How to Achieve Work/Life Balance in a Big City

Working in a large city can present unique challenges. Commuting from the suburbs, competing with other well-qualified candidates for promotions or jobs, or achieving enough income to accommodate the high cost of living all add to a work/life balance that’s more skewed to the “work” side.

In February 2018, WalletHub published the results of its study on the “hardest-working” cities in America. Using nine key metrics, including the number of hours people worked each week, vacation time, and commute length, researchers determined that U.S. workers in San Francisco, California topped the list of hardest workers, followed by Fremont, California; Jersey City, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C. New York City rounded out the top five.

The study also found that U.S. employees work 25% more hours than their European counterparts. According to WalletHub, the average U.S. worker put in 1,780 hours per year, which is 266 more hours than workers in the United Kingdom and 424 more than those in Germany.

After the study, WalletHub asked a panel of experts if they thought it was worthwhile for American workers to devote so many hours to their jobs. “Probably not,” said economics professor Jamin D. Speer, Ph.D. “Average income is higher in the U.S. […] but health and happiness are not. A more holistic view of personal health and satisfaction would suggest we should be working less and taking more time off.”

Speer’s suggestion is excellent — in theory. However, it’s not always that easy. Speer added that many people work long hours because they fear losing their jobs if their bosses think they aren’t working hard enough. That may be the reason more than half of Americans have unused vacation time each year. A survey found this is certainly true in New York City, where 53% of employees work through their allotted paid time off. Also, the same poll found that the average New Yorker spends 78.2 minutes traveling to and from work (39.1 minutes each way). All of that time adds up to a very long work week and less time for personal activities. That seems like more of a work/life imbalance than a work/life balance.

work life balance

A balancing act

So what exactly is work/life balance, and how does one achieve it — especially in one of the hardest-working cities in America? The term “work/life balance” seems to have originated in the U.S. in the 1980s. The concept is loosely defined as the time and energy allocated to work compared with other aspects of life that a person needs to feel satisfied. Working too much leads to stress, burnout, and overall unhappiness, whereas working too few hours could mean loss of income or an unsatisfied boss. As the term implies, achieving the right amounts of satisfaction in work and life is a delicate balancing act.

Ideally, employers would help U.S. workers achieve a healthy work-life balance by enforcing mandatory vacation time, reducing work hours, and making accommodations for workers to participate in family activities without feeling guilty. Unfortunately, business realities, an uneven economy, and sometimes employers’ expectations of ever-increasing productivity often take center stage, pushing thoughts of employees’ personal life out of mind. This attitude is counterintuitive, though. A recent study by Harvard Business Review found that the psychological and physical problems stemming from employee burnout cost U.S. companies up to $190 billion each year in healthcare spending.

Employees’ beliefs that longer hours translate to higher levels of pay and recognition can create an unhealthy, counterproductive competitive environment among coworkers. For millennials (people born between 1981 and 2000) especially, who are by the way a generation struggling to repay the most significant amount of student loan debt in history, staying competitive — and highly paid — seems to be their only choice.

Fortunately, there are other options for achieving a healthy work-life balance — even for millennials, and even if you live in a big, hard-working city.


If you’re like many American workers, you may feel tethered to your office 24/7 via your personal or company-issued smartphones, laptops, and tablets. While this technology allows employees to work from home or be reachable in case of an emergency, it’s more often used to extend their work hours beyond the norm. When this happens, there’s seemingly no separation between work and life; they bleed into one another and struggle to occupy the same space and time. 

While your level of off-work accessibility depends mostly on your work role and employment status (part-time or full-time or salaried versus hourly, for example), you can try to enhance your work/life balance by turning off, silencing, or simply ignoring your work-related electronic devices during your free time. This means not answering coworkers’ calls during lunch and resisting the urge to check work emails during your daughter’s Saturday soccer game.

If this sounds like career suicide to you, consider making incremental changes to limit your accessibility when you’re away from work. As you leave the office for vacation or weekends, let your boss and coworkers know you’ll have limited (or no) availability, or that you’ll only check in once or maybe twice while you’re away. Post an out-of-office message to your email account and change your voicemail greeting to reflect the same. That alone will deter some people from contacting you.

Take your time (off)

According to Statista, full-time U.S. employees get ten days of statutory minimum paid leave and public holidays. Compared to the United Kingdom’s 37 or even Japan’s 25, this seems paltry. However, most employers offer additional paid time off for employees to rest and relax, enjoy quality time with family, or tend to personal errands and appointments. Unfortunately, too many U.S. workers leave this paid leave unused. 

You may believe there’s simply no good time to be away from the office, or perhaps you’re concerned about missing opportunities while you’re gone. However, it would help if you had this downtime for your physical and psychological well-being. Plus, an employee experiencing burnout or other adverse effects of long hours can be a liability to an employer.

Taking time off is crucial to achieving work/life balance. To make it easier, plan your vacations or days off as far in advance as possible to allow you to meet deadlines and delegate responsibilities well in advance of your absence. Prominently display your planned time off on your work and personal calendars, and remind your boss and coworkers as often as appropriate. Plan your days away around your hobby or essential events in your family life to give you more of a personal incentive to follow through.

If you feel like your boss will notice your absence, plan your time off at the same time as your boss’s days away, if at all possible. And if your work role doesn’t include paid time off, consider scheduling a small amount of unpaid leave. Even one day away from the office in the middle of the week every four or five months can make an incredible difference in your outlook and job satisfaction.

Be flexible

More and more employers realize the mutual benefits of flexible work arrangements. Flexible workplaces promote work/life balance by letting employees schedule their hours, allowing them to work from home, or giving them unlimited paid time off. At least one study confirmed that flexible hours promoted worker well-being and greater happiness.

Of course, this arrangement is dependent on your employer and your work role and your preferences and personality. If a fully flexible work environment isn’t an option, consider small changes that can enhance your work-life balance. For example, maybe you can offer to work one 10-hour day so you can leave two hours early the next. One long day might be well worth getting to join your friends for a happy hour or finally being able to attend your spouse’s holiday party.

Maximize the “life” in work/life balance

Because balance is an exercise in giving and taking, achieving a healthy work-life balance may include changes to your personal life as well as your work habits. Management professor Marcus Butts believes the “people most stricken by work/life balance issues are, expectedly, dual-earner families.” In this situation, both partners have jobs, so managing the household is not the exclusive responsibility of either person. Even so, often, household or childcare duties tend to fall primarily on one or the other partner.

 To achieve a more desirable work-life balance, maybe meal preparation, grocery shopping, house cleaning, lawn care, or entertainment of young children could be more evenly distributed or even contracted out occasionally. Sharing or outsourcing responsibilities is one of the best ways to reduce stress levels at home.

 If your household chores or other aspects of family life weigh you down during your evenings or weekends away from work, consider getting those duties out of your way as soon as possible, so you’re not spending your free time dreading what’s to come. Also, find shortcuts that alleviate these stressors, like preparing meals for your entire week all at once or having household supplies auto-shipped on a regular schedule.

 Whenever you have even a little time away from work, it’s essential to use it to do something you enjoy. Maybe that’s volunteering, practicing a hobby, spending time with your spouse or kids, or just being alone. Limit activities that waste your time (like social media, television binging, or web surfing) and avoid people who negatively affect your outlook.

Ready to make changes to your life?

Take care of yourself

 Your value as an employee is ultimately dependent on your physical and psychological health, so it’s in your employer’s best interest to encourage self-care activities. Fortunately, one advantage of being employed in one of the hardest working or most populous cities in America is the availability of resources for self-care.

Exercise is one of the best ways to build up your physical and mental resilience and dispel work or life stress. Physical exercise fills your body with feel-good endorphins and can put you in a healthy meditative state. Big cities offer plenty of opportunities for exercise, from multiple floors of stairs and walkable commutes to workplace or residential gyms or yoga studios and lovely outdoor parks.

Meditation is also a beneficial exercise you can practice practically anywhere — even at work — with minimal effort or time. A five-minute meditation break between phone calls or before a meeting can clear your mind and psych you up for what’s coming next. Even doing deep breathing exercises on the subway or train can calm you down and keep you focused.

Taking care of yourself also incorporates healthy eating and avoidance of overindulging. It’s fine to join your coworkers for post-office happy hour or an office birthday celebration, but steering away from that third tequila shot or a slice of cake will help you feel better and maintain a quality work-life balance.

Consider therapy

If you’re struggling to achieve work/life balance in the big city, consider talking with a therapist or mental health professional. Your particular work role or employer situation may require unique approaches or considerations for you to be able to balance your work obligations with your personal life. A therapist can help you to discover where you can make changes or improvements, and work with you to follow through.

At times, psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” is paired with medication to provide optimum results. Your therapist will work with you to design a personalized program that will help you find the right work-life balance. Let one of the mental health professionals at Therapy Group of NYC help you today.

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