Occupational Balance: A reflection during the COVID-19 crisis. Thoughts for now and beyond.


Occupational balance is a core concept underlying the practice of occupational therapy. Whilst occupational balance cannot be defined in a ‘blanket statement to fit all’, occupational therapists generally consider that engaging in a balance of activities, within the broad functional areas of self-care (including rest), productivity and leisure, is fundamental to well-being, happiness and health.

Achieving a sense of occupational balance is a dynamic process; it is not a state of being, or something you seek to achieve one day and that’s that. It differs for each person, depending on their roles, responsibilities, routines and habits, plus their own subjective perceptions of quality of life and well-being. All of these are of course ever-changing.


My favourite definition is from Catherine Backman (2004, pg. 208), who proposes that occupational balance is:

“a relative state, recognisable by a happy or pleasant integration of life activities and demands”

This definition acknowledges that exploring this concept is a personal affair, requiring constant review.

During these strange times, we are noticing the impact that isolation and lockdown, as a result of COVID-19, are having on people’s ability to achieve a sense of occupational balance; particularly if they are also struggling with pre-existing or new mental health symptoms, recovering from physical injury, or living with a long-term disability, where occupational balance was perhaps already compromised.

Many people have needed to focus their time on changing how they work, getting to grips with video conferencing and the like, missing being with their work mates, or perhaps getting used to not being able to work at all. For key-workers on the front line, or people with relatives unwell, times are beyond tough and a whole plethora of emotions are being navigated. Others are needing to juggle their different roles and responsibilities, for example suddenly needing to home school their children, at the same time as working from home.

This change in people’s usual roles, responsibilities and routines will undoubtedly limit their capacity to engage in necessary and meaningful self-care and leisure/social activities. Indeed, some leisure and social activities, that many previously enjoyed and valued, are currently not possible or accessible.

Not everybody has the ability or means to use the internet and social media to stay connected with those around them – and, for most people, virtual contact does not compare to being physically around people. This is putting some at high risk of being deprived of occupations that are crucial to their mental and physical well-being.

However, as a positive, we are also noticing a trend in people using this time to reflect on their balance of occupations, perhaps comparing how their life was before the crisis and how it is now, finding some things to learn from. People around me (including myself), plus people in my wider (social) network, have been voicing some positives about spending more time at home, below are a few examples:

  • It has helped them connect more deeply with their loved ones

  • Has enabled them to engage in meaningful activities that they perhaps did not make time for before, for example reading, playing games and creating art

  • Has given them time to get those jobs done around the house that they have been putting off for ages

  • Has reduced the stress of being stuck in traffic or waiting at train stations

I have observed that people are using this time to think about what they would like their lives to look like when this global crisis passes i.e. ensuring that they continue making time for activities they enjoy.

It also appears that people are practising gratitude a lot more at present; reflecting on what they do have and can do, plus acknowledging the contribution of those close to them and the amazing statutory/private services available to help, which can only be a good thing, right?

To start exploring what occupational balance means to you, you could ask yourself some or all of the following questions:

  • What activities are the most important to you and why? This may be your career, exercise, spending time with family/friends etc.

  • Looking at that list, do you generally allow enough time for each of these activities in your life? Is there any type of activity that is/was dominating most of your time? Think about the categories mentioned above: self-care, productivity and leisure.

  • What are you finding difficult about achieving a sense of occupational balance? Or in other words, what is currently stopping you from engaging in the activities you enjoy? (The answers to these questions tend to be either personal/internal e.g. motivation, habits and behaviours, fatigue, physical limitations, cognitive factors, lowness in mood, or, external, e.g. time, money, physical environment, social environment).

  • What have recent events taught you about how you usually balance your occupational activities? And, what can you do moving forward to ensure that you achieve more occupational balance in your life? (p.s. the answer(s) to the last question may entail asking for help).