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Big Ideas

Work/Life Separation Is Impossible. Here’s How to Deal with It.

As much as we may try, there is no wall between our work selves and our home selves. Keeping a balance means getting real with how one affects the other.

The ideal of compartmentalizing our work and home lives sounds appealing in a self-help book or advice-based TV show, but reality is much messier than that. As anyone who has ever received a call from their child’s school at work knows, the barrier between our professional and domestic realms is more of a door than a wall.

Emotional traffic through that door moves in both directions: good news in one arena can lead to positive effects in the other, and vice versa. Unfortunately, this is true for negative scenarios too. Rather than pretending we live in a tidy world with a clean separation between work and play, it’s more productive to acknowledge reality: life is complicated.

Consider the complex web of work and family influences uncovered by European psychologists in a paper published this summer. By studying diaries kept by over 150 employees at 25 Spanish organizations, the researchers led by Ana Sanz-Vergel documented what they described as a “negative spiral” – it started with a clash of priorities between work and home (for example, a mix-up over who was dropping the kids at school), this was followed by an increased risk of arguments with colleagues at work, and this strife at work then fed back and increased domestic friction in the home. We often think of our lives as having separate domains, but this research shows that when there’s a clash of demands from our different responsibilities, the fall out spreads far and wide like a common cold.

Research shows that when there’s a clash of demands from our different responsibilities, the fall out spreads far and wide like a common cold.

Your partner’s work-life affects your own

Of course, it’s not just our professional travails that wind up affecting our family life. Research shows that our partner’s experience at work affects us at home, and this in turn affects our behavior at work (and vice versa – that is, our working life affects our partner’s work). That “how was your day” conversation could have some unintended effects on you both if you’re not aware. For example, a German study of 114 dual-earning couples found that one person’s after-hours psychological detachment from work was associated with their partner’s own detachment from their work. Stated simply, if your other half finds it easy to switch off when they get home, then you will probably find it easier too, which is beneficial for your family and work life.

That “how was your day” conversation could have some unintended effects on you both if you’re not aware.

Similarly, if your partner comes home pumped from a good day, this will likely rub off on you, boosting your own work performance tomorrow. Researchers showed this in 2013 after asking a hundred more couples to keep diaries of their self-esteem when they got home from work, and then again just before bed. When a participant’s partner came home with high work-related self-esteem, by bedtime this had usually transferred to the spouse. These studies remind us to be considerate and sensitive when we return home. Our emotional baggage from work is highly contagious. Share your good news, by all means. But if you’re feeling stressed, try hard to unwind first before dumping out your stress, not just for your own sake, but for your partner’s too.

Your colleagues family-work interference affects your work

We read earlier that when our family and work lives clash, this is often followed by increased conflict at work. It follows logically that the same rule applies to our colleagues – if they have trouble juggling their domestic and professional lives, this is likely to have an adverse effect on us. Explicit evidence for this comes courtesy of a Dutch study of over a thousand pairs of employees. When one colleague in a pair struggled with work and family demands, this tended to go hand in hand with the other colleague experiencing more burn out (manifested as days off sick from work) and lower engagement with work (manifested as a desire to leave the organization). The precise reasons for this harmful contagion aren’t clear, but we can imagine that if a close colleague is struggling with family demands, this could mean picking up some of their slack and listening to their complaining.

What to do about it?

These findings remind us that we all influence each other – whether it’s partners at home or colleagues at work. If your colleague is struggling, this could hit you and filter through and harm your partner’s home and work life. Stress at home and at work are both contagious. And just like we can wash our hands to avoid illness, we can prevent our stress from rubbing off on one another. There’s a lesson here for all of us, and for managers in particular. By cultivating a supportive, flexible culture, we can reduce the likelihood of anyone getting swamped by work and family demands, and in so doing, we all gain.

Other practical steps come from research on psychological detachment – the ability to leave work-stress at the office. This is easier said than done, given that chronic time pressure and longer work hours mean less time at home. Which means we don’t get enough time to “detach.” In other words, mental detachment from work is hardest just when we need it most. Nonetheless, there are clear findings on how to help switch off from work: 

When you get home and find work-related thoughts encroaching on your mind, try focusing on what’s going well at work, and what you enjoy. It goes without saying – keep away from your work emails, especially last thing at night (it’s hard to detach when staring at that calendar invite). Also, fulfilling social activities and exercise have both been linked with effective psychological detachment. It sounds counter-intuitive but yet another study found that using spare time to complete unpaid volunteer work is particularly restorative, possibly because of the new skills and relationships that are formed. 

Finally, bear in mind other research that highlights the importance of using some of your non-work time to do what you enjoy and makes you happy – what you might think of as “me time”. The idea is that this helps you cope with your family and work responsibilities. The classic example would be the mother who goes to the gym or pool on the way home from work, arriving home in a better mood as a result. She subsequently enjoys her family responsibilities more, and in turn ends up being in a better frame of mind at work the next day, which has benefits for her family life, and so on. 


Although you have many different roles in life, you are ultimately one and the same person, with limited time, energy and resources. If pressure is applied in one area of life, the consequences ripple outwards to other areas. The same is true for our partners and colleagues. By respecting this interconnectivity we have with each other, and across our different roles, we will all benefit.

How about you?

How do you keep work-you and home-you in balance?

More Posts by Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s a senior editor at Aeon. His next book will be about personality change. He is @Psych_Writer on Twitter.

Comments (14)
  • Amariet

    Great article. I’m sure that there are many people who can relate.


    excited by the article. work – life balance is one of my interests! So true and the topic is still so problematic. The work sometimes just doesn’t happen by interference of daily issues. I am blogging about remote work productivity and virtual team building, be my guest at

  • Louis Novick

    I still struggle everyday with my work/life balance. Especially since I must commit a large portion of my time every week to school on top of everything else. In my down time I try to work out, which I find relieves a lot of stress. I hope I find the perfect balance one day.

  • John Smith
  • Akash Shetty

    I have made peace with myself that there is no such thing as work life balance but that doesn’t mean you cant do anything about to balance it out or remove the negativity, One thing that helps me switch off from work mode is Gaming, After I reach home I spend probably an hour or half playing AAA immersive games which makes me mentally switch off from work and immerse into the game and after the gaming session I get into my home life mode thus having a clear head…

    • Ashley Pajak

      If there is one thing I have learned from being a wife of a gamer, is you give them that time or there is going to be a lot of sass that day. I usually spend a half an hour reading about some fantasy land or another. I think that in order to get a little space from whatever irritation you have to pretend to be someone else for a little bit.

  • Kellie Edwards

    Thanks, clear and sensible. Our research shows mothers stuggle with this and layer guilt on top for doing so. Mindful self compassion really helps and is the basis of our online program Looking forward to your book Christian

  • Ari Tulla

    Especially in a time where startup founders are popping up left and right, it’s important for us to recognize that we are all human and have real life needs that we must attend to outside of work. There will never be enough hours in the day to accomplish everything, setting priorities is the only way to knock out the tasks that need to be accomplished before heading home and enjoying family.

  • Brian F

    Precisely, the problem is the long hous culture and the pervasiveness of managements attempt to have your heart as well as your mind (managing culture as its put). Try leaving it behind if your in a low paid job that demand you look happy all the time but treats you like a commodity, try leaving it behind if your on zero hours…this only works for well set up people I’m an increasingly small range of jobs. Not surprisingly work life balance has dropped off the agenda since the nineties when it briefly became fashionable.

  • Dawn AV Marie Jordan

    So why do we keep sacrificing Love to Labor? This is not Body Wise. Not healthy in body, mind or spirit. Time to make the school day match the work day, stagger starting times in shift work to mesh with biological clocks, give 3 years paid maternity/paternity leave to new parents plus organize household help to cook and clean for them. Take back the sabbath for couples, alone and family time. Rest and reflection, hugs, kisses, sleep and good food sitting down, playtime are as important as making money.

  • Clemens Frede

    Great article. I’ve always found the term “work/life” balance misleading to start with. Spillover-effect has been documented for a while now. I feel that the borders between personal life and work life (home office, flextime, etc) will dilute even more in the future. It will be interesting to see how employers and employees alike deal with it.

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