Work, stress, and the importance of down-time
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!"
A good work-life balance is important for a variety of reasons, not simply because devoting every waking moment to work can make you, well…a bit one-dimensional. References to The Shining aside, all work and no play can lead to us neglecting our social and family lives, our hobbies and our domestic responsibilities. It can also have serious implications for your health, both mentally and physically.
No matter how much you might profess to love your work, all work and no play can lead to stress and poor mental wellbeing. And if you don’t love your work (and can’t wait to clock-off) you might still not be using your down-time effectively. Find yourself on Sunday evening ruminating, dreading the work-week ahead? Not good.
For my MSc dissertation, I researched the serious impacts of work-stress and poor recovery experienced by emergency healthcare workers (I recently contributed a chapter on this topic to the newly published book The Mental Health and Wellbeing of Healthcare Practitioners: Research and Practice). But work-related stress can affect anyone, not just those working in traumatic, life-or-death jobs.
Employed staff face deadlines, performance evaluations, interpersonal conflicts and often have to work in less-than-ideal work environments. We've seen an upsurge in working-from-home since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst this can allow us more control over our environment, time and task management can be more challenging (and not everyone enjoys this way of working!). I talked to Andrew Laws at Internet Marketing for Humans all about the pros and cons of working-from-home - listen here.
Self-employed workers have more control over their working environment (and who they come into contact with!) but have the pressure of keeping their own business afloat, dealing with additional administrative tasks, and in many cases juggling work and family commitments in close proximity. Time management can be extremely challenging.
Full-time study can straddle all of the problems identified by the two above examples, and many students juggle home, study, and paid employment. This may go some way to explaining why students in higher education suffer notoriously poor mental health.
Although being “at work” (i.e. literally on the clock) has many inherent stressors, work can continue to be a source of stress even in our leisure time. Many of us take work issues home with us, have work email accounts on our personal devices, take work calls during our holidays (or even during public holidays). There are more subtle ways of working-whilst-you’re-not-at-work – some jobs require employees to be “on call” even if they are not called in (meaning your leisure time is not really your own, or you are limited in what you can do during that time), while many people simply spend a lot of their supposed “free time” worrying about work-related issues. The latter means we are not really in leisure time, don’t recover properly, and return to work just as (if not more) stressed than before, compounding stress and leading to allostatic load.
Promoting a work-life balance
Work is a fact of life for the majority of us – so how can we improve work-life balance in order to not only be more effective workers whilst we are at work, but also make better use of, and enjoy, our time off?
This means having regular days off, regular working hours (where possible!), breaks throughout the day and proper annual leave (you don’t need to go abroad on holiday, you just need to step away from work fully – no checking work emails, no thinking about work problems!). Although a rigid schedule may not suit everyone, it can be a practical way to delineate your work and personal life, safeguarding your leisure time. For those of us who don’t work a Monday to Friday 9-5, where we take this time off might be more flexible, but down-time is important for recovery, so try not to get caught in the trap of thinking “I can take time off whenever I want to, so for today I’ll just keep working”.
If you work “overtime” one day, take it off “in lieu” later
The habit of late-night working can be hard to break – recognise when you have over-worked in order to meet a deadline, and address it. Some employers have “working time in lieu” structures in place, but employees don’t always take full advantage of these. Don’t do extra work just because you feel it’s expected of you – you will suffer both in the short- and long-term, not just financially (if you’re on a fixed contract of payment) but also socially, emotionally, and psychologically. Constantly working over-time, often with little or no thanks, can be exhausting.
Try to establish a routine
This is particularly important if you are in full-time study, are self-employed, or regularly work from home. Try to create protected time (and protected spaces) for work, for leisure, your family and social life. I do the majority of my work in a home office, but I also frequently take my laptop to coffee shops for a welcome change of scenery. I’ve made it a rule to never take my work to bed, or to the living room, otherwise every space becomes a workspace and it can be very hard to switch off . I also use a Google calendar and the task management application Trello to help manage my time and prioritise my tasks.
If you work in an office away from home, think about ways you could draw a line under the working day, so that when work is over, you can concentrate on your life outside of work. Things like changing out of your work clothes when you get home, putting your work stuff away, or doing a specific activity (gym, anyone?) can be a really good way of switching off from work-mode, and help you to recover effectively.
Remember to take time to reflect
What’s working for you? What isn’t? We often complain of how tired or stressed we are, but don’t look at why, simply writing it off as something that everyone experiences (it’s part of being an adult). Are there things you do in your workday that are particularly stressful? What have you done to help you unwind – does that work? Have you tried different things? Reflect on your day, the things you’ve done, and the impacts these have had on your wellbeing, and note patterns. Try something different. You might want to keep a paper diary (it doesn’t need to be time-consuming – just a couple of lines a day will help you to get a better understanding of the impact of what you do and how you feel), or use a mood-tracking app such as Daylio.
If, despite all this, you find it impossible to switch off from work and find yourself constantly worrying about work problems, consider talking to your supervisor, manager, colleagues, friends, or a trained, licensed healthcare professional, such as an accredited counsellor or psychotherapist.
I have extensive experience working with clients who struggle with work- and study-related stress and work/life balance. I offer flexible, one-to-one counselling for adults, both face-to-face at my private practice in Suffolk, or remotely (via Zoom or telephone) to anyone based in the UK. If you want to know more, read about me and my approach to therapy, make an enquiry, or book a free consultation.
Working more doesn’t necessarily mean working better. Embrace your life outside of work, and not only can you feel better, but you’ll probably see benefits during your working time, too. Don’t be like Jack.
A Life Beyond Work? Job Demands, Work-Life Balance, and Wellbeing in UK Academics
Outcomes of work–life balance on job satisfaction, life satisfaction and mental health: A study across seven cultures