THIS FEATURE WAS WRITTEN BEFORE COVID-19, BUT STILL CONTAINS USEFUL INFO FOR OUR LIVES TODAY
The night my boyfriend soothed me to sleep by talking about dinosaurs was a, erm, wake-up call. I’d been lying awake night after night, worrying about work, so he distracted me with the topic he knew most about. As he poured facts about velociraptors in my ear, I managed to drift off. Which was great. But was I really so wound-up that I needed a bedtime story?
As editor of a magazine, my work-life balance had become completely skewed. My phone meant I could work all hours, and I regularly clocked up a week’s worth of overtime every month. I’d started to think that a moment of downtime was a waste of time.
It’s a problem more of us are facing, too – 27% of participants in a recent study claim our ‘always on’ culture has a negative impact on their wellbeing, while over half of women say stresses or worry keep them awake at night. And it’s bad news for our health.
‘If your work-life balance is wrong, the first stress-related symptoms you might see are behavioural,’ says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Manchester Business School, ‘such as trouble concentrating, or becoming more socially withdrawn. When the pressures on you exceed your ability to cope, you’ll see physical changes, such as trouble sleeping and eating the wrong foods. This can lead to the third phase, with symptoms including anxiety and depression, and more frequent colds and flu as stress starts to affect your immune system.’
If stresses are affecting everyday life, it’s worth checking in with your GP. But during your 9-5, there are also strategies to help you take control.
Employing clever tactics during ‘office hours’ can help you whip through work more quickly, so you’re less likely to take it home with you. Checking your email less often, for example, can help reduce stresses. ‘Try not to look at your inbox until early afternoon,’ advises Graham Allcott, author of How To Be A Productivity Ninja (Icon Books). ‘If you can, let emails stack up through the first half of the day, then go through them later. Most of your best work happens outside your inbox.’
Before you all think, ‘There’s no way I could do that,’ just bear with me. I’m one of those people who has always found email a constant distraction (what if someone needs me now?). But my friend Selina, a busy production manager, has learned that the world won’t collapse if people have to wait. ‘I switch off email notifications and read them at my convenience,’ she says. ‘If something’s time-critical, people can always use the phone. When things get busy, I’ll check email around the clock – but it’s not a productive way to behave all the time.’ But, explains Graham, it’s equally important to look at how you manage your attention. ‘We have three types of attention: proactive, active and inactive,’ he says. ‘We manage to be proactively attentive – when we’re really focused – for two or three hours a day. And for most people, this is in the morning. ‘So to work smarter, you need to work out your window of proactive attention, and guard it ruthlessly,’ he continues. ‘Schedule your most challenging jobs for that time. Your inactive phase can then be used for less demanding tasks, such as replying to emails and sorting out your expenses.’
"Often, presenteeism is borne out of a fear that we’re not good enough"
It’s easy to get stuck in the trap of staying late at work to show your boss that you’re super-committed: so-called presenteeism is at a record high in the UK. Yet not only can it affect your health, but working longer doesn’t necessarily mean working better. ‘Despite huge evidence that long hours don’t equal high performance, many people don’t believe it,’ says Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire. ‘But it’s true for everybody.’
Unless you opt out (which must be voluntary and in writing), the government’s working-time directive limits your working week to 48 hours on average. So if you’re being asked to do regular overtime and haven’t opted out, it could be time for a chat with your boss or HR department.
But, equally, your employer can’t help if you’re the one piling on the pressure. I was rarely asked to stay late at work, but with so much to do, I regularly found myself ploughing through piles of paperwork after everyone else had left the office. ‘Often, presenteeism is borne out of a fear that we’re not good enough,’ says mindfulness coach Nina Samuel-Camps. ‘No matter who you are or how successful, everyone wants to be accepted. So if you’re working late, ask yourself what’s really going on. If you have too much to do, then it’s time to talk to your boss. But perhaps you just feel pressure to look committed. If that’s the case, are you worried about redundancy? If so, why? Is it because someone has said something to you or you’ve read an article about your industry?
Often, our fears don’t have much substance when you examine them closely. And if they are real, you have a choice to ignore them or speak to your manager – putting you back in control.’
If it’s because you’ve simply got too much on, there are other ways of making your workload more manageable. Graham says: ‘As the billionaire Warren Buffett puts it, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” I also take the advice of Tim Ferriss, who wrote The 4-Hour Work Week (Vermilion). He says that to get the big things done, we have to learn the art of letting small bad things happen.’ In other words, if you ignore that email or small task, it won’t be the end of the world.
‘The longer I’ve been in my job, the easier it’s become to say no to things,’ says my friend Katie†, who’s a consultant anaesthetist. ‘You begin to see that the little bits and pieces aren’t so important after all, and that the world won’t fall apart if they’re not done.’
Drawing a line isn’t easy, but it has to be done. ‘We all need time to switch off to protect our mental and physical health, so work out your boundaries and stick to them,’ says Professor Kinman. ‘They could be physical – such as deciding not to take work home – or emotional. For example, you might decide that once you get on the train, you’ll stop even thinking about it. Practising mindfulness is a really good way of switching off emotionally. You only need to do it for a few minutes, and apps such as Headspace are excellent.’
Or if you’re at work and feeling overwhelmed, breathing exercises can offer on-the-spot relief. ‘When we’re stressed, we go into fight-or-flight mode, and breathe more shallowly,’ says Nina. ‘Putting your feet flat on the floor, taking 20 deep breaths in and out, and really focusing on them, can act as an anchor and bring your mind back to the present.’
Katie† also has ways of switching off her mental treadmill. ‘When I was training as a junior doctor, there was enormous pressure to work extra hours,’ she says. ‘So I found a hobby completely unrelated to work – playing the flute in an orchestra. I also began socialising with those new friends. It’s hard to switch off if you’re always talking about work.’
As for me, after dino-gate, I realised that my pay packet wasn’t as important as my mental health, and looked for a less demanding job. I’m a lot calmer and happier now – although I don’t always get it right. When I tell Professor Cooper I’m interviewing him about work/life balance from an airport, on my way home from a holiday, he lets out a laugh. ‘Oh you’re kidding!’ he says. Well, nobody’s perfect.
We asked our experts how to ditch your old working ways
‘Banish phones from the bedroom,’ says Professor Kinman. ‘Try to put down work for at least a few hours before you retire, so you don’t associate bed with your work, which could affect your sleep.’
‘Create a dialogue with your boss – just don’t go there when they themselves are stressed out and overloaded,’ advises Professor Cooper. ‘If you pick the right time to speak to them and are positive and flexible, you’re more likely to be successful.’
‘At certain times, programme your phone not to let in stuff like social media or email,’ says Graham. ‘I think of it as “monk mode” – it means you’re totally focusing on work.’
‘It used to be that you could only ask for flexibility based around childcare, but now anyone can apply for flexible working,’ says Siobhan Howard-Palmer, employment associate at HRC Law. ‘There are restrictions, but your employer is obliged to deal with your request in a reasonable way.’