Balancing work and life

A commonsense approach to working smarter and living better

January 11, 2005
By: Vicki Bell

To remain competitive in today's cutthroat economic environment, companies are doing more with fewer people. The tight job market can make even those employees whose work loads haven't increased feel they have to expend more effort—or even create an illusion of having to expend more effort—simply to keep their jobs. No longer is it just the workaholics among us who are working harder and putting in longer hours.

Now more than ever before, it's important to work smarter—to strengthen your job performance and productivity without letting your efforts compromise your personal life and health. Adopting a few positive behaviors can help you work smarter and even enhance other areas of your life.

First of all, you have to let go of the perception that you can do all things, be all things to all people, and still maintain healthy relationships, good health, and your sanity. And companies need to realize the benefits of helping employees achieve a work-life balance.

Work-Life Imbalance

Speaking at Georgia Tech's 172 nd commencement address in September 1996, Brian G. Dyson, then Coca-Cola Enterprises president and CEO, said, "Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them—work, family, health, friends, and spirit—and you're keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls—family, health, friends, and spirit— are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life."

An unbalanced life affects productivity. In September 2003, the U.S. Senate passed Resolution 210, which stated that the balance between work and personal life is in the best interest of national worker productivity; reducing the conflict between work and family life should be a national priority; and the president should issue a proclamation designating October as National Work and Family Month.

The resolution also said that workers' jobs and workplace supportiveness are key predictors of job productivity, job satisfaction, commitment to employers, and retention. It also noted a clear link between work-family policies and lower absenteeism.

The more overworked employees feel, the more likely they are to report making mistakes, feel anger and resentment toward employers and coworkers, and look for a new job. Employees who feel overworked tend to feel less successful in their relationships with their spouses, children, and friends and tend to neglect themselves, feel less healthy, and feel more stress. The resolution supported job flexibility as a way to help employees balance work and life.

Why Is Joe Absent Today?

Supporting the Senate resolution are the findings of a recent CCH Incorporated Unscheduled Absence Survey. According to the survey, most employees who fail to show up for work aren't physically ill. Only 38 percent of unscheduled absences are due to personal illness. Of the remaining 62 percent, 23 percent are absent because of family issues; 18 percent because of personal needs; 11 percent for stress; and 10 percent for entitlement—I work hard and I deserve the time off.

Last-minute no-shows cost organizations an average $610 per employee, adding up to more than a million dollars annually for large companies. Some of the issues that lead to absenteeism are symptoms of a work-life imbalance.

What the Company Can Do

According to the findings of the CCH survey, work-life programs can go a long way toward helping employees achieve balance and improve morale. The five most-used work-life programs are Employee Assistance Plans (used by 68 percent of organizations); alternative work arrangements and leave for school functions (both used by 58 percent of organizations); wellness programs (57 percent); and telecommuting (55 percent).

The work-life programs seen as most effective in reducing absenteeism, on a 5-point scale with 5 being the most effective, are alternative work arrangements (3.4), leave for school functions, telecommuting, compressed workweek, and on-site child care, each with a 3.2 rating.

It would be wonderful if these work-life programs were available for all employees. They aren't. And even when they are, many employees don't avail themselves of the opportunities, particularly now when they feel they have to work harder to help the company and themselves survive.

My sister works for a huge corporation with wonderful benefits. You can visit the company's Web site and read about the fitness center, cafeteria, and other incentives intended to enhance employee satisfaction and well-being. The company truly is progressive in its efforts to provide a pleasant working environment.

If I want to call my sister on a weeknight or even on the weekend, I call her at work. Her work load is very heavy right now. She's swamped and spending more and more time at work and less and less time at home with her husband and sons. Her family obligations haven't decreased, and her personal needs aren't on hiatus. One or more of the glass balls should be falling soon. What can she and you be doing to avoid having to pick up the pieces?

What You Can Do

Focus. If you're at work, focus on work. If you're at home, focus on home and family. Make sure you set aside time to recharge your batteries with exercise or activities that you enjoy, and focus on clearing your mind of nagging obligations.

Be organized. Clean up your office and home. The clutter of your surroundings leads to a cluttered mind, which makes it impossible to focus.

Make lists. The end of a workday is an excellent time to make a list for the following day. If something is on your mind, adding it to the list to be tackled the next day can help you release the issue as you make the transition from work to home.

Prioritize. Before beginning to work on the listed items, arrange them in order of importance. Work on the highest-priority items first.

Don't procrastinate. Your deadline may be days, weeks, or months away, but putting off working on a project until the last minute not only allows stress to build, it also results in you wasting time worrying about the project rather than taking productive steps to complete it.

Don't be a slave to your e-mail or to phone calls, and limit interruptions from coworkers. Unless you are in a support position and have to respond quickly to external and internal customer inquiries, try to avoid having e-mail and phone calls interrupt your work rhythm. Tell yourself you'll check e-mail and phone messages when you've completed a portion of your work, and stick to it. Try to manage your day, instead of having the day manage you. Your objective is to maximize your productivity at work and not let unfinished business carry over into your personal time.

Improve your skills as necessary to enhance your productivity and reduce your stress. For example, if you work with a computer or other machinery and haven't mastered the software or learned to operate the equipment properly, get the necessary training.

Be flexible. Change is imminent. Those who accept and embrace change and work willingly within the new parameters are the most productive, best-adjusted individuals.

Be forgiving, especially of yourself. You are human. You will make mistakes and fall short of the ideal, including your own. Don't wallow in guilt. Learn from your mistakes.

Set boundaries and learn to say no. Being a good employee, spouse, parent, and friend doesn't mean blindly acquiescing to everyone else's demands and spending all your time and energy doing for others as they dictate. Think about the common objectives and your own needs, and find ways to make things happen that benefit everyone, including you. For example, work with a team to complete a project rather than handling everything yourself. Try delegating. Don't always assume that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Have a little faith in your coworker or family member.

Take time for yourself. This can be so difficult for responsiblepeople. You simply have to take care of work or family obligations and have no time left for you. Make time. Start out by taking 10 or 15 minutes to do nothing or anything you like. When you find that the world doesn't come to an end, increase that time. You'll begin to enjoy life more, and those around you will find you a more pleasant person.

Ditch the guilt. A friend often reminds me of her opinion that "guilt is a useless emotion." My ancestry keeps me from buying that theory 100 percent. Guilt that leads to a positive change in one's life isn't useless. However, at some point, you must rid yourself of guilt to keep from being stuck and unable to progress in life.

Establish good, supportive relationships, both at work and home. I've had people tell me they don't want to become too close to colleagues because they don't like mixing business and pleasure. Don't let this mindset prevent you from forming good work relationships that foster real teamwork and create an environment in which employees respect and are willing to assist each other.

The Rev. Joseph R. Sizoo said, "In making a living today, many no longer leave room for life." Make room for life. Evaluate and take steps to improve your work-life balance.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209