Work/Life Balance: How To Get It Right

Work/life balance has almost become the holy grail of the adult life: how do we enjoy our work but have spare time for the people and activities we love?

Australians work the longest hours in the Western world and around one quarter report that work frequently interferes with other life activities. Many of us are time poor, constantly rushing to juggle different commitments.

The balance between work and life is deteriorating for four in 10 people, according to a new study which also found Australians are donating $110 billion in free labour each year.

work/life balanceJob insecurity and an expectation from bosses that employees will work longer hours are the reasons why people are doing more overtime.

The average full-time worker is doing six hours of unpaid overtime each week worth an estimated $9471 a year, according to a report to be released on Wednesday by The Australia Institute think tank.

Director of Research, David Baker, said fear about job security was widespread.

“For many Australian workers rocking the boat appears to be a genuine concern,” Mr Baker said. “If seeking better balance is perceived to be a threat to career prospects people are unlikely to freely raise the issue with their boss,” Mr Baker said.

Most people said they were willing to get more flexible work hours and fixed finishing times to improve their work/life balance, but three quarters said they were unwilling to reduce their pay.

In a recent report on their World of Work Survey, Ranstad Australia/New Zealand found that when it comes to job satisfaction, employees report moderate levels of happiness and again affirm the principals of meaningful work; recognition and fexicurity (job security with inbuilt flexibility), are the key to loving their work. In fact 26% of employees intending to stay with their current organisation for the next 12 months, say good work/life balance is the main reason which would suggest that Australian employers are listening and beginning to deliver on workplace flexibility.

Employers clearly see this trend continuing as flexibility also ranked first among future challenges, with 92% agreeing or strongly agreeing the merging of daily work and life means employees will demand both security and flexibility in the next ten years.

Work Is Good For Us

Years of research have shown that working is generally good for mental and physical health and wellbeing. The benefits of work include:

  • Providing activity and a daily structure.
  • A sense of meaning and purpose.
  • Relationships and a sense of community.
  • Financial independence.

But certain aspects of work can have a negative impact on mental health. Job stress, isolated working conditions, psychological demands, a lack of rewards for effort, job insecurity and a lack of control in the jobcan make mental health problems more likely.

So, why be concerned about work/life balance?
work/life balance

Stress and Burnout

Stress is a natural human response to challenging or dangerous situations. A small amount of stress, such as working to a deadline can actually be helpful and cause increased alertness, energy and productivity. But this small amount of stress can only be effective for a short time. If the pressure goes on for too long or becomes greater than our ability to cope, it can drain our physical and mental resources. It can have a negative effect on physical and mental health, relationships, work and wellbeing.

Burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that can occur after a long period of excessive or stressful work.

The three key features of burnout are:

  • Emotional exhaustion.
  • A feeling of detachment from work or becoming cynical.
  • Reduced efficiency or lacking a sense of achievement.

Burnout also includes the concept of ‘compassion fatigue’ where one loses the emotional capacity to care about others. This can lead to simply ‘going through the motions’ and can be a problem for thowork/life balancese in health or caring professions where compassion is integral to the work.

How Do We Thrive In Our Work?

A recent Australian study looked at the ways in which people working in highly demanding professions could not only survive but thrive in their work. They identified that setting boundaries between work and home and knowing your limitations were important to survival. Actual thriving was related to certain attitudes or beliefs such as enjoying a challenge, making a difference, a sense of achievement or working towards some higher cause.

Work/Life Balance Is Not Just For Employees

Effective work/life balance strategies that meet the needs of an organisation and its employees are vital in maintaining a competitive edge in today’s rapidly changing business environment. Organisations with a corporate culture that values the diversity within its workforce and offers a range of flexible work/ life options achieve increased productivity through:

  • Attracting talented and skilled employees
  • Increased staff retention
  • Better management of stress, health and wellbeing issues
  • A reduction in sick leave and absenteeism
  • Increased staff motivation
  • Retention of mature aged workers
  • Being an employer of choice
  • Compliance with current legislation.

It Wasn’t Like That In My Day – Are There Generational Differences?

Generation Y are lazy but ambitious, Generation X are plodders and Baby Boomers are ready to give it all away – at least, those are some of the stereotypes we hear in the media all the time. Research conducted for the Australian Work and Life Index report which suggests there is less difference between the generations than you might think when it comes to attitudes towards working, and the great similarity is everyone would rather work less.

work/life balance

“It was a bit of a surprise to us: there is a lot of talk in the popular media about differences between the generations – that there is a bunch of pushy 20-year-olds who think they can name their terms,” says Centre for Work + Life director Barbara Pocock.

“Our data says that isn’t the case. They aren’t materially different in terms of average hours preferences to older generations. There was a lot of commonality across the age groups.” The AWALI report found Generation X workers (counted as those aged 30-44) had the worst work-life balance of all groups, which it said was not surprising as they were in the peak of their income-earning years. Gen X men on average worked 45.1 hours a week, according to the report, but would prefer to work 40.4 hours.


How Do We Achieve Work/Life Balance?

Build downtime into your schedule. When you plan your week, make it a point to schedule time with your family and friends, and activities that help you recharge.

“It helps to be proactive about scheduling,” says Laura Stack, a productivity expert in Denver and author of SuperCompetent: The Six Keys to Perform at Your Productive Best.

Stack also plans an activity with her family, like going to a movie or the park, at regular weekly intervals. Michael Neithardt, an actor and television commercial producer in New York City, wakes up 3 hours before he has to leave for work so he can go for a run and spend some time with his wife and baby.

He says.”I find that if I can get those 3 hours in the morning, I have a more productive and peaceful workday. I can sure tell the difference when I don’t.”

Get moving. It’s hard to make time for exercise when you have a jam-packed schedule, but it may ultimately help you get more done by boosting your energy level and ability to concentrate.

Research shows exercise can help you to be more alert.  Samantha Harris, a lawyer who works for a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, goes to her gym 2 or 3 mornings a week before her family wakes up. “It’s been a real boost in terms of the way I feel for the rest of the day,” she says. “I feel like my head is clearer and I’ve had a little time to myself.”

Remember that a little relaxation goes a long way. Don’t assume that you need to make big changes to bring more balance to your life.  Even during a hectic day, you can take 10 or 15 minutes to do something that will recharge your batteries. “Take a bath, read a trashy novel, go for a walk, or listen to music,” Stack says. “You have to make a little time for the things that ignite your joy.”

How do you feel about your work/life balance? Does your work consume you or do you take time for the things you enjoy?