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Not long ago, having a good work-life balance meant being able to leave the office on time. For some, it was about spending more time with their kids, while others valued the opportunity to meet up with friends or go to the gym during their lunch break. Companies increasingly offered the chance to work from home one or more days per week in an effort to attract new talent.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have changed the nature of work-life balance. Today, many thousands of office workers are struggling to adjust to working from home full-time, and are discovering that the lines between work life and home life are easily blurred. While the daily commute has disappeared, it has been replaced by other challenges, such as the tendency for work hours to bleed into the evening.
This article will look at 14 ways to improve work-life balance, no matter whether you work in an office or from home.
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What is work-life balance, and why is it so important?
Over the years, the understanding of what it means to have a good work-life balance has evolved dramatically as new generations (with new expectations) enter the workforce. The benefits of accommodating flexible working are more widely accepted as organizations increasingly prioritize the well-being and happiness of their employees.
Why? Because researchers have revealed that work-life balance is just as beneficial for businesses as it is for their staff.
According to the Harvard Business Review, employee burnout costs the U.S. between $125 billion and $190 billion every year in healthcare. Meanwhile, a five-year study found that employees who work more than 55 hours per week are 1.66 times more likely to develop depression in later life.
Employers who address these issues will not only save money in the long-term due to a reduction in employee turnover and absenteeism, but they’ll also foster a more loyal and productive workforce.
Why do employees struggle to achieve a work-life balance?
In 2019, a survey conducted by e-commerce company Groupon found that 60% of Americans struggle to maintain a work-life balance, with 40% claiming they worked too many hours.
Reasons employees struggle to get the balance right include:
- A perception that being seen to work hard will help win a promotion or pay rise.
- An unwillingness to switch off until everything on their to-do list is complete.
- Workloads that are unachievable without putting in extra hours.
- Significant changes at home, such as having children, caring for a sick relative, or moving house.
How to tell when someone is struggling
Typically, an employee who is struggling to achieve a healthy work-life balance is likely to be tired, stressed, and distant. Their personal and professional life will suffer as they scramble to stay afloat. They’re more likely to make mistakes at work or fall behind, and their increased stress levels could lead to a deterioration in mental health or other physical conditions. They are also more likely to miss out on important events in their personal life as they attempt to manage an out-of-control workload.
During COVID-19, with the majority of office employees working remotely, a failure to balance work with personal life looks a little different. Employees might spend more time than usual sitting at their desks, fail to take regular breaks, or differentiate work-time from personal-time, often checking emails throughout the evenings and at weekends.
These 14 work-life balance tips will help tip the scales in the right direction to redress a healthy work-life balance.
How to balance work and life
1. Identify productivity peaks
So long as the work gets done, it shouldn’t matter when in the day it happens.
While some people are at their most productive and creative in the early morning, others favor a slower start and can best apply themselves in the afternoon. Employees should play to their strengths and structure their workloads around their most productive periods to reduce procrastination and the frustration brought on by a lack of productivity.
2. Take scheduled breaks throughout the day
Whether you work from home or in an office environment, it’s useful to structure the working day to include several scheduled breaks. Taking breaks reduces the chances of being distracted by colleagues, family, or tasks such as housework during allotted work time.
The majority of people can only sustain maximum concentration for 90 minutes, so recharging with regular breaks is vital for ensuring continued productivity throughout the day.
3. Keep to strict working hours
Whether it’s 9am-5pm or 7am-3pm, make a decision and stick to it. Once employees get into the habit of allowing their working day to impact their personal or family time in the evenings, it’s difficult to claw back a routine.
If you make a habit of answering emails at 10pm, your boss and colleagues will continue to expect you to do so. Instead, make sure your co-workers understand that you finish work at the same time every day and will not be available again until the following morning.
4. Have a long-term plan
Manage “deadline stress” by creating a long-term plan which encompasses completion dates for all upcoming projects and tasks.
Having a long-term plan will help you spread out your workload realistically and identify at a glance which project you should be working on right now.
5. Pursue passions
Employees with excellent work-life balance know the importance of finding time to do the things they love; whether it’s exercising, reading, painting, yoga, or spending time with their families.
Options are admittedly limited under COVID-19, but it’s still possible to pursue a passion. Try to find one thing to do each day that restores creativity, brings enjoyment, and refreshes the mind.
6. Book a vacation
A 2018 study found that 52% of U.S. employees have unused vacation days left at the end of each year. Opting not to take a break means missing out on physical and psychological health benefits, including lowered stress levels, higher motivation upon returning to work, and decreased burnout.
Again, options are limited during the COVID-19 crisis, but just because you cannot leave home does not mean you shouldn’t take a vacation. Even a “staycation” provides a valuable opportunity to unwind and recharge, switch off from work and reconnect with family.
7. Prioritize the important things in life
Juggling a career and a personal life will inevitably involve some sacrifices. It isn’t possible to accommodate every family occasion, school event, or social activity alongside the work calendar. But just as there are sometimes vitally essential meetings to attend at the office, some personal commitments should also be deemed unmissable.
Decide which ones they are and don’t let any work commitments stand in the way.
8. Don’t spend breaks doing tasks
It can be tempting to spend work breaks running personal errands, especially when working from home. A 30-minute break can quickly turn into a whirlwind session of cleaning the house, putting away laundry, washing up, or paying bills.
Instead, take the opportunity to indulge in some “me time” between work sessions to prioritize your well-being.
9. Schedule social activities
When work is especially demanding, it’s tempting to cancel social plans. However, no matter what’s going on at work, it’s worth keeping at least one social event per week in the calendar.
Finding a human connection is especially crucial during COVID-19 lockdown. This might come in the form of a recurring Zoom call with a group of friends or a family quiz.
10. Just say no
Don’t feel pressured to take on every new request from a colleague or manager. Saying “yes” to everything is a sure-fire way to destroy your work-life balance.
Instead, make time to work through the available options with the person who made the request. For example, it might be possible to take on a new, urgent task if something on your existing to-do list can be delegated elsewhere.
11. Ask for help
Never suffer in silence or allow pressures at work to escalate to unmanageable levels. Colleagues, managers, friends, and family are there to help and share the load when things get too much. But they can’t help if they aren’t aware of what’s going on.
Employees in need of professional help should take advantage of mental health support (such as counseling) offered to them by their employers.
12. Take advantage of flexible working
Progressive organizations offer a range of flexible working options to accommodate their employees’ preferences. This might include a shortened work-week, flexi-time, the opportunity to work from home, or job-sharing. Find out what options are available and how to take advantage of them.
13. Separate work and play
Keeping work and relaxation separate is especially crucial for employees working from home. Ideally, try to set up your workstation in a place where it won’t intrude on your downtime.
If possible, consider the use of a separate computer and phone for work that can be switched off at the end of the day.
14. Prioritize mental health and well-being
Now more than ever, it’s crucial to prioritize the well-being of the workforce. There’s a lot of noise on social media encouraging people to maximize their time in isolation by learning new skills or exercising more. But at a time when many people are experiencing heightened anxiety and insecurities about the future, the top priority must be to look after mental health.
How can managers help?
For managers looking to support their employees in achieving a healthy work-life balance, consider doing the following:
- Treat each employee as an individual with different life priorities and a different perspective on what constitutes a good work-life balance. Within reason, try to accommodate different expectations and requirements through the provision of flexible working options.
- Lead by example. Don’t send emails in the middle of the night or schedule a 7pm meeting on a Friday evening.
- Inform employees of the services and options available that could help them to achieve a better work-life balance.
- Continually re-visit workplace policies, such as parental leave, to best accommodate the entire workforce.
Over to you
Remember, work-life balance doesn’t come down to a single factor. It’s not merely about the number of hours worked or the weeks of vacation taken. All employees require unique support to thrive in the workplace and maintain a happy, healthy, and fulfilling personal life. Make sure you take some or all of the steps above to ensure you achieve your optimal work-life balance, even in trying times. And let us know in the comments what works best for you!
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