America has been called the most overworked developed nation in the world. Yes, we work a lot. Unlike the French, who, in 1997, apparently worked 499 hours less per year than we do (ticket to Provence, anyone?). So what happened to work and life balance? Is it even achievable in 2019?
And before you shrug a hopeless “no” and stop reading so you can go work some more, allow us to interject for a moment. We’re not just here for the doom and gloom. We’re here for solutions. So do read on.
Work and Life Balance: Where Are we Right Now?
If you look at the statistics, the case for work-life balance isn’t all that promising. Why? Because we don’t just have one problem, we have several.
Problem 1: We’re working more
Problem 2: We allow work responsibilities to creep into our personal time
Technology allows us to be constantly connected—which isn’t always a good thing. The line between our jobs and our personal lives gets increasingly blurred (maybe it even seems downright non-existent). As an example, 40 percent of employees now say it’s okay to answer an urgent work email at the dinner table.
Problem 3: We’re spending our personal time on the wrong things
It’s not just having time away from work that’s important, it’s how we spend that time. If the stress of too much work is compounded by too little meaningful downtime, our physical and mental health suffer. Let’s look at some stats:
- Anxiety disorders are now the most common mental health issue in the U.S.
- According to a report by Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, diagnoses of major depression rose by a dramatic 33 percent between the years of 2013 and 2016 alone.
- And guess what The American Institute of Stress found to be the number one cause of stress in the United States? You guessed it: job pressure.
- Even more disturbingly, the same report found that 77 percent of people regularly experience physical symptoms as a result of their stress.
What Do We Do about Work and Life Balance?
Granted, not everyone is overworked. Certain career paths are more prone to it. And in some industries, humblebragging about how much overtime you clocked this week is basically expected.
But irrespective of what field you’re in, what position you hold, and the number of hours you work, the concept of work and life balance is the same. We all need to offset the strains and stresses of work with time spent doing things that refresh and reenergize us.
So in a busy, hyper-connected, demanding world where time is short and employers often ask a lot, how do we find the time to, well, live?
There are ways to achieve a better work and life balance. The most obvious place to start is from the top down—aka, with the work environments themselves. Yes, there are companies out there leading the way on promoting the health and happiness of their staff. And more need to follow suit.
Take companies like Basecamp, for example, who for years have been running a four-day workweek over the summer. Instead of encouraging staff to work more, Basecamp encourages them to make their work hours count and to take reinvigorating downtime. Because happier, healthier staff equals greater productivity.
Another thing companies can do is allow staff to work remotely and/or have flexible work schedules. Cisco Systems is a good example of this: Most of their 80,000 employees work remotely at least part of the time. Encouraging remote work has benefits on both sides. Between 2012 and 2017 Cisco was able to close 239 buildings and save $196 million in costs, while during the same period, employee engagement and workplace satisfaction reportedly rose by 17 percent.
Now, regardless of whether you’re a tech giant or a burger joint, the message here is the same. Every company should care about the work-life balance of its staff. Indeed, In-N-Out Burger is known for its high wages and flexible working hours. (Wouldn’t it be great if the same could be said for the hospitality industry in general?)
Okay, okay, we know what you’re thinking: What if you don’t work for any of these companies?
5 ways you can improve your own work and life balance
If you happen to work for yourself or are in a position of decision-making power at an organization, it may be time to rethink the policies and workplace practices that lead to a culture of overworking.
And if you work for an organization where that culture is alive and thriving and shows no sign of change? Don’t lose hope yet—there’s plenty you can do at an individual level to boost your work-life balance.
Here are some ideas:
1. Find what truly energizes you (and schedule in more of it)
We all get our energy from different places. Introverted? Maybe you need time alone to replenish your energy stores. Or maybe you’re the type who gets their energy from others (in which case, party time!). Perhaps there’s nothing better for you than spending time in nature or at the gym.
Take some time to discover what truly makes your stresses melt away. And then—here’s the most important part—schedule in time to do more of it. It’s too easy to end up working through your lunch break instead of going for a walk, or to flake in front of the TV at the end of the day instead of spending time with family. Scheduling in activities creates intention, and intention means you’re more likely to follow through.
2. Unify life and work in a positive way
We’ve talked about the line between work and life being blurred in a negative way—i.e., when work stresses creep into every corner of daily life. But there are ways to positively blur life into work as well, which helps to create more balance.
Examples? Connecting with others has been shown to lower stress, so building meaningful relationships in the workplace is one idea. Or searching for deeper meaning and satisfaction in your work—maybe it’s giving exceptional customer service or challenging yourself to do the best work you can do—is another.
3. Take better breaks
Work breaks are important for so many reasons. They help to restore your focus, boost your creativity, and keep you motivated. And they prevent you from getting burned out.
There are plenty of ways to use your breaks that have research-backed benefits (exercise, meditation, and taking time offline are just a few). We won’t go into them all here but do check out this post on how to take effective work breaks for a more in-depth look.
4. Implement hard stops
Your work will always expand to fill the time you give it. That’s why, unless you draw a line, your workday will stretch out and eat into your private life.
Enter the hard stop.
A hard stop is a clearly-defined end time to your workday or workweek. One way to implement a hard stop is to schedule a leisure activity or appointment with an inflexible start time for the end of the day. That way you don’t have the option to let your workday drag on.
The other benefit of hard stops is that they help you to truly switch off. As Cal Newport says in his book Deep Work: “Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow.”
5. Have some tech-free time
Yeah, we know—switching off is hard. We love technology too but, like everything, it’s better in moderation.
Disconnecting allows us to give our attention more fully to our non-work activities. It’s no good trying to play a game of golf or have lunch with friends if you’re constantly responding to messages and phone calls. And unless you make it tech-free time, your mind will constantly wander back to your devices.
In other words: To switch off, you sometimes have to switch off.
To sum it all up…
Finding that balance of work and life isn’t easy, but it is worth it. And there are things that can be done, at an organizational and individual level, to get you on your way to having it nailed.
Your turn: How do you feel about your own work and life balance? Share in the comments.