With Australians doing 2.14 billion hours of unpaid overtime a year, it’s obvious that the work/life unbalance is an easy trap to fall into. However, the study also showed a staggering amount of people put in the extra working hours of their own volition, with 43% of people stating the overtime was “not expected” of them but they did it anyway. As only a wise boss dissuades this sort of behaviour, it takes no time for the additional hours to become the norm. Once we fall into the vortex of overworking, it is easy to loose perspective.
How we perceive the nature and volume of our work can vary widely depending on our state of mind. Often after a long, relaxing holiday we tend to return to work with a fresh perspective. We may find it easier to go home earlier, take more frequent lunch breaks and accept that we can never get everything done, even though the actual work may not have changed in our absence. When we have broken the cycle of over working and are feeling more relaxed it is easier to be objective about what we can achieve in a single day.
But when we’ve got our work life out of perspective it can have a major impact in not only our psychological state but physical wellbeing also. There is a well documented interconnection between our state of mind, physical wellbeing and productivity. In the same survey 53% of workers reported they felt over-whelmed with stress and pressure a significant proportion of the time. While the workplace is not the only possible source of stress in peoples’ lives, it is obvious that stress in one area is likely to have a flow on effect into the other parts of our lives.
Consequences of an unbalanced life
Some of the common physical symptoms of overwork include an increase in headaches, musculo-skeletal problems (e.g. back and neck pain), dry eyes and insomnia. There are even extreme examples of people literally “working to death”. Sudden death in the workplace is common enough in Japan that they have a word for it, karoshi. In Japan It is estimated that 5% of all cardiovascular deaths in the 25-59 y.o. age group, are attributed to karoshi.
Stress is a more nebulous consequence of overwork. The symptoms range from psychological discomfort through to crippling panic attacks and can be a contributing factor in major immunological conditions and even cancer. A rise in stress hormones can disrupt the production of other hormones affecting fertility and PMS, blood sugar regulation and the thyroid. In short, stress has the potential to wreck havoc not just in our happiness or ability to sleep but also in every nook and cranny of our body.
Creating a balanced life involves devoting some time to focus on all facets of how we live. The time spent outside of work with family and friends, as well as for exercise, hobbies and relaxation is equally important as the hours put in at work. Ideally each 24 hours is split in equal thirds with 8 hours for sleep, another for work and the final 8 for everything else, with bonus time for domestics and play on the weekend.
There are many situations that blur this division of time – in families there is usually at least one parent on duty 24 hours a day, commuting eats into downtime and those who have a home-based business often face huge challenges in quarantining their time.
While studies like to focus on the work part of the equation, as a naturopath I find there’s not enough attention placed on the “life” side. The slide into workaholism, though not always conscious, can also mask dissatisfaction in a relationship, feelings of social inadequacy, loneliness and even boredom. I find the Buddhist term “going for refuge”, used to describe a person’s decision to follow their spiritual path (taking “refuge” in Buddha, the dharma and the community) an interesting concept when applied to mundane life. Western Buddhists often refer to aspects of a non-spiritual life, like when we bury ourselves in distractions, as “taking refuge”. We might find refuge in playing video games for hours, use sex, drugs or alcohol as a distraction or spend more time at work. I’ve observed many examples of people “taking refuge” in work – staying back late at night and going to the workplace on the weekend when things get messy in their personal lives. At the time they may protest that the “have to” put in the hours to “get on top” of the stress, which sounds rather noble. But for some essentially work feels safer than home, you don’t have to face a partner asking difficult questions, you can ignore the housework or attempt to fill a sense of emptiness.
One of the most useful antidotes to work related stress is to make a commitment to having a life. It may mean owning up to the hard stuff and getting some help by seeing a psychologist, naturopath or life coach. But ultimately it involves choosing to place a greater value in your quality of life outside of your job.
A good place to start is this article on creating a personal manifesto using techniques such as vision maps, life lists and online help to set goals in not just your career but personal life and health as well. It is hard to make changes without setting quantifiable goals. Wanting to be “less stressed” or “work less” is meaningless without a strategy and a destination. For example, quarantining the time you spend working may involve a commitment to not checking emails outside of set hours and if you are not officially on call then change your voice message so callers know the hours you work, divert your number or screen calls. Blocking time in your diary every day can help you commit to a lunch break. Booking a massage or other healthy treats at 6pm can be an incentive to get out of work on time.
Start working on your work/life balance goals
Write three headings on a sheet of paper – work, life and health.
Spend a couple of minutes writing down how you’d like each of these aspects to be in ten years time. Don’t censor your thoughts or over think it.
Next start working backwards. For example, if under health you wanted to do a triathlon in ten years, start thinking about what cycling, swimming and running goals you can set for the next 1-5 years then make a plan for the next month, such as joining a stroke correction class at your local pool if you have trouble swimming, start researching what bike you need if you don’t own one or even just getting a new pair of running shoes if you don’t have any.
If you want to be a writer, do you actually schedule any time on a daily or weekly basis to write? Would you like to enroll in for a class at the Writer’s Centre or read a ‘how to’ book on the subject?
If you’d like to earn more but work less, then visualise your ideal working day. Start with the dream and work backwards. Or consider spending less and making your life simpler instead?
No matter how busy this month is, give yourself 1 small, simple goal each for work/personal/health to achieve each week. It may be having 2-3 pieces a fruit a day, eating breakfast, getting out of the office at lunchtime, updating your CV, getting in touch with a friend you’ve been thinking about, gathering some or having some designated ”airplane mode” time.
Change starts now, don’t wait for a crisis to overcome your fears and start living the life you want to live.
Find out how Gill can help you find your own work/life balance with The Wellbeing Check