Work Life Balance

It takes three miles for a supertanker to change course. The Ever Given, one of the largest container ships in the world, blocked the Suez canal for six days in 2021, disrupting global trade.  We build our lives into something approaching supertankers but we run our lives at maximum speed, so it’s no wonder many people find it  difficult to balance their personal and work lives.

Work is pivotal in our lives. It takes up the bulk of most people’s waking hours, shaping your sense of purpose and your identity. When you meet someone new, usually the first thing they want to know is your work role. When our personal life feels complex, or painful and uncontrollable, our work can sometimes be the saviour, filling the holes that other areas of our life cannot.

Typically a rural work day in the 1770’s was seasonal, around15 hours a day. Darkness and sunlight was the natural dividing line of your work life balance.  A hundred years later, in the industrial age, work ceased to be seasonal, limited by daylight hours.  It was common for your working hours to be 16 hours or more a day, 6 days a week. The standard 8 hour day was established after the First World War. The balance pattern of 8 hours per day, 5 days a  week, became widespread, when basic weekly work hours fell from 44 to 40 between 1960 and 1966. This “standard work-life balance” is under challenge particularly since post covid 19 pandemic and lockdowns. The term work-life balance wasn’t used until the 1980s. The women’s liberation movement used it to describe the unfair challenges faced by working women with families.

StandoutCV reveal some interesting UK 2023 work life balance statistics: 31% of employees feel that they do not have a good work life balance. 3 in 10 workers believe that they are less productive in work due to a poor work-life balance. A survey from CIPHR found that work-life balance was the number one attraction factor to job seekers: work-life balance (67%), pay and benefits – total rewards package (59%), job security (57%) and job satisfaction (53%). Many employees feel their current job makes it “hard to switch off” back at home. A recent report by Hays revealed that more than half of employees are willing to accept a lower-paid job in exchange for a better work-life balance. A report from Aviva last year, found that two fifths of employees were attracted to their current role because of the work-life balance. Work-life balance is important for you and your organisation: fewer health problems and stress burnouts.  Damaging effects include a higher risk of stroke, coronary heart disease, anxiety and depression. When we sustain a healthy work-life balance, we develop a greater control over our ability to concentrate on our work tasks.

Do you ever plan an hour by hour schedule of activity for every 24 hour cycle of your life ? I suspect not. Trying to steer your “supertanker” in such detail for most of us feels impossible because of the continual demands upon us from our line managers to family commitments and obligations, felt to friends. The first step to be more in control of your work life balance is managing well your sleep time in bed. To feel refreshed, you need 7 hours of sleep every 24 hours. Every hour lost, negatively affects your wellbeing.  We do vary in the our nightly need for sleep. A sleep hygiene plan is easy to do. A subject I will return to another time. 

Let’s assume your sleep time is healthy and you work the standard 8 hour workday Monday to Friday. If you always work only those 8 hours, switch off at the end of the day so you are not thinking, planning or spending time worrying about work: that’s 15 hours left. Seems a lot ? Well in reality, work does not stop, there are unpaid duties. Typically, we spend four hours a day on household chores, caring for the family, preparing, eating food and tidying the kitchen. Another hour on average, every week, is spent of formal leisure or sporting activities. That means we enjoy less than four hours a day of free time. Most of us spend two hours watching TV and at the same time tapping away on our smartphone or tablet. We are passively watching the screens, silently digitally connecting with others. The Office for National Statistics found UK adults spend an average of three hours and 44 minutes each day on entertainment, socialising and other free time activities. A majority of this time was spent watching TV, while 33 minutes was used to spend time with other people.

Working is good for us.  We have to work to pay the rent or mortgage and utilities. For some people their work defines them: it is who they are. For others, a job is about putting food on the table and buying things that gives life pleasure. 

You drive over a huge pot hole, your tyre bursts, so you get your tyre replaced. Wheel balancing ensures that the weight of your car is distributed equally around the wheel, so the tyre rotates evenly. This involves adding small balancing weights to the rim which counter weight inconsistencies. Imagine your life as a wheel.  When life is busy, it’s all too easy to find yourself off balance, not paying enough attention to important areas of your life. That’s when it’s time to take a “helicopter view” of your life, so that you can bring things back into balance.

Start by thinking about the areas of your life that are important for you. They could be your work, time with family, the company of friends, alone time, hobbies and leisure activities you like to regularly do, keeping physically fit or learning new things or skills. Lets say there are seven segments. Now think of that wheel and divide each important area into segments of your wheel. Now, add to the picture, the roles you play in life:  for example: partner, parent, manager, sports player or friend. Like wheel balancing, consider adding weights to each dimension of your life. Think about how important each one is to you and the proportion of time you want to spend each day, each week on that life dimension. Assess your whole life wheel. Next, think about how much time do you actually spend on each segment, comparing with what you would really like to do. 

Now is the time to consider: change your life or stay the same ? The stages of life that we usually find most challenging are those that bring uncertainty: emerging into adulthood into the workplace, settling down with a partner and having children, entering the menopause in middle age, retiring and facing old age. The traditional three stage life: education, job for life, retirement is going.  Our work career is likely to have many stages and phases. We tend to think about “supertanker” change every seven to ten years. The process of change can take up to a year. Things I will do now to regain  balance in my life and things I have stopped  doing or reprioritise. The more we learn and expand in response to life changes the more likely we are to emotionally thrive.

Here are some possible options to consider when rebalancing your work life segments. Is this the time to consider going part time ? Do you want to be more flexible in the way you work ? For example: variation in hours, job share, compressed hours, homeworking, career creaks or shift swaps. How do you want to connect when working ? For example: to be connected to work anywhere, any place using any device. Do you want to think about a job that offers “smart working” ? For example offering a range of flexible working options. A company that offers trust-based culture that focuses on management by result rather than presence. Another way of working is “agile working”: The ability to work across several locations,  choosing from a spectrum of working arrangements that frees you to work when, how and where.  

Work-life balance has changed dramatically recently, with the end of strict 9 to 5 in the workplace hours and an increase in remote working. Work-life balance is no longer a one-size-fits-all equation. The UK workplace is changing. Companies are starting to realise that what happens at home has also a place at work. It is now, longer a seesaw balance pivoting one way or the other. A loss spiral is when your work intrudes negatively into your home life, unable to 100% switch off, sleep is affected so work performance drops and you spiral downwards. Instead, the ‘gain spiral’ perspective sees the workplace’s potential ability to nurture better home life. A  better home life helps employee engage more at work, becoming productive and innovative employees. So over time, workplace good wellbeing spirals upwards. 

Work-life Mental Health compartmentalisation is on the way out: the belief that work is wholly separate from everything else. The younger generation have come to realise that this rigid divide is unrealistic, unhealthy and out of date. To spend 37 hours a week with work colleagues and have to “pigeon hole” away your mental health, is unsustainable. This is not to say that some compartmentalisation isn’t reasonable. It definitely is. Privacy and confidentiality maintains good wellbeing, especially for those who prefer to be more private. However, when compartmentalisation is so rigid and limiting, it can become a barrier to constructive open mental health conversations. 

Think about the constant draining energy it takes for people to keep that separation. Not only do people block out their “whole self” at work, but it also results in being off sick to recover. Pause for a second and ask yourself: Do you  totally separate work and your private life ? If yes, why do you do that ? if not, what proportion of your private world do you share at work ?

If you make the decision to bring some aspects of your wellbeing and Mental Health into your workplace, will this encourage your colleagues feel like they could take their brick walls down too ? I think it does. It first did this in my late 50’s. I made a decision to leave my very well paid job Senior Manager job, without knowing what work I will do next. My work-life balance was in a mess. I ended up working for Carlisle Eden Mind as a Mental Health trainer. I am now more in control of my home and work life.  The best work decision I have ever made.

Chris Graham

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