The importance of a good work-life balance during and beyond COVID-19

A work-life balance is something many people struggle to achieve or even define in their own lives. With the onset of COVID-19 and the changes it brought to how and where we work, finding that balance may be more important than ever.

08 Sep 2022 5 min read
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Nobel Laureates are often an excellent source for work-life balance tips. They’re industrious, they often juggle busy teaching schedules, dedicated research time, they’re writing and editing economic papers, all while also being supportive parents, spouses, colleagues, and friends. But even the ultra-efficient time managers amongst us, Laureates included, had their schedules and routines thrown upside down when COVID-19 hit.

A Not So Normal Reality

With schools and offices closed and the removal of commutes and traffic, remote workers had more time and fewer distractions which should – in theory – lead to increased productivity. Yet without the physical and organizational boundaries between work and home, many people had their physical and mental health negatively impacted. The pandemic created an entirely new environment for work and home life; it changed our overall physical and mental well-being as well.

Nobel Laureate Bengt Holmström thinks many of the ways in which we adapted, as it relates to work, may be long term. And while the changes feel modern, he also sees a regression to some older ways.

“The nature of work, obviously, has changed,” he says. “Virtual meetings and working from home, the whole hierarchical structure of work, that is the way companies are organized, that's going to have to become more flexible. I think people will work for many employers in the future, and it's going back to a time where you were multiskilled. You knew several things, you had to take care of the horses and the harvesting and all sorts of things. So I think people will become multi-skilled and probably also more entrepreneurial in the process.”

We all have a need to socialize with our work. The full community is lost if we just do video. Humans are social animals.
Bengt Holmström

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Holmström also sees a shift in how we view the world. While our ideas around work may have expanded due to technology, our sense of community may have tightened.

“It's reasonable to forecast that that people will be more local,” he says. “While we have been surprised by how much we can do via video, we can’t do everything via video. We can’t read body language and other signals. We all have a need to socialize with our work. The full community is lost if we just do video. We have a need to be together. Humans are social animals.”

The Importance of Work-Life Balance

Whether you’re in an office or working remotely, a work-life balance will mean different things to different people. The overall goal, however, is to achieve a sense of balance that increases satisfaction and reduces stress. One of the most common health issues in the workplace is chronic stress, which may lead to both physical and mental illness. Research shows that employees that aren’t committed to health are less productive. Which is why setting boundaries not only increases efficiency at work, but it also reduces stress in your personal life.

Laureate Robert Engle has long since understood the importance of work-life balance and advocated for it throughout his career. One of the ways he’s achieved his version of a work-life balance is to prioritize time for his passions outside of work and, of course, his family.

“The balance between family and career is one of the most important and most difficult balances that people in all professions have to face,” says Engle. “I feel like my family expects and deserves equal share. And so I’ve always felt, I can work hard and it’s my time and then I have to really reserve time for the family.”

You can’t just be brilliant, you have to work at it, you have to build up the background.
Robert Engle

Engle also loves music and dance and has played several instruments throughout his life. He goes to the symphony and orchestra regularly, attends the ballet, and sees as much live music as he can. He also grew up ice skating and skates as regularly as he can. Carving out time for these types of activities can allow for deeper personal connections and improved mental health. In Engle’s case, his activities keep him active which he sees as equally important for his physical health as it is for his mental health.

While his students may turn to him for lessons around the analysis of economic events and volatility measurements, he is as eager to share important life lessons.

“Work hard and play hard. You can’t just be brilliant, you have to work at it, you have to build up the background,” says Engle. “But that’s very rewarding. Creating something is one of the great rewards of being an academic and I think you do that best if you’re not doing it a hundred percent of the time. You have to keep part of your life spread around into other things. Keep a balance in your life.”

Planning for the Unknown

Nobel Laureate Michael Kremer says it’s important that we learn long term lessons from this. While the cause of any future pandemic is something we can’t predict, we can say with certainty that history repeats itself, and he hopes we remember how connected we all are.

“We don't think about health from a global perspective,” says Kremer. “If you look at some estimates, there's a two percent chance of a new pandemic per year. We had the 1918 flu, we've had HIV, we've had COVID-19. With that type of a risk, it's worth investing in preparing for it, even if none of the things you do to prepare are airtight.”

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