There’s no hiding from the fact that work is a huge part of our lives, not just because of the relatively significant chunk of time it takes up in our days and weeks, but — for many of us — it is also an important source of accomplishment, identity and personal fulfilment in life. Looking beyond Maslow’s basic physiological and safety needs, our careers can play a vital part on our journey to self-actualisation and — whilst a lot of us mean well — the truth is an equal lot of us get easily sucked into the vortex of an all-for-work mentality, be it consciously or not, self-imposed or otherwise. As work responsibilities increasingly run our lives and fill the calendar right up to the brim, the much talked about work-life balance fades into the distance, leaving us feeling exhausted, frustrated and out of control.
One of the things the current COVID crisis has uncovered in us is the extent to which we have learnt to prioritise work over the other areas of our life, like our health and wellbeing, social relationships, sometimes even our families. The pandemic has also come with its own challenges; WFH may have removed the grind of the daily commute, being on our feet all day long and rushing around between meetings, instead adding new pressures into the mix – ever-greater amount of screen time, back-to-back Zoom calls, the pressure of keeping up appearances in a virtual world, and the blurring of work-life boundaries to name just a few. On the whole then workload has actually increased for many of us, bringing work-life balance further into the centre of attention.
THE THREE WINS OF A HEALTHY WORK-LIFE BALANCE
It is widely accepted that in order to function optimally our bodies need good nutrition, physical exercise, adequate sleep and relatively low stress levels. This may seem obvious on the face of it, but all of those things are quick to suffer when work begins taking over. More time at work means less time to make healthy food decisions, less time to exercise, and – too often – less time to sleep, or even just enjoy a good bit of downtime in the evening. Each of these factors can have a significant negative effect on our internal energy stores, making it hard to find the motivation to look after ourselves, magnifying these negative effects further.
1. You can avoid chronic stress from overworking
Chronic stress is one of the most common health issues reported in the workplace – and it only serves to further aggravate these effects. Whilst stress in small doses is no bad thing, the problem occurs when the fight-or-flight response (triggered by stress) keeps firing all day, everyday, and we don’t allow ourselves time to address it and recover from it. This build up can translate into a whole host of health problems: from a weakened immune system and body aches, through digestive issues and sleep disturbances, all the way to burnout and higher risk of depression.
Maintaining sound work-life balance in a way that keeps stress at healthy levels and gives you sufficient time to look after yourself, is key to allowing your body and mind to function optimally.
2. You are able to recognise and enjoy fulfilment
The second ‘win’ we’re often quick to overlook is our overall sense of fulfilment in life, which extends so much further than our place of work. The “wheel of life” – a concept often used in life coaching – illustrates that leading a wholesome life is also a function of our family life, the relationships we have, our physical health, recreation, personal development and spirituality. Naturally, as the hours we spend at work increase, the time we’re able to devote to these other areas decreases, which – for even the hardest and most dedicated of workers amongst us – over time leads to increased feelings of disassociation and detachment.
This disassociation reduces our feelings of happiness, fulfilment and engagement in life. It only follows that striking a balance, in a way that allows time for hobbies, relationships and fun (just for fun’s sake), is critical to enjoying a fulfilling life.
3. A work-life balance will actually make you more productive
Lastly, maintaining good work-life balance is also crucial from the standpoint of performance and productivity. If you never stop to allow yourself time to catch a break and recover, the incremental productivity of the hours you’re putting in will suffer. Human beings are not made for working non-stop and – beyond the simple components of time and effort – our performance is found to be directly related to factors like rest and recovery, motivation and energy. All of these suffer in an all-work-no-fun scenario.
By striking a better balance you can be sure to see not just productivity improve, but your overall motivation and satisfaction at work as well.
WARNING SIGNS YOU MIGHT BE OVERWORKED
Now that you understand why maintaining balance is so important, the big question becomes ‘how can we tell when we have a problem?’. Looking out for these ten common warning signs will help you identify when your work-life balance has been breached, so that you can start addressing it before things escalate further:
You regularly feel exhausted, even after a good night’s sleep
You regularly feel stressed, overwhelmed and anxious
You feel physical pain (e.g. neck and shoulder tension, headaches, migraines, digestive pain)
You feel irritable and suffer mood swings
You started suffering sleep abnormalities
You struggle to focus and remember things
You have no time for you
Your relationships are growing distant
You are losing a sense of enjoyment and purpose in life
You developed feelings of resentment towards your job
A SEVEN-STEP PLAN TO GETTING BACK ON YOUR FEET
OK, so it happened. You feel overwhelmed, out-of-control and find yourself questioning what this life is all about. Don’t panic. Where you’re at right now might not be ideal, but please remember – it does not have to stay this way. Here is a seven-step formula you can use to start shifting things back into balance.
Acknowledge your limits
As much as we all like to think that we’re superhuman, the truth is that we are not. Our physical, mental and emotional energy stores have limited capacity, which we must acknowledge and respect if we are to live a happy, healthy and sustainable life. This doesn’t mean not working hard, or not working at all – it just means learning to tune into the signals our bodies are sending us, recognising when our limits are being breached and slowing down so that we can recover and come back stronger the next day, or – as might be the case sometimes – the next week.
Not sure which signs from your body to listen to? A quick scroll up to the warning signs has got you covered!
Check in with your needs
If you find yourself overworking, it means many of your needs will have been neglected. Taking a moment to check in and understand which of your needs are not being met is an important step in helping you restore those imbalances.
First identify which category is being neglected. You might find it’s purely a question of physical health and energy, but you might also find that other areas of your life such as relationships, fun, or spirituality have also been lacking. From there you can start putting together a simple plan of action to rectify these shortfalls; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel here – a phone call or coffee with a friend can help you fill your social cup quite easily, just like a boogie to your favourite tune in the living room can bring back a sense of fun if that is what you’re missing!
Prioritise your health
It’s too easy to ditch our lunchtime workout. Grabbing a quick croissant as a substitute for a meal and skimping on sleep as we work late into the night, is an convenient switch, but we must understand that this strategy is very short-sighted and will only add to the cumulative damage over the long-term.
Making the Holy Trinity of your health – fitness, nutrition and sleep – a non-negotiable on your list of priorities will do wonders in making you not just healthier, but also happier, more productive and more engaged in life… How’s that for balance?
Set your hours, and stick to them
Here’s the deal – there’s only one of you and only twenty-four hours in the day, so something’s got to give… In order to create space for balance, you will need to carve out time in your calendar for that to happen; it doesn’t have to be heaps of time.
Carving out just a couple of hours in a day can go a long way in allowing you to look after yourself and engage in the things that bring health and joy to your life! Start by setting your working hours in a way that allows you to reclaim those few hours of time and make a firm commitment to yourself today that you’re going to stick to them no matter what.
Focus on needle-moving work
A great way of ‘buying’ time is learning to work smarter, rather than harder. Too often we procrastinate on the big stuff and get dragged into small tedious tasks that don’t get any results. It’s no surprise that our workload never reduces!
If you suffer from the “ever-growing-to-do-list syndrome”, get into a weekly habit of reviewing your to-do list and getting crystal clear on which tasks are urgent and important. This will help you identify the mission-critical work that you should be prioritising, so that when you get to the end of the day you can leave with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, even if you haven’t done “everything”. Remember – if it’s not urgent or important, it does not need to be finished today!
Set work-life boundaries
Most people associate boundaries with physical space, but the concept of boundaries also applies in our personal and professional lives. Setting healthy boundaries at work helps you communicate your limits to your co-workers, maintain control over the amount of workload and overtime you take on, and can make all the difference between balance and lack of.
Communicating clearly and communicating early are key to effective boundary setting, minimising confusion and setting expectations in the right place. And just like we need to set boundaries with others around us, boundaries with technology is another are worth looking into; having clear limits around the use of work screens in the evenings and the weekends can go a really long way in allowing you to bring balance back into your life.
If striking a work-life balance has become an on-going concern for you, you may wish to present your case to your manager. There is no shame in speaking up and asking for help; chances are they haven’t considered the sheer amount of pressure you are under. By speaking up you can also help your firm identify work-induced stressors and introduce measures to reduce them, creating a better working environment not just for yourself, but your colleagues as well.
Maintaining good work-life balance is a balancing act (pardon the pun) and, the truth is, it won’t always be smooth-sailing. The important thing is learning your individual limits and triggers, and looking out for the warning signs, so you can catch yourself in the early tracks and come back stronger, healthier and happier for it.