As we head into Christmas, we wouldn’t be surprised if many of you are feeling anything but ‘in balance’. You might be trying to finish off that unexpected work project that’s taken up so much of your time? Perhaps you’re juggling multiple part-time contracts, trying to make ends meet? Maybe you’re just completely worn and utterly spent by a year that has been like no other? Perhaps now, you are stressing deeply about Christmas, the unlocking of lockdown and all the complexities it brings?
Striking a healthy work-life balance in normal times is often a seemingly impossible task. In times when our work patterns, workplaces and lifestyles have been thrown in the air, it’s hardly surprising that this year things have been taken to a whole other level.
What is work-life balance?
Finding a work-life balance has always traditionally focused on separating personal life from professional life. For those people who work outside of their own homes, the physical separation of ‘being at work’ to ‘being at home’, at least provides a barometer of whether time commitment to each is sensible and fair. For other remote workers, entrepreneurs, small business owners and sole traders, perhaps work and life has always blended more flexibly. Whatever your situation, the idea of work-life balance, is fundamentally about ‘time’ for other things, other than work. This might include:
- Personal reflection time
- Time with your children
- Time with friends and family
- Time for socialising
- A chance to work on a hobby, or learn something of interest
- Time to catch up on domestic ‘to do’s’
- Time for personal fitness
- Chillaxing time, at play, and at rest.
When you have a great work-life balance it’s not that one might not encroach on the other – it’s more that there is space for both.
The importance of a work-life balance
No one has the perfect work-life balance all of the time – really, no one! Whatever you do, there will always be times when your scales might be out of balance. That’s perfectly normal. When you need to pay the bills, stay in a job (when others might be losing theirs), manage your team remotely and be in ‘crisis’ mode, the requirement to be ‘on it’ professionally is incredibly difficult to ignore. This is exactly the time when you start to de-prioritise your own needs and push aside your own wellbeing. And it’s proving to be the biggest challenge to our mental health for generations.
In fact, a Mental Health Foundation survey found that one-third of respondents feel unhappy or very unhappy about the time they devote to work. More than 40% of employees are neglecting other aspects of their life because of work, and when working long hours, more than a quarter of employees feel depressed and one-third feel anxious.
But balance isn’t just important to our mental health. It’s actually important to our success at work. At first working long hours, hosting zoom calls back-to-back, working weekends or double shifts, feels productive, right? But over time, neglecting your physical, emotional and mental wellbeing starts to take its toll.
Your brain has no time to process the information you’re constantly feeding it. Your senses and nerve endings become sensitised and overstimulated – you can’t relax anymore even when you have time too. You can’t focus when it comes to that all-important meeting. You may even become ‘frozen’, unable to make logical decisions or think clearly. Overload can creep up on you slowly, but when it lands, it takes more than a weekend off you to re-set.
Work-life balance doesn’t mean you lack commitment
There’s nothing wrong with being conscientious and devoted to your job. Your job can give you a great sense of purpose and reward, and that’s something many of us strive for. If you love your job and spending your leisure time on it makes you happy, then you’ll likely have a bit more energy to keep going for longer. The issues arise when you are so consumed by your job that feelings of stress at work become the illness of chronic stress.
Chronic stress is actually one of the most common health issues in the workplace. It can lead to health problems such as hypertension, digestive troubles, chronic aches and pains, and heart problems. Chronic stress can also lead to a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Feeling stressed for long periods of time can also lead to workplace ‘burnout’. Burnout can cause fatigue, mood swings, irritability, and a decrease in work performance. It’s not something to be taken lightly but unfortunately, it’s something that many people fail to recognise in themselves.
The irony is that having a healthy work-life balance puts you in much better stead for performing at your optimum at work. Remember, your company wants and needs employees who are hard-working and productive. Whilst you might feel that working those extra hours at the office or on your laptop equates to working harder and increasing your productivity, your quality of work may suffer as a result. Studies reveal that those who maintain a good work-life balance are much more productive than those who do not. Remember – quality over quantity.
So, how exactly do you strike the right work-life balance? For many people, it doesn’t come naturally. It’s something we have to dedicate some time and energy to getting it right.
As mentioned, working extra hours does not necessarily translate to better results. Instead, you should try and work smart, not long. Try and increase your productivity levels, without devoting more of your time to the cause. Whilst it’s okay to go with the flow some days, you might find that enforcing a routine each day works best for you. Start work at the same time each day, and plan your morning hour-to-hour, prioritising your most important tasks. Make sure you take a break for lunch, and then plan out your afternoon, leaving yourself some time to reply to emails.
Sounds super simple, right? Yes, but without sufficient planning, the working day can disappear before you. By taking a bit of time to prep and plan out your tasks and breaks, you’ll know where to start and where to end the day. Work smart, and you shouldn’t have to stay online finishing tasks or squeezing extra work in at the end of the day when you should be switching off and taking some time out for leisure. A work-life balance is less about dividing the hours in your day evenly between work and personal life and instead is about having the flexibility to get things done in your professional life, whilst still having the time and energy to enjoy your personal life.
Leave work at work
Speaking of your personal life, don’t let your work life seep into your time! We’re so technology-rich these days that we can check our work emails on our phones 24/7 in just a few clicks and swipes. Try not to give in to the temptation past 5pm – or whenever you clock off work. If you can, turn off email notifications on your phone or better still, delete the email app (unless you truly need it, that is).
If you struggle to stop thinking about work in the evenings, try writing a note to yourself at the end of the working day listing all of the outstanding tasks or work-related issues on your mind. Tuck the note away and look at it the next morning when you start work to jog your memory and switch you back into work-mode. No need to spend your evening dwelling.
Of course, whilst many of us are working remotely throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving work at work can be really difficult, as work is also our home! It’s important to find what works for you, but the best way to separate the two could be by dedicating one room in your house to work – such as a spare room, or dining room – and shutting the door and avoiding it in the evenings.
Perhaps you can adopt an evening ritual to signal to yourself that work is over, such as putting your laptop and notebooks away, lighting some candles, or taking yourself on an evening walk to clear your head. Having mental time away from your work will enrich your leisure time and leave you feeling refreshed and ready to take on your responsibilities the next day.
Make time to exercise
This leads us on nicely to our next tip, which is to exercise. We make time for the crucial things in life; eating, drinking, sleeping, washing. Many of us seem to forget, however, how crucial exercise is in our everyday routines. It’s a well-known fact that exercise is an amazing stress reliever. It releases chemicals in your body known as endorphins that make you feel good and these chemicals can help your brain stay clear and focused.
Exercise also imitates the effects of stress, such as the fight-or-flight response, but helps your body and its systems to practice working through these effects in a healthy way. This means that next time you’re in a difficult meeting, or you have a tight deadline and numerous tasks to juggle at once, your body can be doing half the work in the background, keeping you calm and in control.
Now, we’re not saying you have to start running a 10K every day or lifting heavy weights in the gym (unless you want to!), but find something that works for you, whether that’s a bit of yoga and stretching, swimming, or a brisk walk. Use it as a way to relax your mind at the start of your day, or to shed your daily tensions at the end of it. A big part of work-life balance is about refreshing both your mind and body.
Prioritise your life
As modern-day human beings, many of us fall into the trap of trying to cram as much into our days as possible. We try and productively work an eight-hour day, whilst trying to stay active, whilst trying to be a parent, whilst trying to keep an organised home AND catching up on the latest Netflix series. More often than not, it’s simply impossible.
Try and identify what is most important in your life. Make a list that reflects your priorities and draw up some boundaries that mean you can devote quality time to each of these priorities, and trim anything unnecessary off your schedule that might buy you more time in the day. Perhaps you can’t relax without being on top of your housework or being at home in time to bathe your children means the world to you. Make sure that your 9-5 does not get in the way of allowing you to do these things.
This method can also work well during work time. Do you find yourself spending ten minutes chatting over a coffee with colleagues in the morning when you’d rather be starting your work? Although it’s important to build relationships in the workplace, you may find that a lot of your time gets taken up when you aren’t focusing on your priorities and what rewards you the most.
For some people, maintaining a good work-life balance may be easy. For others, it may take a little more time and effort. Remember, crash diets usually fizzle out. When making changes and adjusting your day, start small, and build on good habits. If you are a workaholic, cutting down a 60-hour week to a 40 hour week may be a recipe for failure. The sudden change may leave you feeling totally lost and unguided.
Try choosing one or two days in the week where you stick to a good routine of working within your work hours, taking reasonable breaks, and switching off in the evenings. Gradually build this up to incorporate it into your daily life naturally. Remember – there is no perfect work-life balance. Some days, you may need to focus more on work, whilst other days you may have more time and energy to put into that hobby or spend time with your loved ones. Balance is achieved over time, and not each day.
A note for managers
If you are a manager responsible for a team, there are things you can do to support your employee’s efforts to achieve a healthier work-life balance:
- Set a good example, as your employees will follow your lead. If you send emails at all hours of the day and night or on weekends, your staff may come to believe that this is what is also expected of them. Try and keep work communication within the allocated hours
- If possible, allow flexible working. This gives employees the control to plan their own working schedule. If starting work an hour earlier and finishing an hour earlier means that they can spend their down-time doing more of what they love, then consider being open-minded in allowing this
- Educate about work-life balance, and let employees know that it’s important. Normalise the conversation and taking time out for your own wellbeing and let’s stop pretending that working all hours of the day is impressive or makes you a more valuable employee than someone else. This can create a toxic work culture.
Remember, a happy workforce results in increased productivity for a company. Reduced productivity or absenteeism can cost a company a lot of money – not to mention an employee leaving due to being overworked. Keep employee wellbeing at the forefront and promote good habits.