It often seems that career success is only possible at the expense of someone’s personal life and that in turn it is unattainable for those interested in leading happy and fulfilled personal lives. This perception is particularly popular where women are concerned as they are often harshly criticised when they want to achieve career success over personal fulfilment (which for women is commonly translated into having a family) and vice versa.
But, the reality is that career aspirations and personal fulfilment can be combined, and work-life balance is not a myth. On the contrary, it is a reality for some of the most successful people in the world and to achieve our career and personal goals we should all follow suit and find ways to achieve true balance.
Of course, work-life balance can be elusive to most as no one knows the secret recipe for it. If you’ve tried time and again to find it but have been unsuccessful you shouldn’t give up. Perhaps the problem does not lie with the idea itself, but with how you define it.
Redefining Work-Life Balance
Work-leisure as it was known before the 1980s, is a concept that has been around for a long time. In fact, it’s been around since 350 BC when Aristotle argued that finding a balance between work and leisure is the only way for the individual to achieve inner peace.
The whole of life is further divided into two parts, business and leisure, war and peace, and of actions some aim at what is necessary and useful, and some at what is honorable. And the preference given to one or the other class of actions must necessarily be like the preference given to one or other part of the soul and its actions over the other; there must be war for the sake of peace, business for the sake of leisure, things useful and necessary for the sake of things honourable.
Sadly, there were periods in history when leisure was frowned upon. In fact, according to protestant work ethic, the individual had to strive to work hard and forgo of the pleasures of life if he (or she) wanted to enter the kingdom of heaven.
People began working longer and longer, and by the time of the Industrial Revolution, people were working as many as 16 hours a day, six days a week as factories were looking to increase their production by implementing the sun up to sun down workday.
The eight-hour workday was implemented by the late 19th century as a response to the Industrial Era’s cruel realities, and since then, professionals across the world have strived to effectively manage their eight hours of work and their allocated eight hours of leisure.
But even now, work-life balance remains as elusive as ever, and it’s becoming more and more obvious that the problem doesn’t lie in the idea, but rather with the context of the term.
A Dated Dichotomy
The term work-life balance implies a dichotomy between work and personal life, and it encourages people to think of how to make the most of these two distinct areas by allocating equal amounts of time to them. But, this understanding is wrong. Life and work are interconnected, and they affect each other and the individual more than we’d like.
Leaving work at the office when we go home in the evening would be ideal, but most of us never do it. According to studies as many as 50 per cent of employees bring work home with them and don’t think twice before responding to work emails from home.
It’s not just a matter of bringing work home either; research has also found that lots of people take time off work to catch up on their work. This phenomenon is called leaveism, and it is common within the public sector.
The problem is not limited to our inability to leave work at the office, it also extends into our personal lives as few people can leave their personal problems at the office door. A sick child, for example, will not stop being important just because you're in the office between 9 and 5.
According to Google’s People Innovation Lab research, a long-term study of Google’s employees’ innate characteristics and surroundings which hopes to find ways to improve its employees’ work experience, only 31 per cent of employees can disengage from work when they leave. This means that almost three-quarters of employees take work-related stress home that affects the quality of their personal lives.
It is clear that work and life coexist and to find an effective balancing act between the two, it’s essential that we abandon the traditional understanding of work-life balance and seek to redefine it in such a way that makes it possible for us to find strategies which can help us reach our full potential, both professionally and personally.
The Modern Workplace
To redefine it, you need to take into account that the eight-hour workday has proven to be ineffective. According to a study conducted in Latvia, productivity does not depend on the amount of time spent in the office; it depends on how that person structures their day and how they perform their tasks. The study found that people who took regular breaks (52 minutes of work followed by 17-minute breaks) were much more effective and productive than people who worked for eight hours without taking any breaks.
Similarly, research has found that the Swedish six hour workday experiment is more effective than the traditional eight hour day. One of the first places where this model was implemented was a hospital in the country’s second biggest city, Gothenburg and the findings from this study proved beyond doubt that working for as little as two hours less per day reduced absenteeism and boosted productivity.
Employers are slowly, yet steadily, beginning to realise that quality is more valuable than quantity and as such they are starting to accept that different work models might help boost the productivity of their business. A clear indication of this is the roughly 4.2 million people in the UK currently working remotely, and that number is only expected to grow.
This essentially means that the more work is tailored to fit the needs of the employee, the further apart we drift from the idea of a one size fits all solution. In fact, according to experts work-life balance should not be about achieving an equal balance of work and life; individuals should not try to schedule an equal amount of hours for both. Rather they should strive for an individual solution that changes frequently.
Because the right work-life balance is different for every individual, a company policy or program cannot create it or manage it. Each individual must do that for him or herself, working with a boss that has the right leadership mindset and skill set as well.
We all live different lives, and we have different priorities so trying to find a successful recipe that will help you is not effective. What you should be focusing on instead are the benefits of achieving your individual work-life balance and the strategies that will allow you to do it.
The Consequences of Having No Balance
It’s not uncommon for people who dream of succeeding in their careers to think that work-life balance is overrated and that they should focus on their career aspirations instead of making their personal life count as well. In fact, according to research, 25 per cent of UK professionals are unhappy with their balance. But, this can be problematic as having no seperation between work and life can cause severe mental health problems. According to the Mental Health Organization:
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.
A demanding work culture is causing mental health problems in as many as three in every ten employees, and although this figure is alarming, it’s expected to rise because 13 per cent of the UK population works longer than 49 hours per week.
The consequences of having no work-life balance can be severe and some of the problems it can cause are:
One of the most severe problems it can cause is burnout which is one of the leading causes of depression.
Much like engines run out of fuel if they are put to use without being regularly refuelled, professionals can also run out of fuel, or energy if they overwork. The state of not being productive even though you are continuing to work is called burnout, and it’s one of the most common work-related mental health issues professionals face today.
According to data, 51 per cent of UK workers have reported that they have experienced anxiety or burnout in their current jobs. This figure alone indicates the severity of the problem, and it highlights why you need to understand what it is and what signs you need to look out for to prevent it.
Most people - or those who have never experienced burnout at least - tend to think of it as a passing state of physical and emotional exhaustion. But someone suffering from burnout is neither just sad or moody; it is a state of prolonged exhaustion and ineffectiveness. To people suffering from burnout, any problem can seem insurmountable, and enthusiasm and motivation are foreign concepts.
To recover from burnout people require a lot of time and the help of specialists which is why if you suspect that you are suffering from it you need to take things seriously and you should ask for professional help as it’s not uncommon for burnout to lead to chronic depression.
Over-Achievers Suffer From Burnout More Often
Burnout can happen to anyone, and this is why it’s important to understand your own limits and not to push yourself further than you need to. It should be noted that over-achievers tend to suffer from it more often as they push themselves beyond their limits to distinguish themselves.
Often the only people who don’t recognise burnout are those who are exhibiting all of the symptoms, because highly motivated, driven, high-functioning, ambitious people can have great difficulty believing they are breakable.
Burnout Could Cost You Your Job
Although the consequences to your health are by far the most important and they are the reason why you should do everything in your power to avoid burning out, you should also note that burning out could easily end up costing you your job.
Burnout doesn’t just affect your enthusiasm; it also makes you feel ineffective. People who suffer from it are constantly busy, yet no matter how much they work, more problems and issues keep coming up and this is the result of their inability to concentrate on tasks and see the bigger picture; this, in turn, makes them ineffective and it ends up creating more and more problems.
Burnout Signs You Need to Look Out For
To avoid burnout you simply need to find the work-life balance that works for you, and this means finding ways to make yourself more effective while allowing yourself to rest and relax.
If you are worried that you are suffering from burnout, you should contact your GP as soon as possible. They’ll refer you to the mental health services who can help you overcome burnout. You can even contact mental health support services on your own so make sure that you find the nearest support centre to your location and pay them a visit sooner rather than later.
The checklist below will help you identify possible burnout so make sure that you are honest.
- You feel panicked by your job responsibilities
- Your daily to-do list spans well over two pages
- You feel physically exhausted
- You feel emotionally exhausted and want to be alone all the time
- People who know you tell you that you’ve turned into a cynic
- You are extremely irritable
- You are very confrontational
- You are constantly super-busy
- You are forgetful
- You suffer from insomnia
- You can’t concentrate
- You feel physically ill (chest pain, shortness of breath, constant headaches, fainting and stomach-aches)
- Your immune system is weak, and you get ill a lot
- You’ve lost your appetite
- You feel anxious all the time
- You suspect you are depressed
- You feel accumulating anger
- You feel hopeless
Just because it happens to more than half of the UK population, it doesn’t mean that it has to happen to you as well. There are lots of ways to avoid burnout, and these include preventive measures which you should consider taking.
- Keep Reasonable Work Hours: This doesn’t mean that you have to leave work when the clock strikes 5 if you are in the middle of doing something, but don’t overdo it.
- Take Regular Breaks: Most of us tend to forget that we should interrupt our work every so often to take breaks, but breaks are essential for engagement.
- Be Flexible: Try to find ways to make your work more effective. Manage your time so that you start your day with the more difficult tasks and move on to the easier ones.
- Ask for Help: There’s no reason to push yourself to do everything on your own. Ask your colleagues for help, and this won’t only contribute to making your workplace culture warmer, but it will also ensure that you don’t have too much on your plate every day.
- Take Time Off: Taking time off can help you reconnect with yourself as well as your loved ones, so it’s essential that you take time off to relax and boost your energy.
Although excessive stress can lead to burnout, stress on its own can also create problems for you as it can make you feel irritable, forgetful and unable to concentrate. Apart from affecting your health - stress often results in insomnia for example - stress can also create problems for you at work.
People who are stressed are unable to cope with their workload, don't feel confident about their decisions and cannot be trusted to carry their weight at work.
Any number of things can cause stress, but chiefly it can be due to your inability to unplug. If you feel that this applies to you, you should find coping mechanisms which will allow you to worry less about work. Find a few hobbies and apply yourself to learning something new and you’ll find that reducing your stress levels can be easy.
Many professionals, especially those with families, find that the sense of guilt is a feeling that they can’t shake off most days a week as they are unable to dedicate themselves fully to either their family or work.
Guilt often results in anxiety and professionals end up feeling that they are inadequate at work and as caregivers. To fight this feeling, you need to start appreciating yourself more, and you need to start believing that what you are doing is enough.
If you have a pending project at work stop feeling guilty about needing to focus more on work, and if you have someone who requires your care dedicate your energy to them and remind yourself that you are allowed to be human.
#4 Inability to Focus at Work
To be the most productive you can be at work, you need to be able to focus, and a lack of work-life balance can render you unable to do that. Personal development is essential in making professionals happy, and it is a prerequisite for feeling motivated and productive.
A person who focuses solely on their work can’t be productive no matter how much they strive to be. Finding ways to develop your personal sense of self, as well as advance your career can help make you a better professional so perhaps you should start thinking of what you can do to lead a fuller personal life.
Having said that, it’s worth mentioning that some people derive happiness from their work alone, similarly to how some people find happiness by simply being with their families. These people do not require a balancing act between their careers and personal lives to be happy. But since most of us need to work to make a living and cannot feel fulfilled by our work alone, striving to achieve balance is essential.
Women and Work-Life Balance
Although family structures are changing and not all families include women these days, it cannot be denied that women remain the primary caregivers in most families. Be it mothers, daughters, wives or sisters, women are still expected to provide care to those who need it within the family while putting their careers on the backburner. According to studies, women account for over 90 per cent of lone parents in the UK, and this figure demonstrates how important it is for women to redefine work-life balance.
It is especially hard for women since the long-standing conventions of office culture have imposed an image of professionalism that supports the strict dichotomy between the self at work and the self at home. This, of course, makes it tough for women to be engaged in both their careers and their families and as such one of the two is usually left behind.
It’s not just a matter of trying to juggle work and personal life. Most women also face prejudices and injustices in the workplace for no other reason than the fact that they are women. According to the Wall Street Journal, more men win promotions, challenging assignments and opportunities to rise professionally while women are left in the margins because of their sex.
It’s been argued, time and again, that the forced dichotomy between life and work can weigh women down. In fact, even Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, has talked about how difficult it is to be an accomplished professional and an engaged parent.
This emphasises the fact that women in the business world - whether they are in entry-level positions or chief of operations for one of the biggest brands in the world - struggle to establish a balancing act when the two concepts (work and life) are perceived to be in binary opposition.
It’s obvious that to find a solution that works for you and your goals, you need to stop thinking of the two concepts - work and life - as opposite to one another and to start thinking of them as two aspects of your life that do not only coexist, but at times, merge together.
Strategies that Will Help You
It’s important to accept that the two concepts - work and life - can merge together at times, but that is not enough to help you achieve a balance that works for you. It’s also important to find strategies that will help you move from the traditional dichotomy of the two concepts and incorporate work schedules that encourage professionals to work more effectively, while also making the most of their personal lives.
1. Flexible Work Hours
Flexible schedules are a huge help, and this has been proven time and again by various experiments, but chiefly it has been proved through Moen and Kelly’s TOMO experiment.
During this experiment, Kelly and Moen separated the employees of an unnamed company (TOMO) into two groups. The control group continued working under traditional working hours. The experimental group, on the other hand, would work whenever and wherever they wanted so long they kept their deadlines. The emphasis was placed on results, rather than on how many hours employees were in the office, while managers were also trained to be supportive of their employees’ personal issues.
The experiment found that employees who had more flexible work hours met their goals as reliably as the employees in the control group while they were also much happier. Employees in the experiment group did not only sleep better and experience less stress, but they were also less interested in leaving the organisation.
Flexible hours are perhaps the most effective strategy for achieving work-life balance as they allow the employee to focus on what matters most at a specific moment, but as implementing this work schedule depends heavily on the employer, it’s important to find other options.
2. Work Less, Be More Efficient
One of the main issues employees have is that they believe that spending more time at work also makes them more effective, however, research has proven that this is the rarely the case. What the six-hour workday experiment has proven is that people can be more productive when they work fewer hours because they manage their time better.
Employees feel that they have more free time to develop and dedicate themselves to their personal life which means that they are less likely to take sick days and ultimately more willing to give 100 per cent to their work.
3. Find Your Own Balance
The two strategies above require your boss’s consent, and as many employers are not eager to let go of traditional workplace norms, it’s important to develop your own strategy for finding work-life balance.
Step 1: Fight the Guilt
The first step is to let go of guilt. Guilt takes up a lot of your energy that could be put to better use, and it also prevents you from focusing on what you have to do.
Perhaps the best strategy to cope with guilt is to understand that you are human and as such you have your limits. Learn what those limits are and come to respect them; this will allow you to treat yourself in a more humane way and it will also allow you to focus on how to become efficient.
Step 2: Become a Time-Management Master
Becoming a time-management master will allow you to work more effectively and manage your life more efficiently, so it’s important that you understand how to make the most of your time. Planning generally helps people manage their time better so you should make a to-do list with everything you need to do on a monthly, weekly and a daily basis.
Incorporate both the things you need to do at work and in your personal life as they are equally important and as this will prevent you from forgetting something behind or from delaying it because you are busy at work and vice versa. Plan your day (or week or month) in such a way that you pay attention to the aspects of your life where you are most needed and remind yourself that you can’t do everything in a day. If you can delegate, do it because it will make you more productive.
Step 3: Give Yourself Some Time Off
It’s important not to wear yourself thin as this will stop you from being productive so take regular breaks from everything to collect yourself. Taking a break will help you spend some quality time with yourself, and this will make you happier, which can also make you more productive.
Don’t allow yourself to work on your to-do list during your breaks as this will stress you out. Find something you love doing - whether it’s exercising, reading or watching TV - and make sure that you don’t miss out on dates with yourself.
It can be achieved so long as you find how work-life balance applies to you on a daily basis. Traditional understandings of the concept call for a dichotomy between the two, and as such, they are dated.
People do not stop worrying about their job when they’re off the clock and they most certainly do not stop thinking about their personal life when they are at work. Finding the solution you need entails understanding your responsibilities and your priorities. Having a concrete plan of what you hope to achieve in life will help you manage your time and life better and it’s probably your safest bet in achieving the ever-elusive concept.
How do you define work-life balance? Do you have any tips or secrets you’d like to share with other professionals? If you do, please share with us in the comment section below.