Research Paper: Understanding The Barriers To Life Balance And Personal Change

Bret Perko_Coaching_Research_PaperResearch Paper By Bret Perko

For years people have used the term “work-life” balance to put a label on the pursuit of finding a balance between their work or professional life, and the rest of their life.  However, I believe this to be a futile pursuit.  The “balance” metaphor implies we could somehow find a way to divide our time equally between work, and our life outside of work. However, unless a person only works part-time or does freelance work this is virtually impossible to accomplish.

There are 168 hours in a week.  Harvard Business Review found that 60% of executives, managers, and professionals surveyed who carry smartphones for work were connected to their jobs for at least 13.5 hours a day during the week and about five hours on weekends, for a total of about 72 hours.[1]  If those people slept about 7.5 hours a night, they would have three hours a day during the week for everything else (e.g., chores, exercise, grocery shopping, family time, getting ready for work, relaxing). Three hours a day is not a lot of time for the other parts of life, and it surely isn’t an equal “balance”.

It is no wonder the quest for work-life balance has been so passionately pursued.  However, it’s an elusive pursuit because if a person is working “full-time” they will not be able to equalize the time they spend working and the time they spend engaging in all other aspects of life.  At the same time, the typical full-time worker thinks they can somehow tweak their schedule and miraculously find more time for other pursuits.  This thinking has been fueled by numerous sources telling us how to achieve more work-life balance.  Most people become discouraged and give up, while many more fail to make significant transformations because they are approaching it from the wrong perspective.

What might be some factors that are preventing people from making some of the critical adjustments that would lead to a little more balancing out of their time?  One obvious factor preventing the achieving of any kind of balance is that many people feel that, despite what they want to do, they still must devote the majority of their time to their work.

In many cultures, it is a badge of honor to work long hours and to be the first in the office and the last to leave.  Many professionals feel that if they don’t work long hours, they will be passed over for promotions or won’t get prime work assignments.  Therefore, despite what people want out of their lives, they feel too pressured by their work environment to try to make the changes that will bring them more purpose and fulfillment.

Another factor is the perfectionism that many people carry into their job and other areas of life. People typically develop perfectionism tendencies as a child.  They want to please parents, teachers, and coaches and therefore feel they have to make perfect grades and excel in sports and other activities to get the love and praise they desire.  They then bring perfectionism with them as they attend a university and later when they get a job.  They then feel they have to be perfect to please their boss and be a high performer at work.

Other people truly love their job.  This can be a subtle barrier to work-life balance because a person feels a sense of fulfillment from their job, and they may not want anything to change or may not realize they are neglecting other areas of their life.  Additionally, work becomes part of their identity and they have trouble separating the different roles in their life.

Research Paper: Understanding The Barriers To Life Balance And Personal Change 1

Finally, technology has made it more difficult for almost everyone to mark clear lines when it comes to separating work from other areas of life.  Unless a person decides to set boundaries with their time, they can be accessible to others twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  Their boss and workmates can contact them on nights and weekends and with most employees, there is a strong sense of obligation to respond to emails and text messages outside of typical work hours.

Most companies will say that they want their employees to have a work-life balance.  They will claim they agree with the research that says that it is important for managers and supervisors to role model more flexible working hours, taking care of family and health, and reducing work-life conflicts. However, in many cases, the actual behavior of the supervisor sends the message that there will be negative consequences of prioritizing family or putting equal importance on family and work.  Research has shown that the impact of the manager is particularly great among younger generations.[2]

I submit that coaches who work with clients who are looking for more fulfillment, joy, and time to pursue their passions change the term work-life balance to simply “life balance”.  Through work with the client, the idea that there is a need to “balance” work with the rest of one’s life can be reframed.  The new perspective is that work is simply a necessary part of life and it doesn’t have to be more or less important than the other parts.  It is a piece of the puzzle, not the whole.  It is one of many roles that one fulfills in life, not an all-consuming obsession.  Admittedly it may take some time for the client to make this shift in perspectives because of deeply held underlying beliefs, feelings of inadequacy, or other limiting perspectives.

The 5-D’s Coaching Model may be employed to help the client move to a simpler and clearer view and understanding of what they truly want out of life and how their current perspective of work is not serving them.  The five steps in my 5-D’s model are Define, Decide, Devise, Design, and Drive.  The first step, Define, is critical in the client gaining awareness and clarity concerning the current view of their life and how they believe work is such a high priority that they are willing to make sacrifices in other areas of life.  The coach must then partner with the client so that they can see how the current view is clearly not serving them.

Only then can they “Define” what they truly, deeply want and desire.  This is the first step to deep personal change.  The coach must help the client understand that this may take some time.  The belief that work must always take precedence is typically very strongly entrenched.  At this stage, it’s also important for the client to understand that the perspectives, attitudes, and behaviors they say they want to change have probably been serving them in some way.[3]For example, their sense of self-worth may come from a title or position at work.  Or parents may have instilled in them the deeply held belief that only through hard work can one achieve success.

Another issue that can be a barrier at the Define stage is that the client may say they want to change, but in reality, they don’t believe change is necessary.  They may be talking about finding more balance in life because a spouse or friend is telling them they are working too much or are not spending enough time in fulfilling other pursuits.  This may have turned into nagging and reached the point that the client is coming to coaching because they know they work too much, but they just want to stop the nagging.

Think about how people usually try to get someone they care about to quit smoking.  Most smokers know the facts about their habits.  They know what the warning labels say, and they have heard the public service announcements. Additionally, people who care about them are constantly telling them they need to quit.  Logically, they would listen and quit to protect their health.[4]  However, we know it doesn’t work that way.  Aside from the addictive nature of the smoking habit, we know the smoker is receiving some kind of payoff from their habit.  People don’t continue to engage in a habit, especially if it is potentially harmful unless they are getting something in return.

In this case, the coach must partner with the client to find out what payoff they are receiving from the scales being tipped heavily in favor of working too much.  Research at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business revealed a phenomenon they called overlearning:  when people “forego leisure to work and earn beyond their needs.”[5]  The research revealed that some people feel compelled to work even when normal reasons for overworking were removed; like the enjoyment of work, uncertainty about the future, and the desire to leave wealth to others.  Ultimately, it came down to the effects of culture and environment over a period of many decades, that we as a society have been trained to strive for more and not to enjoy life along the way.

Has culture and environment influenced the client so heavily that they need to work to live up to some standard of that culture?  What is the payoff for them?  What is compelling them to forgo what they say they want?  Once the coach can help the client discover their real reason for not getting a little more balance from on scales of their life, then the client can begin to get clarity around this awareness. The clarity may help the client to begin developing a new perspective about their work and the role it plays in their life.  They can begin to understand that work has been controlling their life and preventing them from finding and pursuing what will bring them fulfillment on a much more profound level.

The coach may find that working with the client to discover what they are missing out on in life and what they truly believe will be fulfilling is a more powerful driver for personal change than focusing on the harm that working too much is doing. As the client begins to realize they have actually been missing out on so much of life, they can begin to shift their way of thinking about how they will spend their time.  Small adjustments to a work schedule can have profound effects.  However, the coach much remembers that realization is one thing.

Lasting change in thinking and behavior is another. Reverting old patterns of thinking and behavior is normal and very difficult to avoid.  The client will undoubtedly get discouraged and this can derail the coaching process.  That is why the other steps in the 5 D’s Coaching Model are so important.  There must be a structure and support system to foster the adoption and sustainment of new ways of thinking and doing things.  The coach must keep the client focused on the future and the new vision they have for themselves. The coach must help the client build consistency in their new habits around their work and keep the new framing and perspectives fresh and clear.

Achieving life balance through lasting personal change is not a dream.  Each client can be coached to put work in the proper place for that client.  The client can build a life that is enriching, fulfilling, and full of purpose.  They can rediscover the wonder, curiosity, and joy they probably felt as a child and leverage those qualities to change their life to whatever works for them.  Work can become a part of life, not the main focus of life.  Then all other parts of life come together to form the life the client wants and will make them happy.  That is not a work-life balance.  That is true life balance.


[1]The deal, Jennifer J., Welcome to the 72-Hour Work Week, Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, 2013

[2]Russo, Marcello, and Morandin, Gabriele, Better Work-Life Balance Starts with Managers, Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, 2019

[3]Kromberg, Jennifer, 6 Steps for Personal Change, Psychology Today, August 2013, Sussex Publishers, LLC

[4]Grenny, Joseph, How to Change People Who Don’t Want to Change, Psychology Today, February 2015, Sussex Publishers, LLC

[5]Friedman, Lauren F., Here’s Why People Work Like Crazy Even When They Have Everything They Need, Business Insider, July 2015.

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