Can you really achieve work-life balance?

pebble stackIt’s National Work Life week and it seems to me that people are divided on whether you can achieve work-life balance. Most people realise the importance of work-life balance, both for themselves and their employees. The financial argument for offering work-life balance is strong. Ample evidence highlights the link between stress, lack of sleep, lack of exercise and sickness absence.  Improved employee well-being increases staff engagement and  productivity. Many employers therefore offer well-being initiatives to their staff.

There seems however to be a kind of cynicism amongst people, who realise the importance of work-life balance, offer it to their staff even, but feel that for themselves it is not realistic to achieve work-life balance.

The individual arguments against the possibility of achieving true work-life balance are strong. The solopreneur worries that taking a break will result in disproportionate loss of earnings. The start-up doesn’t have money to delegate activities to outside agencies.  The employee is worried about job security and career prospects if they leave on time. The manager is either aware of the workload of their team and doesn’t want to burden them more or feels that the team’s lack of experience and skills makes it impossible to delegate.

So how can you achieve work-life balance if you are overworked and under pressure? Or is it an impossible undertaking? Here are two home truths to consider.

1. Productivity does not automatically increase in line with hours worked

Whilst productivity appears to increase in a linear manner, this is only true for the first 40 hours per week. A study published by John Pencavel of Stanford University shows that employee output falls sharply after 50 hours. Someone who works 70 hours per week produces the same that output than someone working 56 hours per week. Another study by the Business Roundtable showed that if you work 60 hours per week for an 8 week period, your output was the same as if you had worked 40 hours. If you worked 80 hours per week, this effect shows after only 3 weeks.

Unfortunately I have witnessed too many comments where managers judged their employees based on the amount of unpaid overtime they were willing to work. It might be time for you to show your boss the evidence in favour of a 40 hour week, and have a clear conversation about your availability. Admittedly that takes a lot of courage.

2. Less work doesn’t mean more balanced

No matter how much or how little time you can spend away from work, it’s what you do with this time that’s important. To live a balanced and healthy life you need to do more than switch off your computer and leave the office. How many of us come home from work, do some last minute shopping, make dinner, possibly get the kids ready for bed, check the newsfeed or social media on the smartphone, followed by a couple of hours of telly?

There are things you can and should do no matter how little time you have away from work.

  • Make sure that you get at least 7-8 hours’ sleep per night, as your productivity is likely to decline if you continuously only achieve 5-6 hours of sleep. You are also more prone to errors after insufficient sleep.
  •  Fitting in 30 minutes of exercise in the morning will improve your physical and mental energy and release endorphins, hormones that make you happy.
  • Restrict the use of your smartphone; at least don’t look at it first thing in the morning. Doing so triggers an overload of information. This in turn scatters your focus and reduces your ability to sustain attention.
  • Schedule in some me time. Reading a good book, taking a hot bath, getting a massage can all help us to de-stress. Do something that’s important to you.

Achieving a 9-5 workday is difficult if not unrealistic for the majority of us. At the very least we need to accept that there may be peaks in work demands. It is however possible to achieve work-life balance, by paying more attention to the way we spend our time outside of work.

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