How to restore harmony and reduce stress

Finding work-life balance in today’s frenetically paced world is no simple task.

Spend more time at work than at home, and you miss out on a rewarding personal life. Then again, when you face challenges in your personal life, such as caring for an aging parent or coping with marital problems, concentrating on your job can be difficult.

Whether the problem is too much focus on work or too little, when your work life and your personal life feel out of balance, stress — along with its harmful effects — is the result.

The good news is that you can take control of your work-life balance — and give yourself the time to do the things that are most important to you. The first step is to recognize how the world of work has changed. Then you can evaluate your relationship to work and apply some specific strategies for striking a healthier balance.

How work invades your personal life

There was a time when employees showed up for work Monday through Friday and worked eight- to nine-hour days. The boundaries between work and home were fairly clear then. But the world has changed and, unfortunately, the boundaries have blurred for many workers. Here’s why:

  • Global economy. As more skilled workers enter the global labor market and companies outsource or move more jobs to reduce labor costs, people feel pressured to work longer and produce more just to protect their jobs.
  • International business. Work continues around the world 24 hours a day for some people. If you work in an international organization, you might be on call around the clock for troubleshooting or consulting.
  • Advanced communication technology. Many people now have the ability to work anywhere — from their home, from their car and even on vacation. And some managers expect this.
  • Longer hours. Employers commonly ask employees to work longer hours than they’re scheduled. Often, overtime is mandatory. If you hope to move up the career ladder, you may find yourself regularly working more than 40 hours a week to achieve and exceed expectations.
  • Changes in family roles. Today’s married worker is typically part of a dual-career couple, which makes it difficult to find time to meet commitments to family, friends and community.

Married to your work
It can be tempting to rack up the hours at work — especially if you’re trying to earn a promotion or some extra money for a child’s education or a dream vacation. For others, working more hours feels necessary in order to manage the workload.

But if you’re spending most of your time at work, your home life will likely pay the price. Consider the pros and cons of working extra hours on your work-life balance:

  • Fatigue. Your ability to think and your eye-hand coordination decrease when you’re tired. This means you’re less productive and may make more mistakes. These mistakes can lead to injury or rework and negatively impact your professional reputation.
  • Family. You may miss out on important events, such as your child’s first bike ride, your father’s 60th birthday or your high-school reunion. Missing out on important milestones may harm relationships with your loved ones.
  • Friends. Trusted friends are a key part of your support system. But if you’re spending time at the office instead of with them, you’ll find it difficult to nurture those friendships.
  • Expectations. If you regularly work extra hours, you may be given more responsibility. This could create a never-ending and increasing cycle, causing more concerns and challenges.

Sometimes working overtime is important. If you work for a company that requires mandatory overtime, you won’t be able to avoid it, but you can learn to manage it. Most importantly, say no when you’re too tired, when it’s affecting your health or when you have crucial family obligations.

Striking the best work-life balance

For most people, juggling the demands of career and personal life is an ongoing challenge. With so many demands on your time — from overtime to family obligations — it can feel difficult to strike this balance. The goal is to make time for the activities that are the most important to you.

Here are some ideas to help you find the balance that’s best for you:

  • Keep a log. Track everything you do for one week. Include work-related and non-work-related activities. Decide what’s necessary and what satisfies you the most. Cut or delegate activities you don’t enjoy and don’t have time for. If you don’t have the authority to make certain decisions, talk to your supervisor.
  • Take advantage of your options. Find out if your employer offers flex hours, a compressed workweek, job-sharing or telecommuting for your role. The flexibility may alleviate some of your stress and free up some time.
  • Learn to say no. Whether it’s a co-worker asking you to spearhead an extra project or your child’s teacher asking you to manage the class play, remember that it’s OK to respectfully say no. When you quit doing the things you only do out of guilt or a false sense of obligation, you’ll make more room in your life for the activities that are meaningful to you and bring you joy.
  • Leave work at work. With today’s global business mentality and the technology to connect to anyone at any time from virtually anywhere, there’s no boundary between work and home — unless you create it. Make a conscious decision to separate work time from personal time. When with your family, for instance, turn off your cell phone and put away your laptop computer.
  • Manage your time. Organize household tasks efficiently. Doing one or two loads of laundry every day, rather than saving it all for your day off, and running errands in batches are good places to begin. A weekly family calendar of important dates and a daily list of to-dos will help you avoid deadline panic. If your employer offers a course in time management, sign up for it.
  • Rethink your cleaning standards. An unmade bed or sink of dirty dishes won’t impact the quality of your life. Do what needs to be done and let the rest go. If you can afford it, pay someone else to clean your house.
  • Communicate clearly. Limit time-consuming misunderstandings by communicating clearly and listening carefully. Take notes if necessary.
  • Fight the guilt. Remember, having a family and a job is OK — for both men and women.
  • Nurture yourself. Set aside time each day for an activity that you enjoy, such as walking, working out or listening to music. Unwind after a hectic workday by reading, practicing yoga, or taking a bath or shower.
  • Set aside one night each week for recreation. Take the phone off the hook, power down the computer and turn off the TV. Discover activities you can do with your partner, family or friends, such as playing golf, fishing or canoeing. Making time for activities you enjoy will rejuvenate you.
  • Protect your day off. Try to schedule some of your routine chores on workdays so that your days off are more relaxing.
  • Get enough sleep. There’s nothing as stressful and potentially dangerous as working when you’re sleep-deprived. Not only is your productivity affected, but also you can make costly mistakes. You may then have to work even more hours to make up for these mistakes.
  • Bolster your support system. Give yourself the gift of a trusted friend or co-worker to talk with during times of stress or hardship. Ensure you have trusted friends and relatives who can assist you when you need to work overtime or travel for your job.
  • Seek professional help. Everyone needs help from time to time. If your life feels too chaotic to manage and you’re spinning your wheels worrying about it, talk with a professional, such as your doctor, a psychologist or a counselor recommended by your employee assistance program (EAP).

Services provided by your EAP are usually free of charge and confidential. This means no one but you will know what you discuss. And if you’re experiencing high levels of stress because of marital, financial, chemical dependency or legal problems, an EAP counselor can link you to helpful services in your community.

Remember, striking a work-life balance isn’t a one-shot deal. Creating balance in your life is a continuous process. Demands on your time change as your family, interests and work life change. Assess your situation every few months to make sure you’re keeping on track.

Balance doesn’t mean doing everything. Examine your priorities and set boundaries. Be firm in what you can and cannot do. Only you can restore harmony to your lifestyle.