Just about everybody goes through stressful times at work. Projects pile up, you stay late and have to work evenings and weekends — but the flow of emails and messages doesn’t slow down.
When this busy schedule becomes the norm, it’s time to re-evaluate your work-life balance — and make some healthy changes to avoid job burnout.
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How do you know when it’s time to examine how your job fits into your life?
What is work-life balance?
Work-life balance looks different for everybody — and, of course, you want to give 100% effort to your job.
However, in a nutshell, work-life balance means you aren’t spending 100% of your nonsleeping time either at work or thinking about work.
You take time to do things you enjoy, whether that’s traveling, cultivating a hobby, or spending time with friends and family.
You also carve out time for yourself, to take care of your health or simply relax and decompress.
“To many, our work is more than just work,” says psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD. “It is an embedded part of our values. We are proud of our work.”
“However, if work crosses the line between something that brings us great value and joy to something that brings about great stress that begins to harm our health or relationships, we need to seriously evaluate what is causing this stress and how to manage this stress,” she adds. “Besides an emergent situation such as saving someone’s life, nothing should come before your own health or relationships.”
The importance of work-life balance
Although hard work is prized in our culture, you don’t have to let your job take over your life. It’s OK (and necessary) to take care of yourself first.
Too much stress can have a negative impact on your health. You can develop high blood pressure, which itself can lead to heart conditions, or muscle aches and pains. You also might be more prone to getting sick, as stress can have a negative impact on your immune system.
A recent study by the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization even found that working more than 55 hours a week raises your risk of ischemic heart disease and stroke, when compared to people who worked 35-40 hours weekly.
When your work-life balance gets misaligned, you also might experience burnout, a condition where you’re so exhausted that even easy tasks feel overwhelming.
Plus, taking a break every once in a while actually makes you a better employee. You can bring fresh perspective to the table, both in your own work and to your team.
Signs your work-life balance needs a reset
Technology has made our jobs easier. However, with the rise in remote work, it’s also made it more difficult to disconnect, sending our work-life balance out of whack. Here are some signs you’re in need of a work-life balance reset.
You stop taking care of your body
You’re staying up too late or having trouble staying asleep. You’re sitting all day and not exercising. You’re getting most of your food from a vending machine or drive-thru window — or not eating at all. You have a nagging pain or health concern but don’t feel like you have time to go to the doctor.
Your mental health is going downhill
You’ve started noticing signs of anxiety or depression. Are you feeling angry or irritable? You may even experience dread, restlessness, hopelessness, panic attacks, mood swings, and maybe even thoughts of suicide.
You just don’t care anymore
Your work no longer feels meaningful. You don’t feel connected to your colleagues or clients. You’re just going through the motions. You simply don’t care about your job.
You feel incompetent
No matter what you do, it feels like it’s never enough. You’re always behind and the quality of your work may suffer. You worry constantly about your job performance. You fear (but maybe also secretly fantasize about) being fired.
There are no clear boundaries between work and home
The rise in remote jobs and more people working from home has made establishing a division between work hours and off hours more difficult. However, this goes deeper than merely feeling like you need to answer emails at night.
Maybe your workplace isn’t encouraging healthy habits. For example, you find yourself working longer and longer hours. You can’t take time off without getting calls, texts and emails from work. You feel like you have to be available around the clock.
Although you may have people around all the time and you’re constantly connected electronically, you no longer have the time or energy for meaningful interactions with family or friends. Your relationships begin to suffer.
Tips for better work-life balance
If any of this sounds familiar, don’t despair. Dr. Sullivan offers the following tips for taking control of your life and getting things back in balance.
Put physical distance between your work and home lives
If you commute to and from work, you automatically have physical distance between you and your job. Working from home is a different story.
Sure, occasionally working from your couch (or bed) is a glorious perk of a remote job. However, making your living room your permanent office can actually cause more stress. After all, when it’s the weekend and you fire up a movie, you’ll equate your comfy space with your job.
The solution is to carve out a dedicated office space that’s separate from where you sleep or relax. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a separate room — even a dedicated table can work. The idea is to have a separate place associated with work, even if you’re just walking 10 feet from bed to your office area.
Disconnect when you’re at home
“Put down the phone,” Dr. Sullivan stresses. “We don’t need to be available 24/7.” Constantly checking and responding to texts and emails raises stress levels, makes it difficult to connect with family members and negatively affects your sleep. If you can’t help but answer every message or email that comes in, even after hours, turn off (or mute) your phone, or keep it in another room so you’re not tempted to respond.
Be more efficient at work
Focus on one task at a time and keep working on it until it’s complete. Don’t try to multitask. Close your email and turn off your phone when possible to minimize distractions. “If we’re efficient, we finish our work, and then we’re able to go home and spend time with our family,” Dr. Sullivan says.
Make a decision to set aside time for exercise. Choose and plan for nutritious meals and quality time with friends and family. Make those things non-negotiable in your schedule. Remember, self-care isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity.
Take a vacation — even if it’s a staycation
If you have a bank of vacation days, don’t let them build up or roll over from year to year. Take your time off, even if it’s a mental health day where you sleep in and watch movies all day, or a Friday afternoon where you skip out early and go meet friends for dinner. We all need to take breaks every once in a while.
It can be intimidating to talk to your boss about serious topics like setting boundaries or burnout. However, being clear about your needs — for example, that you don’t respond to email over the weekend because you are spending time with your family — will help clear up any misunderstandings.
Spend some time creating a list of things that would make your job easier and less stressful. Prioritize the items that are most important (or within your control to change) and set up a conversation with your boss to go over them.
Look for a new job
Unfortunately, sometimes, you’ll reach the point where work-life balance is impossible if you stay in your current position. Maybe it’s a toxic work environment that doesn’t value time off, or a company culture that doesn’t align with your values. In a case like this, searching for a new job (or at least coming up with an exit plan) is probably your best bet. Your health matters.
Get professional help
If the stress is really getting to you and impacting your mental health, don’t hesitate to talk to a therapist. Many employers offer employee assistance programs that can connect you with a mental health professional who has experience helping people manage their stress.