Work/life balance has come to increasing prominence in recent years, driven by technology, increased pressure on a scaled down workforce and greater competition among workers.
This has inarguably added to stress levels, interfered with domestic lives and created an environment where the expectation is availability at all hours.
Managing these expectations is challenging, but if you know where your boundaries lie and you are willing to define and defend them, it can be better for all concerned.
Going the extra mile
If you are responsible for making things happen, then vigilance is expected at all hours. It's what you're there for. You might need to complete a complex project in a pressured and frequently changing time-frame, which creates a very uncomfortable level of uncertainty. In the best cases, this burden can be shared. In others, it all falls to one person, who either sinks or swims.
Some people thrive on this; they love the validation of being the key person. It brings importance, a sense of value and worth and also financial reward. I had a boss who slept with a Blackberry under his pillow and checked it regularly during the night - happily. The danger is that vigilance becomes hyper-vigilance, pushing ever greater doses of cortisol into your system with physical and mental consequences that make the eternal watch impossible to continue.
Everyone needs balance in their life
There is a tendency to think that work life balance is more applicable to people with families than the younger, single professionals, but this is a distorted picture. A few years ago now, a young intern at an investment bank collapsed and died in the shower after working 48 hours straight. That prompted a rethink, but policy and practice often differ. When HR meets the reality of the client demands, HR loses out (they don't make money).
In my own case, since becoming a father and suffering long-term illness I have tried to negotiate flexible working as much as possible, with varying degrees of success. If you are a perfectionist and a people pleaser, you're going to find it difficult for this to work. I often abandoned these measures as they were not working for me and were creating longer hours or days I was not being paid for.
But the reality was that my own psychology was sabotaging these efforts.
Defending your work/life boundaries
If you are going to set these boundaries and agree them, you have to be prepared to defend them. Of course, flexibility is important - it works both ways - but reminding yourself of your priorities is key. What is most important to you? Who would you rather let down? Can you cope with the discomfort of pushing back on unreasonable demands from your employer? If not, how can you get better at that? What solutions could you propose that work for all?
Nowadays, I work part-time, but there are still regular requests to work on my days off which I manage confidently and assertively. It's hard to break old habits and to be honest, I don't think I would have been able to without all the work I have done on my psychology in recent years. Hopefully, we can reach a place where people don't have to have breakdowns before they can take control of their work lives in the name of retaining their health and personal values.
This will require a cultural shift that I do believe is underway at many financial institutions and professional services firms. Leading by example, regular training and workshops for managers are all part of embedding these ideas in company culture. But it needs to be accompanied by a firm understanding that it is good for business in terms of attracting and retaining talent as well as improving performance. This isn't a fluffy 'nice to have' - it's a necessity.
What's a 'day off'?
I am always surprised when people ask why I can't do something for them on my days off. What am I doing instead, they ask? It's none of their business, but I often tell them I will be lying in a hammock, reading comics, swimming in a river or wandering the fields with my dog. It's important. It's restorative, it allows the emptying of the mind necessary for clear thinking, and it enables genuine connection with the world outside work - family, friends, nature.
There is the old saying that nobody lies on their deathbed, wishing they had spent more time in the office. Now you could add to that nobody will wish they had spent more time on work email in the evening, on conference calls during parties, being called at the weekends or cancelling holidays.
Tip of the month - don't create a culture of dependency
Getting the balance between work and life right is always going to be difficult, particularly if you are a perfectionist or a people pleaser. A key thing is being able to separate the two parts of your life where you can. I do this quite literally by having two phones - one for work and one for personal use.
This means I am not always walking around with the office in my pocket, where I might be tempted to check it needlessly and start meddling. On my days off, weekends and evenings, the work phone lives in the fruit bowl, tucked away at the back, with the ringer off. Unless there's a crisis or I know someone needs support, then I don't check it until the end of the day and then only to clear the decks before the next morning.
I also know that by then it will be too late for me to get involved, even if I am tempted. If you create a culture of dependency, then people will turn to you automatically rather than thinking for themselves, or asking a colleague who is actually in the office. I do give my personal number out to certain colleagues as an emergency number but they know they will get short shrift if it is abused.
To be honest, I don't really keep a close eye on my personal phone either. I figure we got by for long enough without them and at the end of the day, I'm not a surgeon. The chances of someone dying because I had the ringer turned off are pretty slim.
It's all about perspective!
Dr Phil Hopley, Consultant Psychiatrist and Resilience Coach at Priory Hospital Roehampton is an expert in preventing burn out in high pressure business and sport environments. Here are his thoughts on this topic...
Balance vs Blend
The key idea that sticks out from my work as a resilience coach and psychiatrist is how recovery isn't really about 'work-life balance', but about work-life blend.
In other words it's not about equalising your time spent working & recovering every day or week. Some weeks will be more or less demanding than others. You won't always be able to leave the office at 5pm/6pm/7pm on the dot. Therefore people need to work their recovery behaviours into their daily routines in a realistic way, during times when it is feasible. That way when those hectic weeks do come about, they are better prepared and recovered to face them effectively.
Many of my city based clients tell me that they simply 'don't have time'! So the starting point is helping them to loosen their tight grip on that particular 'mind-trap' or cognitive distortion. In their minds they think (assume!) that I am about to recommend an overhaul on their working patterns when the opposite is true. And I am only too well aware of the need to keep my advice 'real' because for the vast majority the option of 'setting a boundary' and insisting on limiting work is a one-way ticket to the door.
Little and often
Once my clients' scepticism starts to shift the good news is that relatively small amounts of active recovery each day can significantly reduce the risk of burnout. As ever simple things work best:
Taking a 3-5 minute break each hour, get up and walk, move, breathe, stretch
Ensure you drink at least 1.5L of water per day
Get a Fit Bit or similar and walk more (aim for 10,000 steps per day)
Try mindfulness (eg: Head Space) on the way to work / home to switch off that overactive mind
Exercise when you can, be modest with alcohol, eat balanced low GI foods when you can, keep healthy snacks to hand to reduce sugar loaded snacks
Spend quality time with family and friends – even if it's just 30 minutes per day on Skype
Don't waste opportunities to sleep - do you really need that extra 30' vegging in front of the TV at midnight?
Integrating these small but achievable changes into our daily routine is the best way of achieving consistent recovery and better work/life blend thereby reducing the risk of the adverse consequences of chronic stress namely burnout, anxiety, depression and harmful drinking / drug use.
As my old school motto says 'A minimis incipe'... 'From small beginnings'. So why not start right now with a modest but sustainable change?