Working Smarter

The Work-Life Balance Imperative: Why Excess and Overload Are at Odds with the Human Mandate

Posted by Joe Robinson

Life balance at the beach copy 2

When your car is out of alignment, you know it. It drifts into the other lane when you take your hand off the wheel, and you wind up fighting your own vehicle to stay on the path. So you take it to the shop and get the wheels balanced. When humans are misaligned by overwhelm, 60-hour weeks, or five hours of sleep a night, we know it too.

That’s because our physiology was designed to function with all systems operating in tandem at a level the brain can manage most efficiently, known as homeostasis. It’s another way of saying we are born to be balanced.

When we’re not, we drift out of our physical and mental lanes into exhaustion, stress, and serious illnesses and diseases that burn up our health and performance like unbalanced wheels burn rubber—for nothing.


You wouldn’t know it from the state of the world or the sales of Tums, but staying aligned is a favorite topic inside each our heads and bodies. In one study, researchers measured what happens in the brain when it’s confronted with crazy, dissonant music with no discernible melody. The MRI scanner captured brain neurons furiously firing away, trying to find something, anything resembling a pattern.

They were looking for harmony, things in melodic equilibrium. Finding none, they couldn’t do their job, which is making sense out of the scrambled hash in front of us every day.

Another study measured what it is that people like about good dancers, which obviously we do, considering the number of dancing contests we have on the air and the appreciation of clever footwork going back to Fred Astaire and Soul Train. Researchers digitized the figures of the dancers, so the study’s participants wouldn’t be distracted by looks or clothes to go for the coolest or most beautiful person's moves. It turned out that what we are attracted to in the best dancers is their symmetry, the flow of body movements—harmony once again.

What is work-life balance in light of these findings? Balance is a built-in mandate, from balanced minds, to meals to work-life balance. Someone who is unbalanced we tend to want to give a wide berth to.

We can see that maintaining equilibrium is an essential part of the physiology and not a frill by the body’s own balancing acts to counter stress. As Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky puts it in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “a stressor can be defined as anything that throws your body out of allostatic balance and the stress-response is your body’s attempt to restore allostasis.”


When a threat overloads capacity to handle it, it sets off autonomic activation of the body’s defense system to cope with it, the stress-response triggering an alert that gushes hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol, jacks up blood pressure, rounds up energy stores in the body to push blood to the arms and legs to fight or run from the danger, and stops energy storage, unneeded when life is on the line.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

The activation process burns up energetic resources, such as fats and sugars, which have to be replaced. No problem. The body’s counterbalance squad, the parasympathetic system, is there to put a brake on the hyper-arousal and fuel-burning with its mandate—rest and digest. It makes us hungry for foods that can help us replace the lost nutrients (which can wind up to be junk food, if that’s what’s handy), and serves to calm us down after the threat is gone.

When the activation system of stress isn’t shut down, and we can’t return to allostasis for long periods of time or chronically, it can lead to any number of major health issues that we could term diseases and syndromes of imbalance. Irritable bowel. Hypertension. Diabetes. Stroke. Insomnia. Back pain. Adrenal dysfunction. Chronic fatigue syndrome. We get sick when we can’t counterbalance the forces throwing our system out of whack.

A mind out-of-balance because of excess demands and the chronic stress that results from them has less attention and focus, which undercuts performance on the job or anywhere else. Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis of the moment. You can’t plan or see the big picture. Emotions are on a hair-trigger. Rapport with customers or colleagues plummets.

It takes more effort for a fatigued mind to get anything done. Every task seems more difficult than it is as the strain of rumination keeps minds projecting an obsessive loop of worries.

One of the afflictions trending these days in many workplaces is Attention Deficit Trait. It’s not something you are born with, like Attention Deficit Disorder, but it mimics the symptoms—highly distracted, hard to stick with a task, flitting from one thing to the next, time urgency, shrunken attention span. It’s a condition that comes from overstuffing brain cells with excess demands, information overload, and various short-circuiting that comes from trying to do too much without a clone at your side. It’s your brain’s warning light that the gray matter is severely unbalanced.


We tend to procrastinate about things we don’t feel have value. Clearly, balance shouldn’t be one of those things. It is invaluable, crucial to our health, critical thinking, performance, and outlook. When we don’t pay attention to it, the default is to overload, chronic stress, burnout, and an unconscious mechanical momentum that perpetuates all of that.

Taking work-life balance seriously is a process of proactive self-management and awareness. We need to be aware of stress when we are in the middle of it, aware of emotional reactions and moods when we are in the middle of them, aware of where boundaries are needed, aware of demands that overwhelm coping ability, aware that we have to engage in work recovery processes after the day is done to enable the body’s balancing resources to shut down the activation of demands and start the re-creation process.

With awareness, we can catch ourselves and do what we need to dispute stress, solve challenges, restore the body’s natural recovery processes, and find the counterbalance to get back to where we once belonged, as Lennon-McCartney once put it.

If you would like to inject balance into your team or organization and the engagement that comes with it, click the button below for details on my work-life balance training programs and keynotes.

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Tags: work-life balance and productivity, work-life balance and stress, physiology of balance, work life balance and the mind

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