by Dr. Sara Baker
A leadership enthusiast, website and elearning developer, and believer that everyone deserves a workplace that builds and supports its people.
Don't wait for someone else to be the positive force of leadership that brings good to the world, do it yourself!
Work-life balance and mental wellness is a topic that many leaders neglect, both in our own lives and in the lives of our team members.
Now is the perfect time to create a balance between your work and home responsibilities while building in periods of reflection and rejuvenation.
Research studies show that overworking, anything over 10 hours per day and 50 hours per week, results in more workplace injuries, decreased productivity, as well as an increase in relationship problems, physical health issues and mental health issues.
As the leader, you have the opportunity to help yourself AND your team establish a balance between work and personal lives.
Shockingly, putting boundaries into place and finding ways to refresh and de-stress actually leaves everyone with more to give and benefits both your workplace and you individually.
When determining the best approach to balancing work and life, surprisingly the act of overworking itself is not the primary culprit. It's actually your body's reaction to the stress in your work environment.
The Problems of No Work-Life Balance: Effects of Stress on Our Bodies
The negative effects appear because increased and sustained stress levels in our bodies cause us to generate high levels of cortisol, also known as the "stress hormone." Increased production of cortisol leads to health issues such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, digestive problems, headaches, weight gain and memory and concentration impairment according to a Mayo Clinic report.
Our bodies release cortisol in response to a perceived threat, or stress. The cortisol limits some of our bodily functions and uses that extra energy to prime other parts of our bodies for "fight or flight" in order to defeat or escape the stress. Once the stress passes, our bodies return to normal functioning and everything is okay.
Except when we are exposed to chronic stress.
If we subject our minds and bodies to persistent stress, then physiologically we stay in a fight or flight mode. This consistent fight or flight status is what leads us to develop mental, physical and social problems.
Stress and long hours also lead to problems sleeping. Once our sleep cycles become disrupted, we begin to experience fatigue.
Fatigue is that unshakeable exhaustion in which our emotional, cognitive and physical responses are delayed or modified because our synapses are not all "firing" in our brains as they should.
Fatigue leads to poor decision-making, slow response times, and an increase in mistakes.
To battle stress and fatigue, you need to focus on creating a healthy, peaceful balance that works for you.
Should You Balance Work and Life or Integrate Them?
People take different approaches to work-life balance, depending on their personal priorities, their job types, and even their preferred activities for revitalizing.
You may have heard some leaders talk about their belief that there is no such thing as creating a "balance" between your work and your life. They recommend that you integrate your work into the rest of your life, accepting that work is part of your life.
These "no-balancers" believe the only way to be at peace and successful, and reduce the negative effects of stress is to welcome work into your personal life. The idea is that by incorporating your passion for your work into your life and not feeling as though you have to shut it down or stop your mind from thinking about it, that it reduces stress. Then you can reach a place of equilibrium and peace.
This path may work for you. I used to think this approach worked for me.
Living and Loving Work: The Secret to Work-Life Balance?
I let my passion for my work consume me. My work, the meaningfulness of what I do, has propelled me to love my work throughout my career. It only seemed natural that my mind ran constantly working to solve work challenges. I told myself that this was good, it was just how my fast-paced, never stopping brain functions.
But what I didn't realize was that by allowing my brain to always focus on creating new solutions to the never-ending challenges at work, I was cheating myself out of peace and content. And my family had become a side thought, second to work. I gave so much of myself to work and my team, that I didn't have much leftover.
I don't recommend this approach unless you work in a job that is 100% your life's calling AND you feel refreshed and stress-free on a regular basis because of your job. If this describes you, then kudos - but why are you reading an article about work-life balance? 🙂
Here's the thing: how to handle work-life balance really depends upon the individual. People whose identity depends upon their work performance or people who take immense pleasure from completing work tasks and achieving may want to find ways to be at peace with work-related thoughts that occur around the clock.
Others who experience stress with the interruptions in their personal time should have firm boundaries in place for how to monitor and deal with the intrusions.
Accepting your distractability for work-related thoughts and tasks throughout your life may be a good approach for you. But before you assume this is a good approach for your team members, you need to determine how they feel about work-related interactions during their personal time. It is probably safest to assume that others find the constant influx of work related thoughts, emails or calls intrusive and stress-inducing.
Work is important, yes, but so are our personal lives and our mental well-being. Every mind, even those that run nonstop, needs some type of outlet and downtime.
For those of us who feel stressed and recognize that we need to set controls in place to help us balance work with personal health, relationships and down-time, let's talk about some ideas for how we can create balance.
1. First, you need to recognize your efficiency limits and act accordingly.
If you know that you have nothing worthwhile to contribute after 10 hours, then limit your workday to 10 hours. Limit your workweek to 50 hours. Anything over that and you are negatively impacting your productivity for the week. That means that, statistically, after 50 hours, you should stop because you are creating poor quality work. Keep working beyond that and you may spend the next workday trying to correct the mistakes you made. (I wish I could say this never happened to me, but, yes.)
2. You can set strict limits to completely separate your work hours from your non-work hours.
This idea can be supported by setting norms with your teammates that no emails are sent out after maybe 6 PM on weekdays and no emails are sent at all from Friday at 6 PM until Monday at 7 AM. Make adjustments to the times and days based on your work schedule, the idea, however, is that you establish and communicate work-life balance norms to your team.
You must follow the norms and you must hold your team responsible for following them, also. Most emails have delayed sending schedulers, so if you must write emails during non-work hours, then, at least, don't send them to your team's inboxes.
With this approach you can relax your mind and not worry about checking email constantly. You can also prevent distracting emails from showing up on your phone and interrupting important relaxation time, fun time or any time spent with family.
3. Set a schedule for checking emails during non-work hours and stick to it.
Tell your boss and your team members that you want to be sure that you don't accidentally miss any important emails during non-work hours, so you will be consistently checking messages at a specific time on evenings and/or weekends.
Let them know what your designated time is so that they can be sure to send any emergency emails prior to your designated times.
If you have team members who are working during your non-work scheduled hours, then you can consider providing your cell phone number so they can text you or call ONLY in an emergency. It is essential that you clarify and define exactly what constitutes an emergency. Don't be afraid to kindly respond with "this isn't an emergency" if they stray outside of your guidelines. It isn't rude to set limits and it isn't rude to help people understand boundaries.
Only offer to be available during non-work hours to the extent that you are comfortable doing so.
4. Turn off the push notifications on your phone for your email.
If you must check email during non-work time then you should batch check it at specific times generally not more than once per evening or once per day on the weekends.
This will allow your mind to relax and you won't be constantly interrupted during non-work time. You will still be able to respond to important emails in a timely manner. This approach will require some self-control. Put your phone down, outside of immediate reach and resist the temptation to check it constantly.
5. Create an end of the workday de-stressing routine.
Start your routine by creating an end of the day to-do list for important outstanding items and critical follow-ups. Writing down what needs to be done will allow you to release it from the forefront of your mind.
Also include a venting protocol if needed.
This may be as simple as speaking with a fellow colleague to discuss stressful issues that are weighing on your mind.
Or it may entail talking to yourself out loud on your drive home.
It doesn't matter how you do it, what matters is that you get the information that is stressing you out off of the top of your mind before you begin your personal time.
After you have vented, calm your mind by listening to music, a podcast, an audiobook or silence, if you prefer. If work worries enter your mind, picture yourself pushing them away and out of your mind and concentrate on calm.
Taking deep breaths during this time is also helpful. Your goal is by the time you walk in your door at home you have closed the day on your work and have prepared your mind for your non-work life.
6. Write down random, persistent thoughts that steal your sleep or plague you during downtime.
If you have trouble sleeping, or even just have trouble relaxing, because your brain is busy creating plans, reviewing action items or problem solving while you are trying to sleep, then you might try keeping a notepad for late night to-do list items. If your mind won't let go of a persistent issue because it's afraid you'll forget, then open your eyes, lean over to your bedside table and write down whatever the issue/plan/problem/idea is.
This helps relax your mind, knowing you won't forget the important tasks and it won't fall off your radar. If intrusive thoughts of other pending tasks assail you after you have made your list, then add them to the list. If thoughts about the same tasks rise up again, simply remind yourself you've written it down, you'll take care of it tomorrow, there's nothing to worry about.
I picture myself pushing a big rock (with the name of the issue written on it) off the side of a cliff, where I have other rocks that I will take care of tomorrow. I can always climb down and read the rocks when it's time. But, for now, no. Off the cliff.
Making Work-Life Balance and Mental Wellness a Priority
Your mental health is critical to a fulfilling and rewarding life. It is also critical to achieving high-performance at your job. The better care you take of yourself, the better you will be able to function in your work capacity to meet and exceed expectations.
Talk to your team about work-life balance and help reduce stress in their lives, as well as your own. If you won't do it for yourself (which I hope you will, you are valuable and deserve to de-stress), then do it for your team. You have the ability to minimize the effects of stress on your team. Set positive work-life balance norms and share ideas on how to deal with stress. We all face it, we might as well work together to overcome it.
You might not be responsible for what your team members do on their own time, but you can help to give them the opportunity to experience it without interference from work.
Take care of yourself. Take care of your team.
Be a leader.
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