Tips from Practitioners on Finding Work-Life Balance

by Communications Staff

November 1, 2005 — During the first few months of her post-doc at a hospital, Christy Hom, PhD, felt overwhelmed by her work and family responsibilities.

"I was constantly scrambling to find babysitters and rushing to get out of work in time to pick up my kids from daycare before the daycare center closed," says Hom, who was also on call evenings and weekends. "Although I was able to fulfill my responsibilities at work, I was very stressed and exhausted."

Midway through her post-doc year, Hom's program director allowed her to reduce her work week to three-and-a-half days per week by extending her commitment from 12 months to 15 months.

"The extra day-and-a-half off made a huge difference," says Hom. "It allowed me to take care of all sorts of family matters and take my kids to the park one or two days a week. The trade off was that I had to work a lot harder and be much more efficient on the days that I did go to work, but I was a much happier and relaxed person."

Like Hom, many practitioners today are faced with juggling a multitude of demands in their professional and personal lives. From caring for young children and aging parents, to managing new technologies that can keep them "on call" day and night, practitioners are discovering the challenges and the benefits of balancing work, family and other responsibilities in their lives.

When work and family demands conflict with each other, the negative effects may include psychological distress, physiological concerns, decreased work performance and decreased job and life satisfaction. As related to practicing psychologists in particular, research shows that working in isolation and handling others' emotional problems can lead to emotional stress, especially when patient trauma is acute or experienced over the long term (Stamm, 1999).

Roberta L. Nutt, PhD, chair of the APA Board of Professional Affairs' Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance (ACCA), says that managing stress and finding balance is an essential undertaking for psychologists.

"We all have stress in our lives; that's to be expected," says Nutt, director of the counseling psychology doctoral program at Texas Woman's University. "But if our lives are not balanced, we increase our stress. Work-life balance helps keep us healthy-physically and mentally."

How can practitioners today find balance amid multiple work and life demands? Practitioners recommend the following steps:

Incorporate Self-care Activities into Your Life

Nutt recommends that practitioners tap into a variety of self-care strategies involving physical and emotional self-care. Research supports this recommendation by showing that self-care can help create balance and can contribute to good physical and mental health and improved quality of life (Pope & Vasquez, 2005).

Know Your Limitations

Take a look at the amount of time you devote to work, family and other demands and consider how you can better balance your schedule, say practitioners. If your schedule is full, know when to say "no," and know when to take a break.

"Nowadays with the information age it feels as if there is always more to do than one can truly accomplish in one day," says Jonathan Huppert, PhD, assistant professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Huppert and his wife, a cardiologist, combine busy professional schedules with caring for three children, ages 5, 3 and 1. "Accept that you're not going to be able to do everything that you want to do. If your emotions are telling you that you're overwhelmed, that's a good time to take a step back."

Develop a Social Support Network

Research has shown a correlation between social support and lower levels of work-family conflict (Quick & Tetrick, 2002, p. 151). Nutt advises practitioners, especially those who work in isolation, to seek out and develop social support networks at work and at home. "Find a supportive peer group," says Nutt, who adds that support is available through peer consultation groups, informal sharing with friends and colleagues and personal psychotherapy.

Develop Outside Interests

Finding and nurturing interests apart from psychology is important, says Nutt. She recommends finding hobbies, volunteering or engaging in recreational activities, exercise and travel to relieve stress and find balance.

Don't Let Work Take Over Your Life

"We tend to form our identity around what we do as a job," says Nutt. "Part of the point of work-life balance is recognizing that there's more to you than being a psychologist. Work-life balance helps practitioners to avoid over-identifying with one role." Nutt notes that the literature shows that those who identify with multiple roles that are important to them are healthier than those who identify with a single role, as long as the multiple roles are not overwhelming.

Embrace Flexibility

Practitioners agree that setting aside time for various responsibilities requires discipline as well as flexibility.

"One needs to set priorities," says Huppert. "It comes down to protecting one's own time and making decisions. Part of it is working differently. I will work later at night after my kids are asleep so I can spend time with them before they go to sleep. And generally, I don't schedule patients at 8:00 a.m."

Allowing for scheduling changes is key, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, a clinical psychologist, author and mother of four children. "Whatever work-family balance you establish, give yourself some wiggle room," she says. "Things come up: kids get sick, deadlines loom, new opportunities come up, spouses change jobs… Your work-family balance should involve enough flexibility that you can respond to these normal but unpredictable events without driving yourself into the ground."

Seek out a Supportive Work Environment

Research has shown that both employees and employers can benefit from supportive work-life balance programs, such as flexible scheduling and childcare or eldercare. Such programs can help workers balance the many demands in their lives (Jamison & O'Mara, 1991). In addition, organizations that offer alternative work arrangements can lessen work-family conflicts and promote organizational commitment and job satisfaction (Scandura & Lankau, 1997).

Hom values the support her current work setting offers. "I have been very fortunate in being able to find part-time work that is flexible enough to fit my family's schedule," says Hom, who works as associate director of the Neuropsychology Laboratory of the University of California's Irvine Child Development Center. "Prior to my post-doc, I never would have imagined wanting to work part-time. But for me, right now, a job of 15-20 hours per week is perfect," she says.

Adopt a Long-range Perspective

Work-life balance means something different for each person and depends on each individual's life and career stage, says Nutt. "We all have different needs to balance during different stages of our careers," she says. "Keeping things in perspective and creating a long-term balance is important. We may not be able to keep every day balanced, but we can work to keep the week or the month balanced. We all need to find the steps that work for us."


Jamison, D., & O'Mara, J. (1991). Managing workforce 2000. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pope, K.S., & Vasquez, M.J.T. (2005). How to survive and thrive as a therapist: Information, ideas, and resources for psychologists. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Quick, J.C., & Tetrick, L.D. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of Occupational Health Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Scandura, T.A., & Lankau, M.J. (1997). Relationships of gender, family responsibility, and flexible work hours to organizational commitment and job satisfaction. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 18, 377-391.

Stamm, B.H. (1999). Secondary traumatic stress: Self care issues for clinicians, researchers, and educators. (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Sidran.