If the concept of work life balance sounds like an important and worthy goal, here are the steps I suggest you incorporate into your job search to help ensure that the job you land next is consistent with your priorities.
What Do You Mean by Work / Life Balance?
As with all labelled concepts, you need to define what you mean. Sure, the general concept is understood, but what does it specifically mean to you?
Without some definition, it is difficult for you to recognize it when you see it and you are in danger of the employer defining what they think balance means. They could assume that you don’t have a strong work ethic. Or, they may provide employee perks that they consider to be work / life balance enhancers, when in fact they might mean very little to you.
What would a realistic, but acceptable workweek and month look like? What kind of hours and travel schedule? How much work would you bring home with you? What non-work roles do you have and what kind of time and flexibility do you require to fill them? Put some definition around work / life balance and don’t forget to include requirements like maximum commute time.
How Important are Your Requirements to You?
This part is critical. You must decide how important your definition of work / life balance is to you. Which requirements are musts vs. ideals? What tradeoffs are you willing to accept? When it comes down to an actual job offer, are you willing to walk away from the offer if the employer’s expectations of the amount of time and energy you put into your job go against your requirements? Most people wish, but don’t decide. The difference is critical.
Evaluate Your Position
Part of your decision of course depends on the state of the job market, and more relevantly, your position relative to the market. If you are reasonably sure that with a proper job search, you are going to have multiple decent opportunities, then you should be picky when it comes to choosing the next stop on your career. If, however, you are in tight circumstances, at a stage of your career where you are less employable, or in a narrow niche where there aren’t a lot of opportunities, then reality calls for some flexibility on your part.
Pick Your Targets
Job search success is to a great degree about good job search process. Believe it or not, you have the power to decide within your area of expertise which fields, companies, and opportunities to target and which to ignore. Doing research early in your process will help you focus on targets that fit your work / life balance criteria, and which don’t. How do you know?
If you have already worked in your field, then you have some understanding of how things work. Use this knowledge. Some companies have intense work cultures or a reputation for demanding a lot. If that isn’t for you, steer clear. Some jobs within your field are more likely to be work / life balance unfriendly. Do your research. Talk to people in your industry, which you should be doing anyway as part of your networking process.
When you do get an interview, you have to apply your screen. The first interview often isn’t the most conducive setting for you to ask questions. The employer is usually vetting you. If you do move forward in the process, you can ask questions and try to gather clues. Your intuition will help.
In terms of directly asking about work / life balance, I think it is something you can do when you have some sense that the employer thinks you are qualified and is interested in you. Good candidates can be hard to find. So, at that point, they want to keep you interested. I recommend that when asking a direct question about work / life balance, you qualify it with your desire to work hard, but effectively, and see what kind of reaction you get.
Ultimately, it comes down to the offer and your decision. Over my years of working with people in transition, I have noticed that the decision point is a test of people’s values and confidence. It is one thing to plan hypothetically. It is another to walk away from a live opportunity. Feeling that you don’t have a choice is often about not having done a proper thorough, and proactive career transition.