Updated 12.02.2010, Editor's note: This story has been updated with new links to similar content and formatting changes. The text remains unchanged from the 2012 original.
Striking a healthy work-life balance is a difficult challenge even in the best of times, but it is all the more daunting and necessary during times of economic stagnation and uncertainty.
The Great Recession, with its subsequent cutbacks and layoffs, has left many employees putting in longer hours and working harder than ever. Worried for their jobs, workers are intent on proving they are an indispensable part of the team.
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Adding to the pressure, today's portable electronic devices have obliterated the line between work and home. Gone are the days when leaving the office or shop meant leaving our work behind. Today employees are available to their supervisors, coworkers, and customers around the clock.
The coupling of increased workloads with technology that keeps us constantly connected to our jobs finds an increasing number of workers feeling overwhelmed, discouraged and depleted.
In 2006 53% of employees felt they had a good work-life balance, according to a Corporate Executive Board (CEB) report. That number fell to 30% in the first quarter of 2009, the CEB reported. Many employees today are so busy making a living that they have no time to make a life.
In contrast, numerous studies have shown the most productive employees are well-rounded professionals with full and well-balanced lives -- both in and out of the workplace. Likewise, the most successful companies are those that foster employee health and well-being while enhancing organizational performance and productivity.
Today work-life balance ranks as one of the most important workplace attributes -- second only to compensation, and workers who feel they have a better work-life balance tend to work 21% harder than employees who feel overworked.
Steps to a Work-Life BalanceAchieving a healthy work-life balance requires managing our professional and personal life in sustainable ways that keep our energy flowing, our minds and bodies healthy and our whole selves happy and content.
It means giving due attention to all of the things that enrich and fulfill us including work and career, health and fitness, family and relationships, spirituality, community service, hobbies and passions, intellectual stimulation, rest and recreation.
To get there:
1. Track Your Time
Analyzing your present situation is the beginning step in achieving a balanced life. Keep a time log of everything you do for one week, including work-related and personal activities. This data will serve as an eye-opener, helping you understand how you are using -- and where you are losing -- your time.
2. Determine Your Priorities
Spend some time seriously reflecting on what is most important to you, and make a list of your top priorities at work and at home. Then analyze your time audit by asking yourself these key questions: What do I need to Start doing? Stop doing? Continue doing? Do more of? Do less of? Do differently?
3. Set Specific Goals
Take your list of priorities and turn them into concrete and measurable goals. Block time into your schedule for activities just like you would for an important meeting or a doctor's appointment.
4. Schedule Scrupulously
Successful people plan their work and then work their plan. You have one life, so have one date planner. Whether paper or electronic, this is the vehicle by which you turn your priorities and goals into reality. Set aside 10 to 20 minutes at the beginning of each day (or the night before) to plan your tasks and activities for the day and evening ahead.
5. Establish Boundaries
Set fair and realistic limits on what you will and will not do both at work and at home.
Clearly communicate these boundaries to your supervisor, coworkers, partner and family. For instance, you might commit to not working late on certain days unless there is a crisis. Additionally, set aside a time at home during which you will not check or respond to work-related emails or voice mails.
6. Take Care of Your Health
Your health should always be your No. 1 priority. If you are not in good shape physically, mentally, and emotionally, both your work life and your personal life will suffer. Take care of yourself by eating healthy meals (especially breakfast), exercise at least three times per week and sleep a minimum of seven hours per night. While you may not think you have time to add exercise and extra sleep to your jam-packed schedule, these practices relieve stress, raise your energy level, increase your stamina, improve your mental clarity, boost your immune system, and make you a happier, more engaged, and more productive person. Additionally, refrain from the excessive use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs to relieve stress. These substances only tend to keep the body in a stressed state and cause even more problems.
7. Nurture Your Family/Relationships
Relationships with family, friends, and loved ones are, by far, the greatest source of inner satisfaction. If your job or career is damaging your personal relationships, both areas will ultimately suffer. Sure there will be days when you will need to work overtime. The issue becomes problematic when these days become the rule, not the exception. By making your personal relationships a priority, your productivity and effectiveness on the job will actually increase.
8. Make Time for You
As much as work, health, and relationships take priority in your life, it is also important to schedule time for your own renewal. Indulge in some small pleasure daily. Take at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted "you time." It will do wonders for your well-being, and your relationships and your career will benefit too. Connect with your spiritual source. Belief in God, or a higher power, can be a deep well from which to draw inspiration, guidance, and strength. Setting aside a weekly day of rest can be helpful, as well.
9. Leave Work at Work
Develop a mental on-off switch between work and home. It helps to establish a transitional activity between the two realms. This might consist of listening to music or recorded books during your evening commute, exercising at the fitness center, running errands, or keeping personal appointments. Scheduling such activities immediately following your normal work hours also prevents you from spending that extra twenty minutes at the office which then turns into several hours.
10. Exercise Your Options
Many forward-thinking companies today are creating policies and programs that facilitate work-life balance. Find out what options your business offers in terms of flex hours, telecommuting, a compressed work week, job-sharing, or part-time employment. You may find an arrangement that allows you to work more productively, while at the same time cutting stress and freeing-up valuable personal/family time. If your company does not yet have a flexible scheduling program, consider proposing one.
11. Work Smarter Not Harder
Using time more efficiently is an important skill that everyone from the receptionist to the CEO can learn. Adopting the right combination of time-management practices can cut stress and save you up to an hour a day. This can include the use of technology to become more organized, grouping emails and voice messages, avoiding procrastination and learning to say "no."
12. Know When to Ask for Help
If you are overwhelmed at work, and it is causing undue stress don't suffer in silence. Shed the Superwoman/Superman image and explain your situation to your boss or supervisor. Untenable work situations can usually be alleviated, but it will take some assertiveness on your part. Similarly, if a balanced life continues to elude you, or you are experiencing chronic stress, talk with a professional -- a counselor, mental health worker, or clergyperson. Take advantage of the services offered by your employee assistance program.
Try as we all may, work-life balance isn't an exact science. Each person must find his or her own way of combining career, relationships, and personal care into an integrated whole. What is right for you now will likely change as new circumstances arise, so periodically review your situation and adjust accordingly.
Don't get overwhelmed by assuming that you need to make big changes all at once. Even if you implement only a few of the above strategies, they will have a positive and measurable impact in your life. Start with one clear goal -- then add another, and another.
The process of achieving a healthy work-life balance is like becoming a professional athlete or training for a triathlon. It takes a concerted effort to get in shape and a continued effort to stay that way. But those who commit themselves to this quest reap enormous health and quality-of-life benefits.
It is possible to have a successful professional career and a fulfilling personal life. Take control of your work. Be proactive with your time. Get a (balanced) life.
Tim Kehl is a work-life balance specialist, trainer and speaker. He also serves as a senior corporate chaplain with Capital Chaplains LLC in Madison., Wis. This agency provides area businesses with chaplains (similar to hospital or military chaplains) to assist employees and their families who are struggling with work-related stress and/or difficult personal issues. Tim can be contacted at [email protected] or 608-271-6606.