March 14, 2024

Life Balance: A Return on Investment

A photograph of a beach scene with a carefully positioned pile of rocks and pebbles in the foreground. The size of the rocks and pebbles getting gradually smaller creating a pyramid style shape.

Life Balance - A Return on Investment

“Life balance is about getting the right return on the resources you invest in the key domains of your life: Your work, your social life, and, crucially, your self.”    

Work-life balance has become a buzzword, one that yields over a billion google search results. A large proportion of these are recently produced, well-meaning articles that provide tips on how you can improve your work-life balance and that reflect a shift in perceptions of what makes a workplace attractive. However, they fail to agree on a meaningful definition of this elusive construct that does not demonise work as something that interferes with the treasured family life. This characterisation does not account for those of us who thrive at work, or those who are in a good mood when we engage in activities outside work because we have had a good day at work, or those who find their life is more complex than a simple binary distinction between life and work. As a result, we propose the broader concept of life balance, or Life Return on Investment (Life ROI).

What is Life Balance?

We define life balance as a sustainable equilibrium between the resources we allocate to the various domains of our lives and the return on that investment. We identify three principal life domains: our work, our social life, and, crucially, our self. The resources we allocate can include physical or emotional energy or more tangible things like time and money.

Key to our definition is that there are individual differences in which domain is most important to each of us at any given time and thus in our ideal allocation of resources to promote happiness, motivation, self-actualisation, and personal growth.

Why we Need Balance

There is a vast amount of literature highlighting the problems that arise when one is not satisfied with one’s work-life balance, or as we prefer, life balance. Most significantly, a poor life balance can manifest itself in a variety of mental and physical health problems (Lunau et al., 2014) such as stress and anxiety.

The literature also highlights the benefits of an effective life balance. At the individual level, the better people’s life balance, the lower their reported levels of anxiety and depression (Haar et al., 2014) and the higher their job satisfaction and general wellbeing (Bell et al., 2012). At the organisational level, companies that help people achieve balance across all their life domains see increased job satisfaction, higher commitment, and more engagement and, as a result, reduced absence, increased participation, higher performance, and better staff retention (Smeaton et al., 2014). These studies are evidence for the monumental role life balance plays in our lives and in that of organisations.

The MindAlpha Life Balance Model

Our model broadly follows Grawitch et al.’s (2010) Personal Resource Allocation framework and Hobfoll’s (1989) Conservation of Resources theory. According to these, we possess finite personal resources, specifically time, physical and emotional energy, and financial reserves. We expend these to fulfil demands that the various life domains present us, with the goal of achieving a balance among them that satisfies our emotional and motivational needs.

As the name suggests, rather than focussing on the balance between work and non-work, life balance encompasses all the domains we move in. We distinguish three primary domains of work, social, and self. Each of these presents demands which we want to or have to attend to. In the work domain, we primarily allocate resources to our performance, our career progression and growth, and our connectedness at work. In the social domain, we expend energy on family commitments and responsibilities, on the creation and maintenance of relations with friends, and on networks that support us more broadly. Within the domain of the self, we allocate resources to personal maintenance, specifically in the areas of our mental and physical health, to self-actualisation and growth, and to rest and recovery.

For each of these domains we have a preferred amount of resources that we want to expend and we compare this amount to the resources we perceive to be needed to meet the demands of the domain in order to get the outcome we want. The resource input for each domain results in one primary outcome, namely performance within that domain.

How Imbalances Occur

As we constantly evaluate the alignment of our expected input with the actual input required and between our desired outcome and the actual outcome we receive, there are two types of imbalance that can occur. Firstly, there can be a misalignment between the resources we ideally want to allocate to a domain and our perception of what is actually needed (Type I imbalance). Because we have a finite amount of resources, expending more than we ideally want to in one domain means that we can expend less than we would like to in another. This leads to dissatisfaction and is not sustainable over the long-term. Second, we expect a certain level of outcome for our input, however, there can be a misalignment between expected and actual outcomes (Type II imbalance).

We are in balance when we effectively manage our resources to meet demands. When this happens, we are satisfied, and we will maintain our behaviour. However, if we perceive a Type I imbalance, we must either adjust our resource input or adjust our perception of what the ideal resource allocation is. If we perceive a Type II imbalance, again, we can adjust our resource input to get the expected outcome or we can adjust our outcome expectation (Adkins & Premeaux, 2019). Thus, we need to constantly evaluate our life balance and the returns on our investments. If we do not get the desired outcome for the effort put in, we can either rebalance the input required to achieve the outcome, or we can keep the input steady and re-evaluate the outcome. Alternatively, we can accept the imbalance, but this means neglecting demands in other areas, which is unsustainable in the long-term.

Investing for the Future

There is one exception in which a short-term imbalance is workable. A secondary outcome of resource input in one domain may be resources gained in another. For example, sleep, exercise, and nutrition satisfy demands of the personal domain but they also create energy to satisfy demands in other domains: A promotion or change of jobs can result in more financial resources that can be expended in other domains; a positive social experience may invigorate us and create energy that becomes an input for another domain. This process is known as a positive spill-over (Grzywacz & Marks, 1999; Wayne et al., 2007). Domains can be mutually facilitating if managed well, in which case short-term imbalances can be productive.

Individual Differences

A key factor in the model is that we all have individual preferences as to what effective resource management means. Individuals vary in their personalities, interests and circumstances. As a result, the demands they want to and have to meet and their preferences as to how to allocate resources to do so will vary. There are three major factors that influence individual preferences:

1.      Behavioural norms can exert strong external pressure over resource allocation. A study found that the conflict over time allocated between the work and non-work domains was not only related to the freedom given by the organisation to make the choice but also by perceived pressure from work or home as well as our own personal preferences (Delanoeije & Verbruggen, 2019). When we face high expectations from our family to focus more on the social domain, taking up a workplace offer of more flexible hours only eases the conflict if 1) we do not experience peer pressure from work not to take up the offer and 2) we actually want to spend more time in our social domain.

2.      Demographic variables and life and career stage also have a significant impact on resource allocation preferences. A study that included participants from different generations found that while they all placed a similar value on trust, Millennials perceived an emphasis on employee growth and development as central to their life balance, while Baby Boomers and Gen X valued a positive culture and fairness more highly (Gilley et al., 2015). Thus, the culture of an organisation will have a different effect on the preferred level of resource input to the work domain across different age groups.

3.      Finally, from an internal perspective, personality, values, and identity play a significant part in determining resource allocation (Guest, 2002). For example, if a role fits our self-image, we will be more motivated to allocate resources to it; extraverts are more willing to expend resources on social demands than introverts; and optimists are more likely to judge their resources as sufficient to meet their demands effectively than pessimists.

Improving Life Balance

Policies and articles recommending a “one-size-fits-all” approach are clearly inappropriate as they ignore these differences. Individual differences must be considered when we design solutions to help us cope with the varying demands we face.

The term “balance” as a verb implies that we can actively take steps to achieve an equilibrium. We continually strive to achieve a fit between our expected and our experienced resource allocation, and between desired and actual outcomes.

Recently, increasing expectations of constant availability of employees have infringed on the amount of time and energy that individuals can dedicate to other demands. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this issue, as most people have been limited to meeting all their simultaneous demands within the physical space of their homes. This breakdown of the physical barriers between domains has made the allocation task much harder.

Moreover, with the job losses that came with the pandemic, job security has become an increasingly important factor. Consequently, many people have increased the value they place on the work domain. This need to allocate more resources to the work domain has come at the expense of other domains, but it has not resulted in a greater expected outcome from the work domain, nor has it resulted in additional resources that can be redeployed in the social or self domains.

Popular media frequently recommends that workplaces give their employees more choice and autonomy over how they manage work demands. However, research on the usefulness of this has been mixed. A study found that the effectiveness of this depends on the extent to which the individual believes they have control over events in their lives (Meier et al., 2008). Among individuals who believe they have control over their lives (known as having an internal locus of control), increasing the freedom to choose how they work was highly effective in reducing the burden of job demands. However, among individuals who do not believe they have control (i.e. an external locus of control), increasing their freedom of choice was actually detrimental, causing greater uncertainty and stress. Having control over how, when, and where we work is only effective as a buffer against stress for individuals who believe they control their own lives. In contrast, for people who believe that fate runs their lives, this freedom of choice can be an additional stress factor.

Three Solutions for Organisations

The question then is what organisations can do to aid the effectiveness of our personal resource management. We propose three areas of focus:

First, organisations can provide training to increase competence to prioritise demands effectively and make effective decisions regarding resource allocation. This goes hand in hand with encouragement for personal development outside the work domain. It also requires creating the flexibility for people to take control over their resources, and support for those who find this challenging.

Secondly, organisations must recognise individual differences in what constitutes an ideal balance when developing strategies to help people cope with demands. Coaching and mentoring are effective avenues to develop personalised strategies that can encourage individual development and promote growth.

Lastly, organisations promote certain norms. Life imbalance, if stemming from organisational norms, is likely to be a feature right across the organisation (Parkes & Langford, 2008). To help promote better life balance and ensure the effectiveness of the first two suggestions, organisations need to send a message that not only permits but encourages balance. Supervisors and managers are key to this as they set examples of behaviour and provide instrumental and emotional support to others.


Enabling a better and more proactive approach to life balance among employees is a powerful way of treating them with respect, fairness and trust. These values are reciprocated by employees in the shape of increased participation, more engagement, and better organisational citizenship behaviour.

Because performance and productivity within a domain require us to not only expend energy on tasks within that domain but also to balance these against the demands of other domains, there needs to be a clear focus on where we disengage. As demands on our resources increase, we need to expend energy on other demands in a way that allows us to recharge. Organisational support of better life balance not only helps individuals but ultimately creates a happier and higher-performing workplace.

MindAlpha Life Balance Workshops can help provide solutions. Using our framework, we help employees co-create individual behavioural science-based solutions that embed simple practices and habits that help maintain the ideal balance across the three life domains.


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Bell, A. S., Rajendran, D., & Theiler, S. (2012). Job stress, wellbeing, work-life balance and work-life conflict among Australian academics. Electronic Journal of Applied Psychology, 8(1), 25-37.

Delanoeije, J., & Verbruggen, M. (2019). The use of work-home practices and work-home conflict: Examining the role of volition and perceived pressure in a multi-method study. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(2362).

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