Taking charge of your work life balance

For many of us, working long hours can feel like a necessary evil. But pushing yourself into overdrive for too long can have a serious impact on your health. We look at what work life balance really means, why it’s important, and how to make the most of your time outside of work.

Are you working too much?

It can sometimes be easy to get into the habit of spending too much time at work and not having any work life balance. Maybe you’re after the hours and the paycheck. Maybe you’re up for a promotion. Or maybe you’re burning the candle at both ends to meet your goals for the quarter. 

But is your health worth it?

It’s easy to say “of course not,” but the data suggests otherwise. According to the 2014 Australian Work and Life Index report, more than a fifth of Australian employees work 48 hours or more each week, and 60 percent don’t take their holiday leave regularly. 

That makes work life balance a big deal when you take into account that:

  • Working 55 hours a week or more can increase your risk of stroke by 30%.
  • People who work more than 10 hours a day have a higher risk of heart disease than those working 7 hours a day.
  • People who work longer hours tend to consume more alcohol and at a level that poses risks to their health.
  • Women who work long hours appear to have a higher risk of depression and anxiety.
  • Injury rates tend to increase as work hours increase. Those who work over 40 hours per week or over 8 hours in a day have a significantly higher injury hazard risk.

Beyond these statistics, it’s likely that the stress of overworking - or maybe missing life’s moments - has the potential to negatively impact your physical health, mental health, stress levels, relationship satisfaction and ability to perform your job. Read this article to learn more about stress at work.

Some of us find it hard to know our limits, which is a kind way of saying that sometimes we push ourselves too far. Help yourself manage work stress by learning to identify signs you might be working too much and take charge to re-balance and avoid the problems that it can cause. 

Woman takes coffee break but can't disconnect from work, looks at phone

The importance of work life balance

Striving to build a healthy balance between your work responsibilities and your life interests or goals, can help improve your overall health, your happiness and your relationships with those around you. 

Stay in control with work life balance tips

1. Know when to stop working
 
Going from 60 hours a week of work down to 40 hours may not be possible. But you may be able to reduce your workload in smaller steps. Decide where you can realistically cut back your hours each week, and start working with that. Step down from 60 hours per week to 55 hours, and then down to 50 hours, for example.
 
Tackle your workload on a day-to-day basis, as well. If you know a project will take longer than one day to complete, decide where and when you’ll stop and take that decision seriously. “Just five more minutes,” can quickly turn into an hour more if left unchecked. 
 
Another option may be to balance the load of your week. If you know you’ll work late Thursday and Friday, for example, try to work shorter hours earlier in the week to free up time for self-care.
 
Sometimes it can just be a matter of knowing when to switch off. This is particularly important if you’re inclined to bring your laptop home with you. Career coach Michelle Landy says, “The key to balance or integration is actually being mindful of where you are.” One way to do this is to consider how your mind can transition between work and home. It’s the little things that can make a big difference here. It could be as simple as taking a deep breath and reminding yourself to be present as you step through your front door, or turning off notifications on your phone so you don’t get disturbed with emails when you’re at home.
 
2. Take your breaks
 
The world won’t end if you take a break. There’s a reason work breaks are required by law. You’re not a robot. You need time to reset, eat, go to the bathroom and relax. Try and grab some time each day, even if it is only a few minutes to step away from your computer and go for a walk. 
 
The same goes for annual leave and stockpiling it for a rainy day. Your company will not fall apart if you step away for a few days. In fact, you aren’t doing your employer any favours by failing to give yourself proper down-time.
 
According to Adam Sacks, president of the Tourism Economics division of Oxford Economics, as quoted in Forbes Magazine: "Leaving earned days on the table harms, not helps, employers by creating a less productive and less loyal employee.” If you’re a manager, check out this article on managing stress in the workplace.
 
Taking regular periods of rest helps you maintain momentum and avoid burnout. Plan ahead so that you’re not taking time off during a busy period at work and commit to a real vacation - the kind where you’ve packed away your laptop and set your phone to emergency-only mode. Spend time with family, meet up with friends, explore new destinations or enjoy a favourite holiday - whatever you need to do to return refreshed.
 
3. Find a hobby you enjoy
 
Speaking of hobbies, there’s sometimes no better cure for an out of whack work life balance than a separate passion you enjoy outside of your job. 
 
This can be hard to find if you’ve moved to take on your job, or if you’ve been overworking for years, but it can also be deeply rewarding. As you commit to taking much-needed breaks from your job, use this time to find activities that keep you interested. Try a new sport - such as hiking, surfing or fishing; volunteering or an art class. 
 
Don’t feel guilty about the time you spend on your hobby. You work hard, and you deserve to take time to enjoy what you’ve worked for. Most businesses understand and may even encourage this.
 
4. Ask to work from home
 
More people than ever before are working from home, and depending on the requirements of your job, you could be one of them. 
 
According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Nick Toscano, “An analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics data reveals the number of employed people who work from home has dramatically risen from 20 per cent of the entire labour force to 30 per cent in 15 years.”
 
Working this way can help improve your work life balance, but remember that it doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” proposition. Begin by asking for a day or two per week to work from home. If the experiment is successful, you can always ask your supervisor to increase your remote work permission. 
Man doing work while his child sits next to him
Though the work life balance tips above may sound nice, you might be reading this article thinking, “That’s great, but I just can’t get away right now.”
 
We get it. Sometimes, you’ll be in a situation where you aren’t able to stop working long hours. Perhaps you’re very senior, your workplace is under resourced, you’re working on a major project, or perhaps someone else has called in sick and you have to cover. Whatever the reason, there are times when you just can’t get away. 
 
If you find yourself in this situation here are some easy sanity-saving tips to bring some more life balance into your working day:
  • Keep healthy food on hand and stay hydrated. Stash healthy snacks like nuts and vegetables at your desk, go for the healthier lunch option, have lots of water at hand and do your best to eat at the right times. Avoid throwing off your metabolism by not eating too late or too early.
  • Plan a day or two off or even half! No one says annual leave has to last a week or more (even if you wish they did!)
  • Take a quick break every hour to step away from your work. Recent studies have positively correlated hourly breaks with increased productivity.
  • Plan something extra fun for your time off, hopefully this can help give you an incentive to get your work done faster.  
  • Stay in touch with family and friends. If you’re going to be late, send a text or email.
  • Give yourself time to transition back to regular work hours before taking on another major project. Try to stave off the urge to jump on the next hot project by taking a break in between. You don’t have to conquer every battle in the office - especially not at the cost of your health and wellbeing.
  • After you’ve completed a major project, ask yourself how you could handle things differently in the future to prevent overworking.
Check out this article for more tips on how to have a healthier nine to five.
Family finds work life balance and enjoys time in bed with children

What if you don’t want to stop overworking?

Some people think of their work as their life – it might be your own business or the career you dreamed of as a little kid. Others have spent much of their adult lives on work, genuinely enjoy it, and consider their work friends as family. Your employer might even have a corporate health plan, including the Bupa health plan, that makes you feel comfortable with long hours. Check to see if your business is covered here.
 
When it comes down to it, the decision to work long hours is your own. However, the impact to your physical and mental health can be just as significant, whether you’re comfortable overworking or not. Even if you love your work and wouldn’t trade your schedule for anything, you need to stay active, eat healthy, and go to your check-ups (whether you’re in your 20’s and 30’s or 40’s and 50’s) to make sure you’re working at a sustainable level. 
 
Success if a funny thing, and it means different things to different people. There’s nothing wrong with reaching for new heights - as long as it doesn’t come at the detriment to your health. 

Plan thoughtfully for proper work life balance

You’re an adult. It’s up to you to know yourself and your limits - and to protect them from whatever job you accept. Overworking and skipping out on work life balance may seem necessary to send your career in the right direction. But it’s the “balance” part of the equation that gives you something to work for. 
 
Be conscious of the decision you’re making and make your health - physical, mental, social and emotional - your top priority. There will always be time for more work.

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