Most people would agree that life is far more frantic today than it was fifty years ago. People work longer and harder, technology is more advanced, international travel is easier and gender roles are substantially more equal. Fifty years ago men went out to work and women took care of the home. Today, many women not only have ‘jobs’ but ‘careers’ of their own. Frequently, child care and domestic responsibilities are now shared between men and women and often have to be desperately ‘squeezed in’ between work hours. Fifty years ago reduced technology meant that when you left work at the end of the day, you were able to literally leave work behind you. With the advent of such things as personal computers, cell phones and internet technology, work is increasingly creeping out the office door and into people’s homes. Add to this the growth of the ‘global village’ caused by the ease of international travel and communication, and you get men and women communicating and travelling across time zones. Exciting stuff, but again, the boundaries between work time and home time become blurry as people try to accommodate the realities of conducting business in this modern area.
All things considered, men and women today have to pay increasingly particular attention to proactive ways in which they can balance their home life with their work life. Fortunately, this is not only an individual problem. Many companies have become more and more aware that they need to develop policies and strategies in order to help their employees maintain what is now termed a ‘work/life balance’. Ask your company of they have any policies in place that you might be able to make use of.
This article will provide a definition of what is meant by work/ life balance; will outline some of the strategies companies can employ to increase their employees work/life balance; will discuss some of the factors that prevent individual employees from taking advantage of these strategies, and will examine additional changes individual employees can make to increase their general life satisfaction.
What is Work/Life Balance?
Most people have to juggle a work life with a personal life. When the combined demands of work life and home life become too great, conflict between these two domains of one’s life may result. Thus, work can start interfering negatively on your home life and conversely, your personal life may impact negatively on your productivity at work. This conflict between work and home is what defines a lack of balance between work and life. Thus, balance does not necessarily mean a literal balance between the time and energy you put into work and home. For most people this is unrealistic and need not be the goal. Rather, balance refers to one’s capacity to meet the needs and demands of both work and home without stress or tension. Having said this, the concept of balance ideally goes beyond simply the avoidance of conflict, to include a state in which an individual is able to find pleasure and fulfilment in both aspects of his or her life. Recent research has even suggested that it should be possible to take this concept one step further. That is, rather than simply aiming to reduce conflict between work and home life, it is possible that on the other end of the scale there could even be a positive relationship between the two domains. That is, skills learnt at work (such as conflict resolution) could enhance relationships at home. Similarly, benefits acquired at home (such as positive mood and emotional support), could increase productivity at work. This positive relationship between work and home has been termed ‘facilitation’. Importantly, the benefits of facilitation can include “improved physical health and well-being, better marriages and parent-child interactions and better organisational outcomes such as job satisfaction, commitment and productivity”.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution or formula for creating balance in any one individual’s life. Not only can one’s needs change from day to day, but an individuals needs will change dramatically over the course of a lifetime. Thus, young people who are unmarried and do not have children may desire to put more energy into their career. These needs will no doubt change once that same person gets married or has children. Older employees might feel a need to cut down on work time and devote more time to leisure pursuits or they might need to spend increased amounts of time taking care of elderly parents. Thus, although work/life balance is something that everyone needs to consider, the solutions for creating this balance will differ from individual to individual.
Why is it important to establish a balance between work and home?
Research has shown that conflict between work and home can lead to negative consequences such as increased job dissatisfaction, decreased organisational commitment, decreased productivity, increased absenteeism and higher rates of staff turnover. In addition, conflict between these two domains has also been linked to depression, anxiety and higher levels of family conflict. It is therefore clear that work life conflict is not only bad for individuals and their families, but that it is bad for companies too.
What can YOU do to improve your quality of life and reduce stress?
Apart from taking advantage of work/life balance policies, there are other steps that employees can take to ensure that they lead happier, healthier, more balanced lives. These include some of the following:
- Attend to your physical health. If you suspect that your health is not at an optimum level for your age, ensure that you obtain a medical check up and address any medical concerns that you might have. In order to improve your physical health you may also have to make lifestyle changes such as increasing the amount of physical exercise you engage in, increasing your sleep and decreasing your alcohol or nicotine intake.
- Attend to your psychological health. If you have been experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety (such as difficulty falling asleep, irritability, depressed mood, and changes in appetite) or any other symptoms that you might be concerned about, ensure that you seek the appropriate help for them. This might involve consulting your General Practitioner who can refer you to the appropriate mental health practitioner, or it might involve using the many resources that are provided to you through ICAS.
- Reflect on your priorities and values. Are you are spending time and energy on the things that are important to you? If you have few family responsibilities and are more than happy to work 24/7, then that might be appropriate for you and no changes may be necessary. However, if you would prefer to be spending more time with friends or family or engaged in leisure pursuits, identify the areas you would like to put more energy into and find a way to accomplish this. This can be easier said than done and may involve a complete change in lifestyle (such as accepting a drop in income in order to spend more time at home), or it may involve some simple steps (such as waking up half an hour earlier to go for a run or to meditate before the children awake).
- Examine practical ways of getting more out of your time: if you have a million and one tasks to complete, make a list and order them in terms of priorities. Start working through the list and focus on getting things done, rather than panicking about the things that you are not doing. Delegate responsibility to others where possible. This refers to your work life, where you may need to accept that you cannot complete all tasks independently, but it also might refer to your home life as well. Is it possible that your children/ wife/ husband/ domestic worker could be doing some of the tasks that you have been taking on unnecessarily?
The bottom line is that achieving a balance between work and life is an extremely personal affair. An organisation may have a host of work/life balance options available to employees but it is ultimately up to individual employees to take advantage of them. In a similar vein, employees cannot rely solely on organisational policies to improve their work/life balance. Rather, they may need to more critically examine their values and priorities and make proactive changes in order to balance their daily activities with these priorities and values. However, doing so is difficult in the absence of organisational support and it is also important for companies to support and promote the work/life balance initiatives and policies that they devise.