Updated June 2020 due to the increase in home working during the global pandemic.
Do you feel like you're failing at work and at home?
You're not alone.
As organisations continue to demand more of their employees and technology brings the office into our homes, huge numbers of people are finding that their physical and mental wellbeing is the price they're paying for not being able to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Prior to global pandemic, the Mental Health Foundation considered the demands of employment to be the most significant threat to the mental health of the UK's population.
A survey by the Foundation found that:
- one in three people feel unhappy or very unhappy about the time they commit to work;
- more than 40% of people are neglecting other aspects of their life due to the time they're spending at work;
- a person's happiness closely corresponds to the amount of time they spend at work, with long working weeks resulting in unhappy employees; and
- nearly two thirds of people feel their personal lives are being impacted negatively by their employment, resulting in poor relationships as well as physical and mental ill-health.
While the mental health landscape of the UK and much of the rest of the world has been transformed over the past few months, concerns around the impact of work-life balance have intensified. Millions of people are now working in ways they're not accustomed to while managing childcare and other responsibilities complicated by lockdown measures.
So how can you tell whether you have work-life imbalance?
A few signs that all is not well:
You work all the time
This point may seem staggeringly obvious, but many people are conditioned to work long hours and have little perspective on what's reasonable.
So what is reasonable? That depends on the individual—but if work has become all-encompassing, consuming your thoughts even when you're not working—then you need to step back and consider whether it's sustainable. You may be at risk of burning out and suffering significant harm to your mental wellbeing.
You experience persistent or chronic aches and pains
Tension headaches, neck ache, back ache, sensitive skin… the list could go on.
Stress caused by pressure at work and at home can manifest itself in countless ways, and can significantly impact your physical wellbeing. Tension can result in chronic pain that will undoubtedly prevent you from doing your best work or enjoying your personal life. Left unmanaged, stress can result in serious physical conditions that require medical intervention.
Your relationships are floundering
A sure sign that work is demanding too much attention is the deterioration in your relationships with others. This could relate to your immediate family or your friends—do they feel neglected? Are your interactions when you do spend time with them less positive than they should be? Do you worry that you're not spending enough time with your significant other or perhaps your children? These anxieties can compound and become debilitating, and in a worst case scenario your relationships may break down irrecoverably.
You can't be separated from your phone
Mobile devices allow us to bring our work wherever we go, but that's not always for the best. If you're constantly glued to your phone or feel anxious when you're not, this probably needs to be addressed.
Mobile technology has been a boon in so many ways but the flip side is that we carry our problems around with us in our pockets.
You're always tired but you don't sleep
People consumed by their work rarely allocate enough time for sleep, often struggle to get to sleep and may wake early to find they're unable to return to sleep as they're troubled by thoughts of the day ahead.
If any of this sounds familiar, it may be that your work is preventing you from getting enough high quality sleep.
There are countless other indicators of course, things like always being stressed and not being able to recall the last time you had fun, but if you've gotten this far you're probably already convinced that your work-life balance is out of whack.
So let's do something about it.
In order to achieve some semblance of work-life balance it's absolutely critical that you set boundaries in terms of what your employer or clients can expect of you.
If you tell your boss categorically that you can't work at weekends or late into the evening, this firm boundary will ensure that you're not asked to. You may feel that it's difficult to dictate terms to your employer but many companies are coming round to the idea that their employees have needs to be met, and that happy employees make for a more productive workforce.
Have a think about what boundaries would suit your work and home life. When you approach your management team about putting these boundaries in place, do so in an honest, open and friendly way. Make sure they understand how it will benefit not only you and your family, but the organisation as a whole.
Learn to say no
Saying no can be hard. You don't want to be perceived to be "difficult to work with" or "not a team player", but by not saying no you put yourself at risk of being perceived as unable to cope with your workload. Even if you do manage to keep your head above water and get the work done, the quality of your output and your wellbeing are both likely to suffer.
Excess workload is the single most significant contributor to workplace stress. It stands to reason that your workload is also the thing that's keeping you at work when you'd rather be anywhere else, and that's why it's important to learn to say no.
Even if saying no doesn't come naturally to you, there are ways to make it easier:
Assess the request
Don't instinctively say no—consider whether completing the task could lead to an opportunity that might improve your work-life balance in the future.
Being dishonest about your motivation for not taking on the extra work will make you seem insincere and will cause confusion. If you don't have the capacity to complete the work, saying so will ensure your boss understands the intensity of your workload.
Don't burn bridges
"No" doesn't always go down well, so how about trying to say no without saying no? "I don't have time in my schedule" or "I'm not able to take this on right now".
Don't offer false hope
While you should avoid making your colleague feel bad for asking you for help, it's also important that you don't leave them thinking your no might eventually become a yes if they keep working on you.
Work smarter, not longer
Productivity in the UK is markedly lower than in neighbouring EU countries, despite employees in the UK working longer hours on average. Workers in the USA also spend more time at work than employees in the four European countries ahead of them in the productivity rankings.
Because we're not working smart.
We try to multitask even though the human brain struggles to do so.
We have poorly constructed routines and focus too much on unproductive activities such as meetings we don't need to be anywhere near.
We pick the low hanging fruit while putting off the most important task (MIT) until the end of the day.
Working smarter means adopting a structured routine and sticking to it. As your routine becomes established you can work on autopilot and won't need to spend as much time thinking about how to approach the next task. Reducing the number of decisions you make throughout the day can take a huge weight off your mind and allow you to focus on what really matters.
Rather than trying to perform several tasks simultaneously, focus on doing one thing extremely well before moving onto the next.
Carry out the most important or onerous task first so you don't spend much of your day getting increasingly stressed that you haven't dealt with it.
Stop striving for perfection
The drive to achieve perfection can turn to an obsession if left unchecked, and the struggle to maintain a perfectionist tendency can be destructive.
Perfectionism lives off your fear of you making a mistake.
It can limit your options where you're worried that taking a risk could lead to an outcome that isn't perfect.
At its worst it can stop you doing anything at all.
It's important to let go of perfectionism and understand that your ‘imperfect' outcome can be more than good enough, and that your willingness to take a risk is an accomplishment in itself.
A healthier approach is to:
- set realistic goals;
- strive for excellence; and
- be content when progress has been made.
Leave your work at the office
With remote working on the rise perhaps you don't have a clearly defined space for work. Even if you do, you may find that an increasing dependence on mobile devices has meant that you find it a struggle to escape their work email.
If you're a remote worker benefiting from not having an arduous commute, you're already giving extra time to your employer or your clients, so how about you clearly define the number of hours you're prepared to dedicate to your working day? Anything that happens out-of-hours can wait.
The French government has introduced legislation that protects employees' right to disconnect from work after-hours, and several years ago Volkswagen and Daimler adopted strategies intended to discourage after-hours emailing.
Unfortunately, many companies and governments aren't so appreciative of the benefits of employees disconnecting from work, so you may have to take the initiative. This goes back to setting your boundaries—make it clear to your employer what you're prepared to take on outside of your core working hours.
Press the off switch
While you may benefit from turning to technology in your desire to work smarter, it's essential to take time away from your devices.
Turn off your phone or place it on charge when you arrive home from work.
Don't sleep with your phone nearby—even if that means investing in an alarm clock.
Stop looking at everything through the prism of your phone and learn to enjoy the moment.
It's important that you have power over your phone rather than let it dictate how you live your life. Much of your screen time might be considered a time-wasting activity and the less time you spend glued to it, the more time you're able to invest in your relationships with others.
Do what you love
If you've agreed clear boundaries around work hours and you've learned to say no, you now have an opportunity to dedicate any time you've freed up to yourself.
The pursuit of interests and hobbies has been shown to significantly improve health and wellbeing. Exercise, yoga and meditation all have clear and obvious benefits to health, but creative activities that stimulate the mind—such as reading, crafting, knitting and learning a language—are also healthy forms of stress reduction. If you don't have a hobby perhaps now's the time to find what you're passionate about.
Try dedicating an hour a day to your passion and turn it into a habit.
Reconnecting with the things will love can bring joy, feelings of accomplishment and a sense of peace to your life.
Take a break
If the idea of taking time away from work or going on holiday triggers your anxiety then time away could be exactly what you need. If you plan appropriately and communicate effectively with your team, you should be able to take time off without overburdening colleagues. The fear of what you're not able to do while you're not at work shouldn't prevent you from taking a break.
You don't need to go on holiday—in fact some people find travelling more stressful than being in the office. What's important is that you're away from the pressures of work.
To do so effectively means completely disconnecting yourself from the work environment, which means not checking emails or calling the office for updates.
Your time away should allow you to rejuvenate and gain some perspective on what's important, at work and at home, now and in the future.
Commit to your future
If you're guided by a dream or your vision of the future, it's more likely that you'll do what's necessary to reach that ideal.
Setting clear and achievable goals along the way can help motivate you to transform how you live your life.
This doesn't mean taking on more work or working harder—your dream shouldn't focus on the pursuit of wealth or material possessions. If you've acknowledged your work-life balance is a mess it's important that you're thinking about a future where your health and mental wellbeing isn't under threat.
As you achieve your goals and move closer to your vision of the future, momentum will begin to build and you'll find it easier to disregard doubts and thoughts of failure.
It's not just about work
Much of the focus here has been on your time spent working (and rightly so), but many of the work-focused strategies we've already discussed—such as setting boundaries and learning to say no—can also apply to the home environment.
While you shouldn't isolate yourself from friends and family, it's important to consider how you use your time away from work.
Is your demanding social life contributing to your work-life imbalance? If you're out partying until the early hours on school nights, your performance at work is likely to suffer-along with your physical health.
If you have a young family you may find that you spend much of your time driving your children to social and extracurricular activities. A punishing schedule at home can be just as damaging as managing an intense workload, and both together will be unsustainable in the long-term.
Of course, there are some responsibilities outside of work that can't just be ignored. Carers of elderly or unwell family members trying to juggle their responsibilities at work and at home are much more likely to suffer mental ill-health than the general population. In this scenario it's important that you approach your employer to discuss ways they could support you and your family.
It's not feasible to adopt all of the above ideas immediately—you'd be setting yourself up for failure and could introduce more stress into your life at a time when you need less.
So start small and build.
Introduce boundaries at work for an immediate and significant impact on work-life balance.
Think about your use of technology outside of work hours and look to replace screen time with quality time.
Try practising ways of saying no while you build the courage to say no to your colleagues or your boss.
Spend an hour or two reconnecting with your passion or thinking about a new hobby or interest you could get passionate about in the future.
A few simple changes could help you get things done in your professional life while leaving you with the energy you need to enjoy your life outside of work. As you achieve a more harmonious balance you'll find that it's possible to schedule time to make more changes that will steadily improve your physical and mental wellbeing.