By Bob Mcnutt, LCSW
You may have noticed an uptick in commentary of “the great resignation,” a wave of employees leaving their current job for other work opportunities. The change of status quo due to COVID-19 seems to have shaken up peoples’ work/life ruts and has them looking for better employment. If you find yourself starting a new job, or struggling in your current job, creating a stronger work-life balance can be useful.
This is easier said than done when working full-time. Each day is comprised of 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for [on-the-clock] work, and 8 hours for self—that doesn’t sound too imbalanced until we factor in work preparation, commute, traffic, unpaid lunch hours, obligatory work ‘parties,’ and work taken home after hours. With that view, we can have minimal personal time for ourselves on work days, often leaving all of the catch-up for the weekend.
Before we look into how to remediate the imbalance, let's look at the conventional categories included in life balance. Common areas include:
Interpersonal: friends, family, partners, children
Spirituality: religion, nature, energy
Growth or learning: personal investments, interests, talents, school
Business: career or work, schooling, finances
Physical Health: health, nutrition, fitness
Recreation: hobbies, relaxation, joys
Environment: community, home comfort/safety/cleanliness, places you feel accepted or influential
We could also break this down into 3 core encompassing realms:
Source: connections with life, living, spirituality, humanity, and nature
Meaning: What makes life worth living; what are the reasons—not the obligations—as to why I want to be alive and wake up each morning?
Purpose: what makes me feel useful, functional and productive?
Choose one of the category breakdowns and take a moment to rate from 1-10 the importance of each of those categories in your life. Then rate the investment you have put into each of those categories in the last 3 months.
Does your investment add up to the value? Which areas have the greatest discrepancy? What are the “right” answers that may need to be challenged? For example, maybe you aren’t as invested in family or spirituality as others say you “should be” but it feels right to you.
At this point, it’s probably easy to guilt yourself for underinvesting in something important or over-investing in something less desirable.
Before you go too far down the guilt slide, take a look into what has created in the imbalance in investments. It likely started with the best intentions or in response to a need and slowly became unbalanced over time. Being aware of this helps to give yourself permission to make a functional change that may cause some disruptions to the normal flow of life.
Assuming that we cannot quit our jobs or reduce our hours, the difficult equation of balance occurs when work is taking the majority of our time each day. Let’s pause and do some simple math to keep things in perspective. There are 168 hours in a week. If you sleep a healthy 8 hours each night, you will invest 56 hours a week in sleep. We then take off the standard 40 hour work week (adjust + or – to your standard weekly hours) and the extra time it takes to prepare and commute to work (likely 1-2 hours a day depending on commute and preparation requirements)
Let’s be fair and say that all our waking routine is not work prep. Noting the similarities between the morning routine on a day off and the morning routine on a work day, this leaves us with roughly 60 hours as personal time each week, with 36 of those hours coming on the weekend (if you work a standard 5-on-2-off shift).
At nearly half our available time, work can easily take on the highest level of singular investments. Now that we have a general understanding of the time available to us, we can better our invested use of our time.
Enhancing Work Balance
Many, if not all of the work life categories can be promoted while on the clock. Depending on your work from home status, some will be easier to attend to than others.
For example, formal religious spirituality may not be Kosher [pun intended] at a physical workplace, but could be managed in a work-from-home environment, while interpersonal interactions are less substantial in work-from-home compared to in office.
The overall theme is knowing where you want to invest and keeping motivation for that output. For example, if we are working on enhancing our physical health, you may be able to find brief moments to do squats or pushups from your desk while you wait for a website to load or while you are on hold. If you are looking to increase your growth or learning you could do so with a learning experience that involves the workplace needs to serve both yourself and your company (this may require you to find ways to care about what the company cares about and not vice versa).
Looking for ways to increase a life investment without formally wasting on-the-clock time can be difficult, but with a little ingenuity you can come up with some enlightening combinations.
Watch out for taking work home with you. This can be literal, physical or emotional. For those of you who must work after work (often times unpaid), this will be difficult to manage. Be sure to ask yourself if the expectation for you to work after work is appropriate and necessary.
If you are higher up in the company and have a lot of responsibility, ask yourself if it is time to get an[other] assistant to help with the excess. For those of you who voluntarily or obligatorily take work home with you in the literal sense, ask yourself who are you afraid of disappointing and what is the cost of that disappointment. If you worry that you will lose your job if not taking work home with you, talk with those around you who you trust to help see if this is a realistic fear.
For the majority of individuals, we will take work home with us emotionally. This means holding onto worries or frustrations from the day. Sometimes this means we are less present with our family, emotionally uncomfortable, and living outside of the moment. Having ways to mentally clock out from work is important here – if you work from home, it is helpful to keep your workstation away from visible range after being done from work, if at all possible, based on your living situation.
When leaving work, it can be useful to turn on email notifications (if that is allowed with your position) or other similar activities to clock out emotionally and symbolically leave work at the door. Changing out of work clothing and into lounge clothing can also be a useful way to symbolically clock out.
Lastly, we need to be honest with our productivity levels when taking work home, you are likely less efficient and more prone to error when working from home with familial and environmental distractions taking place, if you can convince yourself to keep work at work, you will likely be more productive in the time you spend on work.
Enhancing Free Time Balance
Enhancing your free time balance essentially comes down to separating decompression, recharge, and investment activities. Many of us watch TV/media to decompress, but it doesn’t always help us feel more balanced despite it being “relaxing.”
Emotional decompression often times just takes the form of reduced stimulus rather than a proper recharge, and this is typically very inefficient though sometimes necessary. To enhance basic decompression, be sure to stay away from re-runs or mindless scrolling.
Depending on your attention span, you likely lose the joy of a show after binging it for 2 hours, so take a break and come back to it later when you can properly care again. Don’t double down on media, if you have your TV on, put your phone away and vice versa – actually take in what you are experiencing. Proper connections with our decompression activities can turn them into proper recharge activities. This allows us more time and energy to spend on investments.
Being able to connect with personal investments each day in a small ways is essential to maintaining a proper work life balance. If we only decompress or recharge on the weekdays, we will be spending the rest of our lives living for the weekend.
One method of this daily management is to look for frustrations that can be appreciated (my kids or pets demanding my love and attention as soon as I walk in the door, frustrating and amazing). Try to find at least an hour to spend actively connecting with a valued investment.
Look at ways you are numbing out and checking out that could be better served with a slight output to something that matters to you. Your phone and TV are likely the biggest checking out culprits in your life and seldom serve our wellness. Take opportunities to focus on the underinvested values during recharge time to have a better overall life balance.
About the author
Bob McNutt, LCSW specializes in substance use, behavioral issues, depression, trauma, and PTSD. In his practice, Bob addresses the social and spiritual concerns of his clients, helping them to restructure negative cyclical thoughts.
Bob McNutt earned his bachelor’s of behavioral science from Utah Valley University and his master’s of social work from the University of Utah.