A psychotherapist’s perspective on achieving work-life balance

Establishing your priorities and sticking to them can help you balance your life.
(pic credit: pixelbliss)

It’s National Work Life Week, an initiative created to raise awareness of the challenges facing working families and to encourage more measures to support their wellbeing. Though the stats aren’t great: separate studies show that a third of employees are happy with their work-life balance – and three-quarters of working parents say they’re suffering stress and anxiety from the lack of work-life balance.

I see a lot of people coming into my therapy practice on the verge of burnout because they’re trying to meet the relentless demands of other– and the high expectations of themselves. The drive to ‘have it all’ is leaving them depleted and satisfying no one. They find themselves constantly running towards deadlines, and having no time to enjoy the journey along the way. Before they know it, another year has passed and they still haven’t achieved what they long for.

While many work-life balance initiatives are aimed at changing the way employers structure the working day – for example, allowing for flexi-time and home-working – I believe there are some steps you can take as an individual to achieve more balance in your life:

Know your purpose

Why are you doing this? Why are you setting the alarm early to tick off all points on your routine and run ragged through your day? What are you getting out of work? Is this how you want to be spending your time? Do you feel joy and satisfaction in what you do? Having a purpose is what bounces you out of bed in the morning. Having work that is aligned with your core values feels effortless and is worth all the inevitable juggling you have to do. Your purpose may be to have a job that is a means to an end so you can enjoy your family life. Your purpose may be to achieve promotion and to climb the corporate ladder. Whatever your goal, it’s being clear on why you’re doing this that can remind you to keep going through the frazzled times – and it can help you make decisions that are tagged to your purpose.

Keep firm boundaries

A boundary is a counselling word, in effect, that means the lines you put around yourself that show the limits of where you’re prepared to go. In the workplace, a contract would outline the professional boundaries within which you’re expected to work. Personal boundaries are more about the way you operate and how much you give and take. And deciding where indeed you draw that line? How are your boundaries? Are you on time, focused, and good at meeting deadlines? Or are you rather slack in your timekeeping and end up rushing to complete projects because you’ve been distracted along the way? A key step to achieving work-life balance is to do work at work, and be home when you’re at home. Be fully present where you are. Aim to keep work and life separate so you can live them both as fully as possible.

Wait a heartbeat before saying yes

It can be so easy to get into the habit of saying yes to everything, especially if by nature you’re a people pleaser. Yet your work can mount up and any hope of balance flies out the window because you’ve said yes to that extra project. Saying no can be challenge: it can feel like a rejection of the person, and you may fear the repercussions on your career by saying no. Yet, if you’re tuned into your purpose, and are clear on where your boundaries lie, you will have more clarity as to which tasks you say yes to, and which you turn down. Say yes to what will enhance your life. Say no to what will burden it (and this is the same for things you take on in your home life as well as at work). Waiting a heartbeat before saying yes can help you assess your priorities and make the right decision for you and your work-life balance.

The ‘dark side’ of perfectionism can cause stress and burnout

Worrying about meeting standards, and fear of failure are two aspects of the darker side of perfectionism, which can lead to burnout (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Marcus74id)

Fear of failure and worrying about meeting standards are two aspects of the darker side of perfectionism, which can lead to burnout (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Marcus74id)

Think of a perfectionist, and you’ll picture someone conscientious who goes the extra mile to produce top-notch work. Someone with extremely high standards who is motivated and energised to achieve them. That’s the ‘light’ or positive side of perfectionism, according to researchers, who say that these qualities and attributes can contribute to a strong sense of achievement.

But there is also a darker side to perfectionism, which is when people “constantly worry about making mistakes, letting others down, or not measuring up to their own impossibly high standards”, according to lead researcher Andrew Hill, associate professor of sport psychology at York St. John University in England, whose findings were published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review. People who become consumed by perfectionism are more likely to achieve the opposite, by sabotaging their success in relationships, on the sports field, and especially in the workplace.

The results from this current study came from an analysis of 43 other studies over the last 20 years. The dark side of perfectionism – or ‘perfectionistic concerns’ can lead to people fearing they’re not being good enough, of berating themselves every time they make a mistake. Instead of feeling good about their achievements after all the work they’ve put in, sometimes a lack of support or acknowledgement in the workplace can turn perfectionism into cynicism, and the darker aspects can turn in on themselves – sometimes leading to mental health concerns, such as stress, anxiety and depression. Not to mention self-criticism and the voice of the inner bully/critic, mercilessly tormenting the perfectionist who feels that nothing will ever be good enough.

The antidote to dark perfectionism is compassion and forgiveness (not always easy for a perfectionist), and seeking out environments and people where mistakes are not only tolerated but encouraged as an opportunity to grow and learn. Admittedly, this isn’t always easy. Hill added: “People need to learn to challenge the irrational beliefs that underlie perfectionistic concerns by setting realistic goals, accepting failure as a learning opportunity, and forgiving themselves when they fail. Creating environments where creativity, effort and perseverance are valued also would help.”

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Have you caught ’empathic stress’?

Scientists say stress is contagious. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/ddpavumba)

Scientists say stress is contagious. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/ddpavumba)

Has your boss ever started huffing and puffing, even when everything is going to plan and to deadline, and you can’t help but start to feel the pressure too? Or how about you’re watching a tense moment on TV and you feel yourself far more stressed than you should?

Scientists say stress could be as catching as the common cold. Just being around stressed individuals, or watching them stress out, raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol even if you’re an observer. This was the main finding of a study by the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and the Technische Universität Dresden. The researchers found that observing stressful situations has a physical response – and say that this form of ’empathic stress’ should not be ignored because it can lead to serious issues of burnout, depression and anxiety.

Empathic stress was worse when the observer stressed individual were in a relationship. But even watching stressful programmes on TV can raise cortisol levels. “Stress has enormous contagion potential,” say the researchers.

They added that people working as caregivers could be particularly susceptible to the harmful consequences of empathic stress. “Anyone who is confronted with the suffering and stress of another person, particularly when sustained, has a higher risk of being affected by it themselves,” they add.

Interestingly, while other studies have shown women to be more empathic than men, this piece of research showed that “men and women actually experience empathic stress reactions with equal frequency”.

Confiding in a trusted colleague can alleviate work stress

Don't take it out on customers. Chat to a colleague if you're overwhelmed. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/jesadaphorn)

Don’t take it out on customers. Chat to a colleague if you’re overwhelmed. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/jesadaphorn)

With a third of UK workers struggling to cope with depression, stress and burnout, perhaps the chat around the water cooler could be refreshing in more ways than one? The key thing is to pick the person who’s going to empathise and – most importantly – be able to keep your issues confidential. Being able to speak to someone you trust could make your issues seem more survivable.

A survey from the Depression Alliance, as part of Depression Awareness Week, says that eight in 10 workers suffering stress-related issues feel lonely and isolated because of their feelings. Only half of those feeling lonely or isolated had confided in a colleague, yet nearly 71% found that discussing their condition with a colleague helped them feel better.

I think the key point here is trusted. Workplaces can abound with politics. It’s great to offload on a colleague feeling similarly overwhelmed, but think about who this colleague would share it with. If you can’t trust someone at work, then your partner or friend might be able to help.

But if you really need to offload to someone who’s outside your professional and social circles, and who won’t spread the whispers around that water cooler, then call 07956 823501 or email davanticounselling@gmail.com

Workaholics are at risk of compulsive internet addiction

60% of people are at risk of compulsive internet usage, says research (pic: istockphoto.com/matka_Wariatka)

60% of people say they use the internet compulsively, says research (pic: istockphoto.com/matka_Wariatka)

It’s Monday morning. You log onto your emails at work and yet there are no surprises. Why? Because you’ve had your smartphone by your side all weekend and you’ve been checking your emails compulsively, unable to switch off. You see ‘relaxing’ as a pointless waste of time. Pushing yourself harder to achieve career success is what drives you. But it can also be what drains you.

If you recognise yourself here, then you could be among the 60% of workers who use the internet compulsively, often as a coping strategy. Increasingly it is high-fliers and overachievers whose internet usage can be excessive and compulsive, rather than students and the unemployed. That’s according to research among 516 people aged 18 to 65 by Dr Cristina Quinones-Garcia of Northampton Business School and Professor Nada Korac-Kakabadse of Henley Business School, which was presented at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology’s Annual Conference in Brighton.

Using the internet was strongly linked to working obsessively, and overuse of the internet could lead to “measurable withdrawal symptoms” such as anxiety, isolation and depression. The researchers said that workaholics will often wake up several times in the night to check their emails, and their health and relationships suffer because they can’t manage to tear themselves away from their computer. They tend to be the high-achieving successful employees, but continued compulsive usage could lead to burnout.

This research is the latest in a growing body of evidence around the dangers of excessive internet use. A study by Missouri University of Science and Technology investigated the impact of heavy internet use on mental health and found that young people who used the internet excessively – including games, social media and email – showed signs of addictive behaviours, such as introversion, craving, loss of control and tolerance.

The Guardian offers five ways to curb your internet use and get your life back. However, if you’re worried that your internet use is getting out of control and having a negative impact on your life, email davanticounselling@gmail.com or call 07956 823501 to take the first step to speak to a therapist about it.

If you only do five things to combat job stress in 2014…

How can you avoid repeating the job stresses of last year? (pic: istockphoto.com/Pashalgnatov)

How can you avoid repeating the job stresses of last year? (pic: istockphoto.com/Pashalgnatov)

… do these ones.

OK. So, Christmas is over and you’re suddenly thrust back into the hotseat. All the things you promised yourself you’d change haven’t. Half a day back at your desk and you’re already in meltdown. Festive excesses are playing havoc with your waistline, your energy levels and your tolerance of the annoying people chomping crisps on the commuter train. And you find your colleagues far too focused on the crucial client meeting you really, really did mean to prepare for the day after Boxing Day.

In short, you feel back to where you started. But, there are five things you CAN do straight away to feel you’re back in control in 2014 and not under the pull of all those stresses from last year… (more…)

Midlife stress at work = more illness in later life, says study

Researchers have found a link between midlife work stress and illness in older age. (pic: istockphoto.com/DOUGBERRY)

Researchers have found a link between midlife work stress and illness in older age. (pic: istockphoto.com/DOUGBERRY)

If you’re stressing out at work in middle age – subjecting yourself to physical and mental strain – then you could be facing more hospital visits as you get older. That’s according to a long-term study of more than 5,600 public-sector workers aged 44-58 in Finland.

Researchers at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland found a direct correlation between the amount of job strain suffered in middle age and the number of days in hospital in people aged 65+. Physical job strain was classed as breathlessness, sweating and heart palpitation. Mental job strain was classed as how much control people they felt they had in their daily worklife compared with the demands put on them in terms of work volume and scheduling.

There was a strong link between physical and mental strain and hospitalisation among men – but only physical strain showed a link for women.

Feelings of stress and strain are subjective, found the study. Much depends on a subjective view of what is stressful and what isn’t. “Occasional feelings of job strain are not necessarily a bad thing, but persistent high job strain has been identified as a health hazard,” said lead researcher Mikaela von Bonsdorff.

One to think about when heading back to work after the Christmas holidays.