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Let’s Talk: Work-Life Balance

By Francisca Plummer, Accredited Counsellor/Psychotherapist

“MENTAL Health in the Workplace” is the theme of World Mental Health Day, (October 10, 2017). A healthy workplace is one where there are positive values, support and culture and where there is a proactive approach to promoting wellness, stress and risk management.

In a healthy workplace, people with mental health conditions are supported and there is a zero tolerance to discrimination. Such spaces nurture productivity and enhance personal and organizational resilience and success.

The idea of work-leisure as dichotomous experiences is centuries old. Dating back to these early times, adages like “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” called for a daily balance of work and leisure. However, with the pace of work slower in pre-modern society, it is plausible that it would have been less complex to attain that balance.

Advances in technology in modern day means that more and more the boundaries between work and family life have become blurred. Emails, computers and mobile phones keep employees in constant contact with work and define a new more fluid concept of the ‘workplace’, one in which employees are connected to the jobs beyond the boundaries of the traditional working day and physical work place. The threat to employee well-being from the blurring of this boundary, with its attendant stresses, propelled a shift in the conversation towards achieving greater “work-life balance” in the 1970s.

In our modern day, it no longer seems feasible to think of a clear dichotomy between work and leisure/family life. Most of the emerging work in this area suggests that dividing life into two distinct domains is a gross oversimplification. So, if we accept this, then we must consider that with the ever-rising permeability in the boundary between work and life, emotional traffic also moves freely in both directions.

Often, when we think about mental health and work, it is easy to draw to our mind the ways in which family life and family conflicts (our “personal” lives) affect our performance at work. No doubt, you can bring to mind some personal examples. After a harrowing row with the spouse or kids, a break-up, a sleepless night worrying about the bills, infidelity, illness, or dealing with our depression, we are more irritable, less focused and less productive. Family conflict can seep into our workplace lives in many ways, for example, through increased mistakes and increased interpersonal conflicts.

On an individual level, harmonious family life can also have benefits for work when things are going smoothly at home and we are comfortable and happy. In instances when children are doing well and we earn enough to live comfortably, work benefits from our energy and focus. When our children look up to us and tell us how much they love us, or bring us flowers randomly from the garden just because, when we welcome that much longed for baby/grandchild, marry the person we love, enjoy time with friends and family and have exciting holiday both here and abroad, we exude confidence and generate ‘flow’.

In the same way, the workplace can prop up or bleed into our personal lives. When we achieve milestones, get recognized for our hard work, get accolades or get a desired promotion, we ride high. That feeling carries over. Likewise, conflicts with colleagues can easily spill over to the home domain when we are short-tempered with our spouse and children. Interestingly, this can cross over to affect our partner/family’s mental health as well. In that way, poor working environments and, generally, stressful workplaces pose a toll on family life not just to the employee but indirectly to the employee’s family as well.

The spill-over and crossover of conflict at work has far-reaching mental health consequences for the employee and a potentially serious financial bottom-line for the employer. The impact of work-related stress, work-related depression, costs of absenteeism and presenteeism, loss of productivity, are only a few ways in which employers can lose money when they do not attend to the mental health needs of their employees. A positive workspace culture, though, can be a protective factor and facilitate productivity and success.

It is not easy balancing work and personal life, but how well you manage this can make a significant difference to your relationship with yourself and your family. In our modern-day reality, dualistic thinking about leaving work at the office and home at the doorstep might actually contribute to stress rather than alleviate it. In fact, it is not even really a choice for some people. Quite often, our personal or financial state means that we cannot simply pack up and switch jobs if our working environments impact adversely on our mental health.

If we really like our jobs, but our employers encroach on our lives too much, we may shrug this off by reminding ourselves that the job pays really well. Working on finding the balance that maximizes potential career-wise and giving time to have a fulfilling personal life is an ongoing pursuit. Go easy on yourself and decide which way you want things to go.

Work and family can enrich and complement each other but only when we embrace the idea that we cannot separate ourselves into distinct little pieces. To aim for this is to navigate a perilous tightrope. Surely, authentic living, in the grey tones of life, involves some existential anxiety and requires some effort to navigate. That effort is upfront. But if we try to robotize and compartmentalize ourselves, the hidden costs creep up on us in the broad daylight to cripple us in the dead of night. These limitless and amplified future costs in the form of depression, anxiety and insomnia are the types of costs most people probably want to avoid.

Everyone has a role to play, both in looking after their own mental health and creating a mentally healthy workplace. Topmost on my admittedly skewed to-do list in improving work life balance is first to understand the bi-directionality of the emotions that accompany work and life. Simple as this sounds, my experience tells me that if we understand more about how our work life affects our home life and how home life affects work life, that self-awareness will lead to phenomenal gains in our lives through enhanced proactive and responsive self-care. In fact, I rather believe that greater self-awareness is the gateway to a better life for many of us.

Once we understand how we are mutually impacted by work and family life, and if we decide to take ownership of that process, there are many things that we can do to achieve that coveted work-life balance. Things like maximizing efficiency at work, planning ahead, leaving the office at a reasonable time, actually using holiday time even though we spend it at home, getting involved in significant and personally important projects outside of work, setting aside blocks of time — however small — to focus on what’s really important to you, controlling when and how you do work at home and ensuring you have a strong personal support system inside and outside of the work place are just some ideas with which to get started. In addition, commit to being a nurturing colleague by creating an environment of non-judgmental acceptance and hope where people are encouraged to talk about issues that may keep them from being “present” in the workplace.

Today’s focus on workplace mental health calls our attention to the value of promoting well-being in workplace settings of all kinds. A healthy workplace benefits workers and employers alike. Employees must proactively look after their mental well-being but also employers must do more to modify risk factors for stress in the workplace, foster an organizational climate that promotes well-being and creativity and actively aim to reduce stigma regarding mental ill-health while simultaneously facilitating access to care to those who may need it.

Mental health is of concern not only to the users and providers of mental health services. It is an integral part of our overall health and well-being. We are all in a state of mental health — good, poor, or somewhere in between — and this affects every aspect of our lives.

It has relevance for us all. So let’s keep the conversation going and let’s commit to doing something nurturing that enhances our workspace today.

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