Although the 40 hour work week has long been a staple of the American workplace, the fact remains that it no longer accurately depicts reality. A 2014 Gallup study found that the average full-time employee in the United States works about 47 hours, with nearly half of respondents working at least 50 hours a week. That means the average employee is effectively putting in an extra day’s work every week, usually without being compensated (salaried employees work an average of five hours more per week than their hourly counterparts).
One of the biggest challenges facing today’s workforce, then, is the question of work-life balance. With only so many hours in the week, taking on the equivalent of an extra day’s work leaves even less time for family and personal needs. Fortunately, there are a few strategies employees can make use of to ensure that their work responsibilities aren’t overwhelming their home life.
It’s easy to take on too much. Even if an organization doesn’t explicitly encourage employees to take on as many responsibilities as possible, workplace cultures often exert a great deal of pressure. All it takes is few employees who openly take on additional tasks or set an example of working long hours for a culture of overachievement to take hold. This culture can make it very difficult for people who want to strike a healthy balance between their work and personal lives.
Unfortunately, pushing to overachieve isn’t necessarily helpful for companies either. In addition to burning out employees rather quickly and causing them to leave the organization, overachiever cultures tend to elevate quantity over quality. They celebrate a form of “brute force” work that encourages employees to plow from one task to the next without strategic awareness of why it needs to be done. Many of these employees will be discouraged if they’re passed over for promotion by high-performing colleagues who may not complete as much work, but consistently produce better work.
Another problem with celebrating overachievement is the strain that comes from seeking perfection. Numerous studies have shown that people with perfectionist tendencies are more prone to damaging health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, insomnia, and even suicide. Perfection also becomes more difficult to strive for over time. People take on more responsibilities throughout the course of their professional and personal lives, but the amount of time they have to tend to them remains unchanged. By emphasizing a more realistic goal of seeking excellence rather than perfection, people can strike a better balance between home and the workplace.
Today’s communications technology has made it possible for employees to be connected to the workplace 24/7, and many companies expect them to be available at all times. More and more people are working from home as well, which only further blurs the line between the two.
While these tools offer tremendous flexibility for employees looking to structure their work schedules around their lives, they can also become intrusive and distracting. From working late evenings and weekends to constantly checking messages and emails during a vacation or children’s activity, people are often their own worst enemy when it comes to establishing a balance between work and home life.
By laying out a strict set of rules around these technologies, employees can take the first steps toward establishing much needed boundaries. Turning off email notifications, leaving a laptop at the office, or logging out of work management software after a certain time are just a few simple ways employees can begin to “unplug” from the workplace.
Between work and family responsibilities, people can wear their bodies down physically and mentally very quickly. When time becomes more scarce, everyday needs like sleep, exercise, and nutrition are usually the first casualties. Unfortunately, cutting back on these essentials almost always contributes to higher levels of stress.
Even worse, the combined effects of getting less rest, eating less healthily, and neglecting exercise can lead to long term physical damage as well. Working in an office environment may not seem like a harmful situation, but it encourages a wide range of unhealthy behaviors that can cause significant long-term health problems. The resulting emotional and financial costs of poor health far outweigh whatever benefits could be gained from squeezing in a bit of extra work.
While physical self-care such as exercise and meditation may require valuable time, the benefits can be profound. Avoiding unhealthy food such as sugary/salty snacks and fast food may create a bit of inconvenience, but will ultimately reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Settling into a regular sleep schedule and avoiding long periods without activity can also significantly improve health outcomes and keep energy levels high.
It’s impossible to be everything to everyone. There’s only so much time in the day and despite recent technological advances, people can still only be in one place at a time. Effective time management is therefore critical to establishing a healthy work-life balance. This skill extends not just to completing work promptly, but also to knowing how to prioritize tasks based on importance and urgency. Simply completing easy tasks may give the appearance of being efficient, but if those tasks are neither important or urgent, they could be preventing far more vital work from getting done promptly.
Time wasting activities like social media and internet browsing can make people less productive in the workplace, contributing to higher levels of stress and pressuring them to complete unfinished work at home when they should be tending to other matters. Being honest about habits can help people to overcome these challenges. Limiting social media use to a specific time period during the day or installing blocking software on a computer to prevent non work-related browsing can help recapture valuable time.
This is especially difficult when it comes to people. From coworkers who want to chat at the water cooler to friends planning after work activities, learning to say no and step away can be uncomfortable at first. Many people have a tendency to want to please everyone, but they usually end up overcommitting and pleasing none of them, least of all themselves. By prioritizing interactions, they can make sure that the relationships they do maintain are valuable ones that enrich their lives rather than take up their time.
Change is difficult because patterns are hard to break once they’re established. It’s the reason why most diets fail and New Year’s resolutions don’t tend to last beyond February. Since most of the measures for achieving a better work-life balance come down to time management, it’s critical that anyone looking to make changes in their daily habits set down some kind of plan to follow.
While radical change may be appropriate in some cases, most of the time it’s better to start with small, actionable changes. Committing to a regular weekend activity after years of working weekends might not be realistic, but setting aside time one weekend a month could be a good place to begin. By focusing on small goals in the beginning, it’s possible to form new habits over time and eventually move on to bigger changes that will contribute to a better work-life balance in the long run.
Although employees are under tremendous pressure to increase productivity and efficiency, it will be almost impossible for them to find sustained success without finding a healthy balance between their professional and private lives. While organizations can take some action to encourage these habits, it ultimately falls to the employees themselves to take control of their schedules and make sure they’re managing time in ways that promote and preserve their long-term health and happiness.