13 Oct 2022

How to Have a Work-Life Balance

This week (10–14 October) is National Work-Life Week, “an opportunity for both employers and employees to focus on well-being at work and work-life balance.” We are all becoming increasingly aware of the toll that overwork, stress and a 24/7 working culture can have on our mental wellbeing. While home-based or hybrid working have become contemporary buzzwords, much lauded for the flexibility they can give us to manage our own working day, it is important to accept that modern technology ensures that we are ever available and that divisions between work and life are becoming dangerously blurred.

The rigid working practices of the past are distant memories. The days when hordes of bowler-hatted workers descended on the City during the rush hour and flocked home on crowded trains in the evening are long gone. Office hours were once fixed and inflexible: punctuality was demanded; outside annual holidays, time off was only grudgingly granted, usually at the behest of a doctor’s note. Yet the seeming rigidity of these practices led to a culture where work was strictly office-bound. Once the journey home had been negotiated, all thoughts of the office were blotted out by domestic and family life, and – with the exception of a small number of jobs – out-of-office hours were regarded as sacrosanct, and employees would only be contacted in the direst emergency.

Many of us have broken free from this diurnal routine, but our liberty runs the risk of coming at a very high price. We all have a range of means of communication at our disposal and this can mean that we are more or less ‘on call’ from dawn to dusk. Even if our employers are respectful of the need for a work-life balance and resist the urge to contact us during anti-social hours, we are all too often the authors of our own stress, compulsively checking work emails and messages when we should be relaxing.

So how do we guard against a stress-inducing work-life imbalance?

Make Your Own Rules

There’s no law that says that you can’t finish your report or answer your emails at midnight, if that’s how you like to work and it suits your body clock, but you should not feel under a compulsion to do so. If you are working partially, or wholly, from home, it is a good idea for your own sanity, and for partners and children, if you set down ‘rules’ for your working day. This means deciding when you aim to start work, when you aim to finish, times when you will be unavailable (eg because you’re going to the gym or on the school run), and times when you might consider putting in some extra time. It will be helpful to you and your family if you impose some sort of structure on your working day, and it might even help your employer if they know that there are times when you are definitely not available.

Use Rituals to Underline Routines

It can really help – especially if you are working at home – to use repeated rituals to underline the start and end of your working day. This can be something as simple as drinking your first cup of coffee as you check your emails at the start of the day, or writing a list of ‘things to do tomorrow’ before you shut your computer down at the end of the working day, or listening to a podcast as you travel home from work.

Use Technology to Help, not Hinder

We can all feel beleaguered by our phones, computers and tablets. Sometimes it feels like we’re being bombarded by a cacophony of tones, beeps and notifications, and our Pavlovian response is to immediately jump to attention and deal with the incoming tidal wave. In an ideal world, the advice would be to simply ignore these calls for attention when we’ve ‘stopped’ working, but it’s not always easy. So why not switch off your notifications, or change your ‘focus’ settings, or even mute your phone – these are simple ways of stopping the world hammering at your door. If you’re still worried about not responding, you can always set an automatic reply on your work email every night, saying something like; ‘Thank you for your email. I aim to reply within 24 hours’. This is a perfectly reasonable way of asserting that your office ‘day’ is effectively over.

Learn to Say No

If you are a person who aims to please and finds it hard to set parameters and stick to boundaries, you might well find yourself at the beck and call of a thoughtless and demanding boss, who makes huge demands on your time and pays little attention to your stress levels. You need to learn to say no when it all gets too much. This can be hard to do at first, so start by prevaricating; if a request that goes beyond the call of duty is made to you, say you’ll have a think about it, or you’re not sure. This way, you will be able to buy some time to think carefully about what you want to do: if you want to say yes, that’s fine; but if you know you should say no, now is the time to do so, as you have already laid the groundwork. You don’t need to justify your action, or come up with reasons or excuses. Just politely say that you won’t be able to do what’s been asked of you.

Don’t Aim for Perfection

Striving for perfection in your work life, or your home life, can be a major cause of stress and anxiety. While we all want to do the best job we can, it is important to be able to accept our limitations. In the work context, you may have to recognise that you have done the best you can in the time available, or acknowledge that there is no shame in revisiting the task later. In the domestic sphere you may be wise to discard a drive for perfection in favour of settling for convivial quality time. There is no point spending your evening meticulously ironing your handkerchiefs or cleaning out your kitchen cupboards, when there are children who need to have a story read to them, or a spouse who wants you to join them for a glass of wine and a favourite programme on television. You may take great pleasure and pride in your domestic skills, but nobody should prioritise clean cupboards or ironed laundry over nurturing meaningful relationships.

Don’t be an Adrenalin Junkie

It can be tempting to become compulsively driven, both in work and life, turning each day into a headlong dash through a packed schedule of work appointments and tasks, childcare, exercise, cooking, domestic chores, without stopping for a moment to pause for thought. Running on pure adrenaline is exhausting, and very often will result in increased irritability with the people around you. You may even turn your own self-induced stress into a form of martyrdom, saying things like “I have to do everything around here” and demanding sympathy. This kind of behaviour is addictive and can be a common response to being over-stretched and over-worked. If you feel yourself lurching in this direction, consider simplifying your life, reducing your commitments, foregoing some of your activities, and just giving yourself a chance to unwind and do very little.


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