Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
Guys-hero ;

Professor Wendy Hall and Professor Vasa Curcin: What makes a good work-life balance?

Professor Wendy Hall, Deputy Head of the Department of Nutrition & Dietetics, and Professor Vasa Curcin, Joint Head of Department, Population Health Sciences, discuss what defines a good work-life balance. They discuss what a good work-life balances means to them, steps that can be taken to help support a healthy work-life balance and ways to support a positive work place culture.

Image of Vasa Curcin (left) and Wendy Hall (right)

How would you define a good work-life balance?

Wendy: It’s having enough time to spend time with your family and connect with them. And also having time to take care of yourself, so health and wellbeing, having time to do physical exercise and making sure you keep that time to attend appointments, to get hair done or whatever it is, go to the dentist, to read and do hobbies and things like that.

I started running about eight years ago and honestly, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I found that it gave me that alone time and then I was able to just let my mind wander or listen to a podcast. And I find that I was more resilient to work stress as a result. No matter what happens with my workload, I never sacrifice this running time. I keep that in the diary, I don’t let that go because once you don’t go for a few weeks, it’s hard to get back in again.

Vasa: I did the exact same thing a few years ago and I am now hooked - typically in the mornings while listening to some podcast. It is very healthy - you need to find that space for physical activity. And you get the endorphin rush, which is a very big element of it.

It sounds like you have identified some strategies and mechanism to achieve what you would consider a good work-life balance - but do you feel that you are able to maintain a good work-life balance?

Wendy: I think on balance, overall, yes. There are times when I do feel that workload builds up and tasks and deadlines, but the main thing is that it doesn’t become the main pattern every week. The other thing is being mentally present at home, because you can be physically there but not always mentally. And sometimes I find when I’m rushing between work and taking my children to after-school activities, I’m still in my head in the work. So I try to tell myself to switch off and pay attention to her and talk to her. And it’s just constantly reminding yourself to do those things, it’s not easy. But as long as you keep trying, that’s the main thing.

Vasa: I’m not saying I always have a good work-life balance, and I do occasionally end up doing work on weekends or at night. But I try as much as possible not to let that impact my family and my health. Recently, I’ve become far more conscious of the need to pay attention to my physical and mental health. And that sometimes means that I have some unread emails and that I don’t reply to everything immediately, as you end up having to prioritise. Pretty much every leadership course I’ve been to emphasises good time management, and I think we need to have more of that as part of the general training and support for our staff. Quite often, it is the junior academics who burn themselves down because they don’t prioritise. They always want to meet every deadline, achieve everything that’s been mentioned to them. Learning to say no is a very important skill.

What constitutes a good work-life balance may differ for everybody. Some may not mind working long hours or weekend whilst others are not necessarily always able to do that. How can we foster a culture where staff can make those decisions and do not feel that everybody necessarily has to follow the same work pattern?

Vasa: I would say that you need to have a very open communication about these issues. And especially in a line manager role, we should not be imposing our preferences on everyone. I don’t have the same communication patterns with all my colleagues. There are some who are perfectly happy to chat about work in the evenings, or over the weekend and we do that and that’s fine. But with them I have an implicit understanding that if we are doing something else maybe there won’t be a reply until later or the next day. Other people prefer not to discuss work-related matters outside of their working hours, and with them, I try to be very careful to respect that. So you need to know what people’s preferences are. And being able to have an open discussion and simply observe that rather than impose on their personal time.

Wendy: I think it’s good to have that conversation with them then at the beginning of a PhD or research appointment. Lay out expectations and encourage them to take all their annual leave entitlement. Let them know that you might send emails out of hours, but you don’t expect them to reply and that importance of maintaining social interactions and getting enough sleep. I think also the Outlook facilities are useful, such as the delayed delivery which I do use. I also try to make sure that if I’m sending an email without delayed delivery, it’s not anything that’s likely to promote a stress response because people do check their emails on their phones. So, if it’s anything that’s going to be “oh there is a deadline” or “the data you sent me, there’s a problem with it” or anything like that I try to just keep to work hours. It’s very tempting to check your email anyway and then it’s not nice at ten o’clock at night to be getting stressed about something.

Any other tips and tricks?

Vasa: I do have a signature saying that I’m not expecting replies outside of working hours but I agree it is better practice to just delay it to tomorrow. And, of course, if you have written a particularly emotional email late at night, leave it for tomorrow before sending.

Wendy: There’s lots of things now on Viva Engage on Teams, where you can set up focus time and remind yourself to clock off and things like that. Even if you end up ignoring those prompts, they are worth having a look at. Some might find them useful.

Vasa: I would say, especially with new staff and new appointments, it is important to be particularly mindful of how easy it is to intimidate them. Because if they are new and they don’t know their way around, maybe they could end up taking some comments or some actions far more seriously than somebody who’s been working in this environment for a long time. We need to be mindful of the influence and effect we have on junior staff.

Wendy: And set an example. For many years there was a sort of conversational habit for colleagues to compete on how late we were working the previous night or how much we did over the weekend, how busy we are. Maybe we should not be having it as a badge of honour but rather give an example where you say: “I managed to have a good break over the weekend and went walking with my family.”

Vasa: Absolutely. We need to set positive examples and make sure that it becomes part of the culture and how we conduct research. So, whenever we end up doing late nights to meet some deadlines, that should be an exception, rather than a rule.

In this story

Wendy  Hall

Wendy Hall

Professor of Nutritional Sciences

Vasa Curcin

Vasa Curcin

Professor of Health Informatics

Latest news