When your salary, benefits, and achievements at work aren’t enough to make those long hours worthwhile, what do you do? More and more employees are prioritizing a healthy work-life balance over other aspects of their jobs. But how do you find that balance? Are some careers better for work-life balance? And what happens if you work too hard?
What Is Work-Life Balance?
Ever since the labor movement of the 1940s, the 40-hour workweek has become the American standard. With 168 hours a week available to all of us, no matter what we do for a living, that means we should spend just under 24% of our lives at work.
If that percentage sounds low, then you might not have a healthy work-life balance. Many of us complain about never having enough free time or feeling like we’re always on the clock. When you start factoring in overtime, commuting, and the mental load of “taking your work home” at the end of the day, it’s all too easy for your job to become your entire world.
A perfect work-life balance doesn’t mean divvying up your available hours evenly. Instead, it’s an ongoing process of shifting your priorities as the needs of your personal and professional lives change. The goal is not to rigidly structure your work and leisure time, but to find a point where you have the flexibility to achieve your goals in every aspect of your life.
“It is important to remain fluid and constantly assess where you are [versus] your goals and priorities,” said Heather Monahan, founder of the career mentoring group #BossinHeels, told Business News Daily. “At times, your children may need you, and other times, you may need to travel for work, but allowing yourself to remain open to redirecting and assessing your needs on any day is key in finding balance.”
The Downside of Hustle Culture
The idea of working non-stop to get ahead has become increasingly accepted. Dolly Parton even recorded a commercial parodying her classic hit “9 to 5” for Squarespace during the 2021 Super Bowl.
The commercial praised the idea of hustling every evening after work to pursue your dreams and indulge in meaningful creative work. Of course, the original “9 to 5” was an anthem against working for The Man:
Barely getting by, it’s all taking and no giving
They just use your mind, and they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it
It’s become apparent—especially over the last two years—that working 12+ hours a day isn’t healthy or sustainable for most people. Adele Jackson-Gibson reported on the “drastic negative effects overworking can have on mental, physical and emotional health” for Good Housekeeping, and she’s not wrong. Hustle culture prioritizes working over every other aspect of your life.
Whether you’re part of the gig economy, a remote worker, or a traditional employee, the overall trend is to work longer hours. All that extra time has to come from somewhere, and people are sacrificing sleep, time with their families, and their hobbies.
That lifestyle can quickly lead to burnout. The Mayo Clinic warns that while burnout isn’t an official medical diagnosis, it can still have a major impact on not only your job performance but also your overall wellbeing. The major signs of burnout include:
- No sense of satisfaction in your work
- Lack of energy to complete necessary tasks
- Feeling disillusioned about your job
- Feeling irritable with coworkers and customers
- Difficulty concentrating at work
- Poor sleep habits—either too much or too little
- Frequent headaches and/or stomach problems
- Feeling dread when you face the workday
While there are steps you can take with your employer to fight back against the early stages of burnout, you may also want to consider changing jobs or careers.
Careers with the Best Work-Life Balance
In theory, any job that you find fulfilling—but not overwhelming—could offer a good work-life balance. However, some industries are better than others.
If you’ve ever had braces, then you know that it’s an expensive and lengthy process to get your teeth aligned. That’s not so great for the patients, but for the orthodontists in charge of the treatment, the result is a lucrative and relatively low-stress career. Unlike a dental surgeon, orthodontists aren’t likely to deal with emergency situations. That means they’re rarely going to be “on call” and can keep regular office hours.
According to U.S. News & World Report, orthodontists rank fourth in the best best-paying jobs in America. They earn a median salary of just over $200,000 a year. Unfortunately, you’ll need a doctorate to follow this career path. To be qualified, you’ll need years of study followed by licensing exams and ongoing professional education. Survey respondents reported that the job has a below-average stress level while providing a great deal of flexibility.
Whether you are a freelancer or work in an office, the role of a graphic designer can offer a good work-life balance. Many people who go into this line of work enjoy the creative aspect of the job and find it personally satisfying. Other than the occasional client meeting or team huddle, many graphic designers spend the majority of their workdays alone at the computer. It’s possible to listen to music, audiobooks, or podcasts while you work on more routine projects, which is a nice perk.
This career works best for people who aren’t secretly hoping to be artists. On the website Adventures With Art, blogger Diana warns against artists going into this field just for the paycheck:
Graphic design is stressful for those who struggle with merging their passions with their work. Your art is directed by the visions of other people, constricted by deadlines, and subjected to constant criticism. These factors don’t phase some people, but can make it stressful for others.
While you do need to meet deadlines as a graphic designer—and may sometimes deal with clients who are frustrated—it’s a job that you should be able to leave at the office at the end of the day.
Data scientists analyze information and solve problems. It’s not for everybody—you need a background in statistics, computer science, and business. But if you develop that skill set, you’ll find yourself in demand in pretty much every industry. Data scientists are paid very well for their expertise, and they spend their workdays sifting through information to spot trends and apply data to real-world challenges.
Because their skills are so desperately needed by businesses who are drowning in data and don’t know what do to with it all, data scientists have a lot of leverage. They also frequently work on a single project before moving on to the next challenge, which is great for people who tend to get bored with routines. Harvard Business School called data science “the sexiest job of the 21st century,” and while that might be a little bit of hyperbole, it’s true that these analysts are paid well, have plenty of jobs to choose from, and according to Lifehack, “consistently rank number one in work-life balance.”
If you’re an extrovert who loves talking on the phone, then working as a recruiter could be the perfect job for you. According to Emily Heaslip of ClickTime, this is the career with the best work-life balance.
“Because success as a headhunter depends on quality, not quantity, corporate recruiters are never under intense time constraints or forced to work odd hours,” Heaslip explains. “Plus, you spend your day talking to interesting people and wining and dining top candidates.”
So-called corporate headhunters earn an average salary of just over $97,000. The role requires excellent organizational skills and impeccable communication. You may need to attend career fairs or networking events outside normal working hours, but this role usually provides more flexibility than a typical office job. More and more of these jobs are transitioning to work-from-home, and Indeed.com reports that this HR specialty is projected to grow much faster than the national average.
Although it might not be the most lucrative career on this list, fitness instructors can earn a decent living without totally burning themselves out. You literally can’t take your work home with you when you’re a fitness instructor—well, unless you are running a YouTube channel or teaching over video calls. In general, you’ll have more flexibility to set your own hours with this job.
Of course, you’ll need to stay physically fit and continue learning new skills to develop your career. You’ll probably also want to join a professional organization and get certifications to make yourself more marketable. You can learn more about pursuing this career at Fitness Mentors, an organization for certified personal trainers.