By Lainee Stirling – BSc. PGDipCouns
Work-life balance is a phrase many of us have heard – but have we seriously thought about how we apply it to our own lives? Mental Healthy looks at the balance between the work (paid and unpaid) elements in our lives compared with the play elements (leisure, relaxation, recreation time.)
Whose life is it anyway?
Although we talk about a “balance” this doesn’t mean we have to spend equal time on work and play. In fact, life would become exceptionally dull if we all divided our time up in such a regimented way. Our lives are complex and we each have different priorities at various points in our lives. Striking the work life balance that is right for ourselves, is an individual process. Whether we are single or married, have caring duties or not, are starting out in our careers or retiring; all affect what we consider to be the right work-life balance for us. So there is no one package that will fit all.
All work, no play?
Play elements of life are many-fold and vary from person to person. The key to “play” is that it gives you a sense of emotional well-being, a feeling of being in touch with love, happiness or joy, for example. Play can help us re-engage in life, energising us with enthusiasm and drive – not for “work” but for living. Time spent on ourselves breaks up daily routines and piques our interest in areas of life, other than those that are work-related. Sometimes, we “remember” what we used to be like, and we can return to enjoying aspects of being, that we had forgotten about in our busy lives. We can become optimistic about our existence again.
No work, no joy?
One of the most high stress events in life is being unemployed, especially long-term. This can corrode self-esteem and relationships, leaving all aspects of our lives unbalanced. The present austerity measures, though necessary for the economy, are likely to herald a huge increase in unemployment. As individuals, we may use this as an opportunity to examine our work – were we happy in our occupation, for example – and change direction. For most of us, the work-life balance can only be re-established when we are once again employed or have established a new pattern of working and living, such as swapping childcare and paid work commitments with our partner.
Work, getting you down?
Work/life balance has become more important to business to ensure the health of employees. Flexible working is one way in which business has sought to retain staff, whether men or women. Government policies have developed in the past 15 years, to incorporate the concept of paternity leave which allows fathers time off during the initial period after a baby’s birth. Men taking leave to cover illness of their children or teacher training days is more common – but still tends to be the domain of the mother, partly due to social expectations and partly due to women’s lower earning capacity. However, there is a general movement in caring and work roles that, though small, is likely to increase over time. Who would have thought, 30 years’ ago, that paternity leave would exist today?
One of the ways both men and women accommodate caring duties is to work from home. The vast increase in information technology over the past 10 years has facilitated this, so that people have computers in the home, smart phones and the like – which make communications easier and increase the feasibility of home working. Conferences can take place from an employee’s home to offices in the same or other countries.
So-called flexible working – for example, home working, leave for caring and self- regulated shift patterns - has mushroomed. In general, research has backed claims that this leads to less absenteeism and work-stress. However, in terms of work-life balance, home working can cause social isolation, which, in itself is a stressor. So nothing is clear cut – as individuals, we have to assess our own situations.
Although this may sound like a term used by only women, it is a concept that is important for everyone regardless of gender. “Me time” perfectly describes its function – to indulge the self, however we want or like to. There are no set rules about what to do – some people want physicality, so kick-boxing or swimming may be their bag. Others feel the need for absolute relaxation, such as a massage or batheing surrounded by scented candles. Some of us remove ourselves from the stress of life by diving into a book, while others shed stress by actually writing (me included.)
On the job
There are gender differences as to the reasons for work stressors. The role of men in life is primarily seen as being the main breadwinner, even in a world in which women increasingly are in paid employment. Fear of being made redundant when someone has the weight of a mortgage and dependents can be overwhelming. It can create a situation in which the main breadwinner will work beyond what any individual can manage without direct consequences on physical and mental health.
The role of many women, even in the 21 century, is one of caring. Women earn less than men doing equivalent jobs in many industries, so main earners in a household continue to be the male partners. Women, who re-enter the workplace after having children, are often seen as less committed to the company, so their status and prospects are adversely affected. So caring duties, fall to the lower paid or part-time earner, who is usually the woman.
The “problem” with caring is that it is not for defined hours or days – it can continue for months or years. Children may mature and become independent, but it is some years before they do – and what of disabled children or elderly parents?
Living in the pockets of our families is something of the past – work commitments and promotions ensure that many people live great distances from the grandparents, for example. Support with child-minding or babysitting simply isn’t there for many of us, so the opportunity to leave behind our caring role and get a bit of me time, can be limited. Unless we consider ourselves a priority, we may refuse to use scarce money to pay for carers – and land ourselves with a wholly unhealthy lifestyle instead.
The optimum balance of life varies from person to person and over time. Maybe we are producing a particular piece of work to a deadline, in which case the scales may be tipped decidedly towards work. The key is that this should be a temporary situation.
Gone are the days of security in our jobs – especially in these days of economic austerity – so there is huge pressure on each of us to perform well and “go that extra mile.” Generally, in the short term, we can manage this lack of personal time to recover from work stress. Problems arise when what might have started off as a temporary work situation becomes entrenched as part of our lives.
Tipping the balance
When we fail to balance our work and leisure experiences, we can suffer
Physical effects including:
· Cardiovascular disease, where the heart and circulatory system are stressed, causing high blood pressure and strain on the heart muscle
· A weaker immune system, where the body’s ability to fight infections and tumours is depleted
· Muscular strains, such as stiff neck, backache and headaches
· Sexual health problems, such as a low sex drive in both men and women
Effects on mental health including:
· Poor coping skills, so we become irritable, exhausted and insecure
· Addictive behaviours, such as over-eating, binge drinking or tobacco consumption
· Feelings of inadequacy caused by poor sexual performance or drive
· Lack of sleep or poor quality sleep
Effects on relationships including:
· Arguing, due to fatigue, irritability and generally feeling unwell
· Distress caused to both partners by lack of sexual activity or sexual satisfaction
Effects on work including:
· Ironically, people are likely to perform less well at work due to being less able to concentrate and feeling physically and mentally unwell
So how do we rebalance our work-life balance?
Firstly, examine all aspects of your life and write down everything you do, your relationships, work, leisure activities or other “down” time.
Secondly, prioritise all these elements of your life. Sometimes it is only when we document information that we can see how different the reality is, to how we think it is. Perhaps there are clear areas where you need to redress the balance – commonly, this is time given to the family, or just your partner.
Then re-examine that list. Are there areas you no longer want to do or want to change? Bear in mind that sometimes we have little choice – such as bringing in sufficient money for basic living. But you may want to look at alternatives to what you are doing - you could alter the complexion of your work landscape and inject greater enjoyment into your work life.
The process of rebalancing work and life will not happen overnight – after all, it didn’t become unbalanced overnight, did it? Start by locating simple things you can change, such as devoting one night per week to going out with your partner. Perhaps you need to practise saying “No” to an additional workload at home or at work.
Sit down with your partner and work together on any imbalance in work and life – your partner may have quite a different perspective to you and this is important to acknowledge. After all, you are a partnership and each of you needs to be aware of the pressures on the other and give support where needed. You never know, your partner may have little or no idea of the stress you are under – and vice versa. This process could bring you closer together.
Sometimes we can only cut through the blur of life when we, or someone we love, becomes seriously ill. It is at that point we review what we have achieved and how we measure that achievement. Ill health can re-orientate our thinking and enable us to re-examine our priorities. Don’t wait to get ill. Pretend you have that diagnosis. Carve the life that will give you greatest happiness and purpose, however that may be achieved for you. Every now and again, revisit your priorities and rebalance your life. Then go out and live it!
If anxiety is effecting your live our 'Overcoming Anxiety' programme can help you.
· Trust your body – listen to what it is saying to you, through physical/emotional signs
· Write down how you divide up your time – be brutally honest with yourself
Write a list of priorities in your life – remember that yourself should be one of them!
· Has focusing on one aspect of your life for the moment, become a permanent situation?
· Ask yourself, “If I became seriously ill tomorrow, would I be happy with the way I had spent the last year?”
· Start re-balancing!
· Work-life balance is fluid over time and according to individual priorities
· An imbalance can adversely affect physical and mental health, relationships and work
· In 2009/10 there were 9.8 million working days lost through work-related stress (HSE Oct 2010)
· Regular exercise is a great stress-reducer and your body produces endorphins which make you feel good
· A recent review of more than 16 000 people found that flexible working patterns showed a direct positive impact on individual physical and emotional health (www.flexibility.co.uk)
If you feel you are being bullied at work, ACAS provide an advice leaflet for employees which may be helpful. Their website is http://www.acas.org.uk
For more information on Anxiety please visit:
What Is Anxiety
Fight or Flight
Coping with Anxiety
Generalised Anxiety Disorder
No More Panic
Anxiety and Debt
Work Related Stress
Anxiety and Substance Abuse