill or experiencing personal problems which distract them from focusing on their job. Presenteeism may also occur when individuals feel that their jobs are not secure. For example, an individual may work extra hours to try and demonstrate they are a good employee but because they are concerned about job security, they do not perform the job properly. Similarly, if an employee knows that they will have to catch up on work they missed while on leave (sick or other) they may be less likely to take days off when they need to and will therefore present at work and underperformed instead.


More information

Workplace health For more information on workplace health including office ergonomics series, useful tips on avoiding injuries in the workplace and costs on the workforce, see Workplace Health.



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