How to maintain a work-life balance
It’s no secret that many of us are feeling too overwhelmed, pressured and short of time to pursue the things that would actually make us feel good. Even worse, the sheer array of paths available to us to achieve work/life balance (WLB) is enough to send our stress barometers sky-rocketing even higher.
It seems that at every turn there is a program, workshop or seminar designed to offer us that elusive quality of life called “balance”. We can access information more easily than ever before, but the big challenge is how we can locate the right path that will lead us, as individuals and families, to a real improvement in the quality, appreciation and joy in our lives.
In an increasingly hectic world, it’s becoming more difficult to achieve a balance between all the competing demands we face. Often, work alone becomes our focus, to the detriment of health, personal relationships and family life. Globalisation, longer working hours and increased workloads, shifting demographics and an increase in single-parent families are only a few of the conditions adding to the growing pressures we face in finding a balance between our work and our lives outside it.
Within a generation, Australia has experienced unprecedented social change with profound implications for the way men and women use and manage their time. Many workplaces have come a long way in accommodating workers’ family responsibilities, with legislative provisions, agreements and workplace policies in place to allow us greater flexibility about how we can more fully participate in family life.
The work/life balance initiatives we are experiencing such as job sharing, flexible working hours, working from home and paid maternity and paternity leave are all steps in the right direction but, as we know, family-friendly workplace policies do not necessarily translate to work/life balance in our personal lives.
Only last year, a new project to examine the work/family balance titled Striking the Balance: Women, Men, Work and Family (initiated by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission) was set up to investigate the pressures facing both men and women in our efforts to combine paid work and family responsibilities. Fundamentally, we need to move beyond the perception that balancing work and family is largely a woman’s concern.
Perhaps the reason much of the work/life balance literature focuses on women is in part due to the significant increase of women in the paid workforce over the past 40 years. Between 1966 and 2002, the labour force participation rate of married women increased from 29 to 58 per cent. However, according to the Striking The Balance Project With Work and Family, studies show that of Australian women with two or more children, only 43 per cent are in the workforce, compared with 82 per cent in Sweden and 62 per cent in the UK.
Another reason we still think of balancing work and family issues as a woman’s issue is partly that the advocacy role played by women in changing gender roles in Australia, along with traditional ideas of children and the home, is seen as the woman’s domain. But as long as paid work and family balance is framed as the concern of women only, and specifically one for women with young children, men will continue to be seen as the secondary parent and carer.
Clearly, work/life balance is not just a women’s issue. Many men are also finding it difficult to juggle priorities, which include a deep need to care for their children. However, while women re-entering the workforce have sought to juggle work and family responsibilities by working more flexibly, men have not done so to the same extent. Men are generally working longer hours and fathers predominantly continue to work full-time while mothers take on part-time work. In June 2002, about 6 per cent of employed fathers and 57 per cent of employed mothers worked part-time. It’s therefore evident that men as well as women want to lead balanced lives.
As well as longer working hours among both sexes, the ageing of the Australian population and our rising longevity are placing new pressures on Australian families to do the work of carer, in particular for ageing relatives. At the same time, changes to the welfare role of government, especially in the financing of aged care, economic globalisation and the need for Australia to continue to compete with the dynamic economic powers of our region have increased pressure on us as Australians at work. We are increasingly caught between the pressure of paid work and the pressure of care.
But back to our individual sense of achieving work/life balance. What steps can we take personally to ensure we are living as balanced a life as possible? Here are some useful tips to ensure you live your most balanced, fulfilling and joyous life from now on. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the immediacy of work demands, which tend to require immediate attention. It takes great effort and broad vision to keep a focus on home, leisure, relaxation and fun when work seems more pressing and important. But here is where we should start.
Evaluate and become aware
First and foremost, we need to apply self-review and assessment. We need to observe where we currently are before trying to make changes. Though this may sound obvious and a pretty basic step, it’s one that many of us fail to do properly at the beginning of our plan for change and then we’re left wondering why things still don’t seem to be any better than before. Any change in behaviour, or time allocated to changing behaviour, usually only lasts when our underlying values and beliefs towards this behaviour are understood. Look closely at the key areas of your life in which you seeking to find more balance.
The areas in most need of redressing may be leisure time, social activities and sporting/fitness pursuits, community engagements or time spent with members of your family and friends. We all have different priorities depending on age, stage of career and levels of motivation to change. However, the importance of assessing where we are in each of these life domains cannot be underestimated. To quote Socrates, “The unexamined life is a life not worth living.”
Address your stress
A life out of balance has many tell-tale signs. One is stress and all that goes with it. We feel overwhelmed, tired or, even worse, exhausted. Our tempers may be short and our irritability high. Look closely at each of the symptoms and make it a priority to address these immediately. Remember the role our perceptions play in relation to how stressed we feel. If we’re in a rush and we panic to complete and get everything done in the day, our perceptions towards our behaviours may need fine-tuning.
In developing relaxation and stress reduction strategies (such as breathwork and/or yoga practices), we automatically experience a mental perceptual shift, which can contribute enormously to a renewed sense of balance. List everything you feel might be affected by an adjustment in self-perception. Often, we may hugely overestimate what’s humanly possible in one day. Juggling demands such as work deadlines, parenting, housework and downtime with friends and family will never go away, but our perceptions towards these conflicting demands can change — and they can change instantly.
Manage your time meaningfully
In many of the seminars and workshops on time management I conduct, it never ceases to amaze me how we have a tendency to think good time-management equates to fitting more activities into the same amount of time. Increased balance in life has nothing to do with fitting more in, but rather fitting more things in our life that are meaningful to us.
To this end, we would benefit most by completing a thorough self-audit of what actually means the most to us. If five things have equal importance — for example, the family’s wellbeing, financial security, physical fitness, health and enjoyment of life — then simply put an emphasis on only the activities that lead directly to the enhancement of each of these life domains.
How many times have you heard somebody say they would go to the gym and work out if only they had the time? My answer to someone who says this invariably revolves around whether or not they truly believe physical health is a major priority and desired state of being for them in the first place. It’s amazing how we can seem to fit in the things that are truly important to us.
What is the use of sitting down and planning our day ahead if we’re still left feeling like we haven’t achieved enough or if there is a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction? Too often, we assume that engaging in the exercise of planning is equivalent to ensuring we are creating work/life balance.
We need to do more than just plan. We need to align our plan with our overriding purpose and sense of why we are doing what we are doing. As a psychologist, I like to suggest it’s always the bigger picture that helps shape and determine the smaller picture, not the other way around. In other words, think big when initiating change. Take a large vision of how life could be at its best and paint with a large brush. Use big strokes to guide and direct behaviours that lead somewhere, not just to the end of the day, month or year.
Work/life balance is not about dividing our day into equal parts where we attribute equal amounts of time to equally important activities. This is a common misunderstanding among many of us, myself included when I began to analyse what work/life balance meant for me.
I have many colleagues and friends who spend disproportionate amounts of their time dedicated to a very few activities. But the activities engaged in are the most meaningful and delicately planned commitments for them. From an outsider’s perspective, it would be easy to say these lives are lop-sided or out of balance, given the time dedicated to very few tasks in a week. But again, work/life balance has nothing to do with evenly distributing activities throughout a day, and everything to do with engaging directly in meaningful and purposefully planned behaviours.
In the decades to come, the definitions of work/life balance will continue to change and broaden so our sense of balance in life will not just be relevant to how we juggle the demands of home and work alone. As many researchers are now indicating, we need to regard WLB as an issue of importance for males and females alike, inside and outside of the corporate culture, where predominantly WLB initiatives were designed to influence employees’ behaviour, attitude and performance. Staff retention and lower absenteeism are not the only relevant motivating factors for implementing WLB strategies. Businesses are beginning to realise their employees are much more than the role they play at work.
Importantly, there’s a lot to be positive about in terms of our own individual sense of work/life balance. For one, there are more avenues open to us to explore regarding our mental, psychological and spiritual health. No one path will work for everyone, but with a commitment to increasing our daily levels of life satisfaction, enjoyment and appreciation of life, no matter what our circumstances, we can commit to making a harmonious and balanced life a reality, not just something others espouse.
Remember that one person’s daily schedule might be paradise for some but a nightmare for others. So allow yourself to determine your own measure of work/life balance and, as a result, the impossible will become not only possible but extremely enjoyable and fulfilling.
Janet Taylor is a Psychologist specialising in the design, delivery and assessment of Corporate Health and Wellbeing Programs. She has a particular interest in Men & Womens Work/Life Balance issues. www.infinitehealth.com.au
Tips to Regain Work/Life Balance in Your Own Life
- First establish your own behavioural patterns: Take a journal of your schedule for one month. Note your biggest time-wasting or least productive activities throughout your day and evening. Commit to reduce the total time involved in these activities by half. You will be amazed at the time being wasted over a month.
- Work/life balance is not about fitting more in to your day. It is about engaging the things that bring satisfaction, fulfillment, enjoyment and meaning on a professional and personal basis. To do this try and establish what your core values and desires are. What do you want your motivation to be other than just the idea of getting everything “done” in a day? Once you have established your these, eliminate everything in your daily life and work that do not contribute to your levels of satisfaction, fulfilment and enjoyment.
- Look at all of the important life domains including, physical and emotional health, friendships and family. What areas can you identify that are in need of development? Are there unnecessary financial or professional pressures that could be eliminated by an attitude adjustment? Eliminate unwanted sources of stress and worry where possible and commit to your decision to change your life. Ask for, and seek help and support where you need to.
- Make exercise a top priority and upgrade your nutritional status by increasing the amount of brain power foods in your diet. Memory enhancing foods are also “feel good foods” and great energy providers. These include, fish, nuts, dark berries, tomatoes, broccoli and cocoa. Try for one month to eat more plant rather than animal based foods and see how good you feel.
- Practice proper breath work at least daily, or even better, begin to meditate regularly if you haven’t already. This is a wonderful boost you can give to your daily sense of balance and control. Gradually, your meditative practice will bring great shifts in your perceptions and attitudes towards life and others.