According to The Mental Health Foundation “The pressure of an increasingly demanding work culture in the UK is perhaps the biggest and most pressing challenge to the mental health of the general population.”
So what is work-life balance? Is it a bunch of new age hokum? Or should we all take this as seriously as the press would have us believe?
This is our take on how to best approach getting and maintaining a work-life balance.
Why do I need to balance my work and my life?
For those of you unfamiliar with the term or the concept, what “work-life balance” is basically what was once known as “having a life outside of work”.
For most this isn’t too much of an issue. We can separate church and state in this regard and keep a good balance between the two. Whether it’s raising a family, hobbies, relaxation, whatever it may be.
However, in this ever-connected world with more interruptions in your daily life it’s becoming harder to switch off from work mode and this can badly interrupt your life.
The stresses of work can start to accumulate and invade your every waking hour causing chaos, particularly with your mental health. The Mental Health Foundation is concerned that a sizeable group of people are neglecting the factors in their lives that make them resistant or resilient to mental health problems.
One in six of us will experience a mental health problem in any given week, and research this year suggests that a majority of Britons have experienced some kind of mental health problem, with young adults especially open about this when surveyed.
Don’t get us wrong, having a successful career is an important part of many people’s lives. It acts as a defining goal throughout our lives. What we’re stating is it’s also important to find a good balance between your job and your personal life.
By maintaining it, you’ll improve your overall happiness and wellbeing both physical and mental. In turn this will contribute to a healthy environment at work, where you can excel.
There is a catch; The perfect work-life balance is intensely personal.
What works for you won’t work for someone else. There are so many variables and factors into how you balance it all that it can feel overwhelming. You have to find it yourself. Some people are happy working 16 hour days, 7 days a week because they love what they do and they manage to balance it with the rest of their life. This could have no adverse effects for them. For you though this could be far too much.
There’s an entire smorgasbord of variables to consider: your age, career goals, whether you have kids or not, the industry you work in, your boss and their attitude, and other commitments – but no matter what work you do or what your responsibilities outside of work are, it’s absolutely key to keep the balance for the benefit of your mental health and your personal life.
What can happen if I don’t have balance?
A lack of work-life balance can take its toll physically, emotionally and even financially. We are a nation of people raised on the belief “work hard”. This often means that to get where we want to be at, we just have to work harder. This tips the “balance” askew and then more issues can arise.
The statistics are surprising as a Mental Health Foundation survey found:
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, which may increase their vulnerability to mental health problems
when working long hours more than a quarter of employees feel depressed (27%), one third feel anxious (34%), and more than half feel irritable (58%)
the more hours you spend at work, the more hours outside of work you are likely to spend thinking or worrying about it
as a person’s weekly hours increase, so do their feelings of unhappiness
many more women report unhappiness than men (42% of women compared with 29% of men), which is probably a consequence of competing life roles and more pressure to ‘juggle’
nearly two thirds of employees have experienced a negative effect on their personal life, including lack of personal development, physical and mental health problems, and poor relationships and poor home life.
So finding your perfect balance, and keeping it as level as possible, is going to have a huge impact on your mental health and overall wellbeing.
The most common issue to occur is burnout, which again is a very personalised experience. Working all the time and being obsessed with work is often cited as the primary cause of burnout. Burnout will affect both your personal life but you’re your job as the quality of your work will suffer. After all, you never do your best work when you’re exhausted. But the levels of which you can work without “burning out” are down to you so be realistic and make sure you take time to recharge and look after yourself.
We all accept stress as part and parcel of our work lives, however, if you are continually stressed this can create and improper work life balance. Being under pressure is a normal part of life. It can help you take action, feel more energised and get results. But if you often become overwhelmed by stress these feelings could start to be a problem for you.
There’s something to emphasise at this point; Stress isn’t a diagnosis, but it’s closely linked to your mental health.
Stress can cause mental health problems and make existing problems worse. For example, if you often struggle to manage feelings of stress, you might develop a mental health problem like anxiety or depression.
It can also heavily impact your work and career. A lot of people adhere to the idea that the harder you work, the longer you work, the more success you will have. While this is certainly one aspect of success for many, it is not the be all and end all. In fact, having an improper balance can actually hamper your career plans.
Remember, these are all only potential side affect of a lack of balance. These may not affect you, but you should be aware of them in case you are starting to be affected. Also be aware these act cumulatively, as in they slowly build up over time, so the effects may not be apparent at first.
How can I achieve a better work-life balance?
If you feel like your balance is off, that you’re not being able to switch off or that work is affecting you, the first step to achieving a better work-life balance is to think about the current demands of your professional and personal life.
Then, you’ll be able to establish your own set of rules that allow you to strike the right balance between each one.
There’s lots of ways you can help yourself achieve what’s perfect for you.
Keep the end of the work day, as the end
The biggest, and often hardest, step is creating realistic divisions and hard lines between work and personal. It’s been written about a lot before but something I first saw in Cal Newport’s Deep Work (which I highly recommend) is making sure that after a hard, dedicated day of focusing on your work, you switch off and rest.
Set clear boundaries by giving yourself a clear working day. When you hit those hours make sure you are at work. Nothing else. Keep your focus aligned on work and on what you need to accomplish. Then at the end of the day, do a shutdown ritual where you close off the work day in your mind so you can focus on your personal life. No work, no email checking, just rest and relaxation.
How you organise your day whether you have long work days interspersed with clear holidays or you do little downtimes every day, what works for you is the best.
From setting achievable goals to organising your tasks, there are plenty of ways to ensure that you’re making the most of your 24 hours – at work or at home.
A large portion of this is learning how to prioritise tasks properly. It can be easy to overwork yourself simply by saying yes to every task that comes your way – but don’t feel like you have to do everything. Instead, figure out if you really have the time and energy by assessing your workload first. It’s OK to say no sometimes.
So find out how urgent something is by asking its urgency to its importance. This is called the Eisenhower Matrix.
This grid lets you quickly see what is important and needs to be prioritised higher up than what may be urgent but not important.
This is not only a great way of assessing and organising your tasks on the fly but also how to plan your day, week, month or project in terms of what deadlines you have and what needs to be done.
Make sure you have realistic expectations of what is urgent and important. Because if everything is filled into the top left box, then you are not prioritising the tasks correctly or understanding what needs to be done first.
Drain the shallows
This tip is something taken from Cal Newport’s Deep Work (which I highly recommend). What I mean by the shallows is all the tasks that don’t do anything to contribute to your main work. For many people these are telephone calls and emails. It can also be checking your phone or mindlessly browsing social media.
Office workers of the 21st century are designed to respond to any telephone and email ping instantly. We have been brainwashed to think we need to respond immediately to everything. However, for many people this just interrupts the main core work that needs to be done. Social media is the biggest time thief of all as that “just 2 minutes” often turns into 10 minutes plus.
So what Cal recommends is draining the shallows by organising your time and dedicating scheduled periods where you will check your emails, scroll through social media, check your voicemails and respond accordingly. Usually this means you can get through all of them within 30-45 minutes of dedicated task time.
You can also get into the habit of keeping your emails organised. If it is life and death urgent then by all means deal with it there and then, however, if not you can mark it as important with either a colour coded flag (most email inboxes have this feature) or putting them into a dedicated folder.
For the mountain of spam you get, then delete it or mark it as junk to send it straight to that folder and give you a lot more time during the work day.
When it comes to phone calls a great tip is to treat them like meetings. Schedule them, do them and keep on task throughout. This means you can concentrate on what the other person is saying and act accordingly. This kind of focus will actually really help your communication skills as the biggest asset to you is being a good listener.
R&R is important
Recognise the importance of protective factors, including exercise, leisure activities and friendships. Try to ensure that these are not sacrificed to working longer hours, or try to ensure that you spend your spare time on these things.
Watch out for the cumulative effect of working long hours by keeping track of your working hours over a period of weeks or months rather than days. Take account of hours spent worrying or thinking about work when assessing your work-life balance. These are a legitimate part of work and a good indicator of work-related stress. If possible, assess your work-life balance with your colleagues and with the support and involvement of managerial staff. The more visible the process, the more likely it is to have an effect.
If you’re available 24/7 to your boss’s – with all due respect – increasingly loopy and unremitting demands, and you’re the kind of person who as a result gets overloaded, try harnessing the power of no. Allen advises: “If you tend to say yes without thinking when you’re asked to do something extra, stall. Don’t answer straight away. Say you’ll get back to the person asking, then use that time to think clearly about whether to say yes or no. If you want to say yes, fine. But if you want to say no, say no and keep saying it. Don’t justify your actions or give excuses. There’s no need to be nasty or rude.” The Mental Health Foundation recommends that when work demands are too high, you must speak up. Your role model here might well be Eric Cantona: in the Ken Loach film Looking for Eric, he instructs a dithering Englishman on the power of saying no. Or rather “non”.
Leave work at work
Imagine you’re just about to leave your workplace, possibly for cocktails at TGI Fridays, even though it’s actually Tuesday. Before you do, write a note to yourself listing outstanding tasks or any work things that are on your mind. “Then shut the diary, turn off your PC, store your message and leave it.” counsels Allen. “Focus on the image of shutting the diary, saving the message or turning off your PC.” If this is not possible, she recommends what she calls a stop-breathe technique. What does that mean? “Take a slow breath and acknowledge that you’ve left. If you can’t do that at the office door, when you’re getting a train or bus and the door closes, imagine that’s the end of your working day. Or if you’re in your car, sit at the wheel for a short while before you start the engine.”
Closure is a big theme among those offering tips to a healthy work-life balance: the Mental Health Foundation says that if you do happen to take work home with you, you should try to confine it to a certain area of your home – and be able to close the door on it.
Forget about perfection
The injunction to put work away for the day sounds fine, but hold on. It’s surely not as simple as that. As you leave work, you realise you haven’t done something as well as you could. You turn on your heel and go back to do it right. Is that so very wrong? “Well,” says Allen, “some people find it very hard to let things go. I call it ‘good enough versus fabulous’. Sometimes, if you’re overworked, you need to explicitly tell yourself that what you’ve done may not be perfect, but it is good enough.” She cites the example of a woman who goes back to full-time work and finds that her partner doesn’t do the laundry as well as she used to; he just piles mangled T-shirts with their sleeves still inside out on the radiators. “But she has to let that go because the alternative is she takes on more work when she’s already stressed out. What I’m saying is, don’t put extra pressure on yourself when you don’t need to – at work or at home.” As Netmums tells working mothers in its top 10 tips for work-life balance: “Give yourself a break. It doesn’t matter if your home’s not immaculate and your children aren’t fed super-nutritious, cooked-from-scratch food every day.”
Make ’em wait
One way to avoid being incessantly available is to make it clear to your colleagues that you will reply to emails within 24 or 48 hours. “As long as you’re reliable about replying in the end, it’s surprising how little this bothers people,” argues Oliver Burkeman, author of Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. Quite so, but texting is based on different parameters – to send a text is to expect a quick, even immediate reply. But fear not, remember point two – just say no. You need to make it clear that you’re not endlessly available for work queries outside working hours. Admittedly, that’s easier said than done.
We are witnessing a generational shift in our attitudes to work. Millennials (those born after 1980) are more likely than their elders to blur the lines between work and home. Some 81% of them think they should set their own work patterns. For some, that might involve virtual meetings (by Skype, for example) rather than real ones, the opportunity to work from home when they want to and, ideally, a no-recrimination clause in their contract that would be activated when they tell their boss to shove it when she asks them to work next Sunday.
Balancing It all out
Keeping a balance between all the aspects of your life will help keep your work at a stellar level and your mental health in a steadier place.
There’s no one size fits all for finding your balance, but making sure you find it should be your top priority.
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