The Green Impact blog is being handed over to the Student Services teams this week! This post is by India Woof, Projects Officer, Projects and Development Team. If you or your team would like to contribute to the blog, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Work-life balance is something that we don’t seem to talk about very often within a work environment. If you’re anything like me, I mainly bemoan my lack of balance is this area when I am at home and wishing that I had more time for things like relaxing, reading and seeing friends. Sometimes work can seem so all-consuming that my life basically is work – there is no dividing line between the two.
I will start this post completely honestly by saying that I don’t have even half the pressures shared by lots of working individuals. I have a very supportive husband and so only do an equal share of our housework, we don’t have children or other dependents, and we both only work a single full time job with regular hours. I can’t imagine what complications come along with having children or other dependent family members, and I won’t profess to know about that because after all, aren’t we supposed to ‘write what we know’? My point is, I worry about work-life balance, and in reality I’ve got it pretty easy. So the chances are that there are plenty of other people within the University who worry about it as well.
Although I’m talking about it in quite a light-hearted way, this is a serious problem. The Mental Health Foundation estimates that work related stress already costs Britain 10.4 million working days per year, and notes that the human costs of unmanaged work related stress extends far beyond this. A key way to protect your mental health against the potential detrimental effects of work related stress is to ensure you have a healthy work-life balance. You can read more about this on the Mental Health Foundation webpages.
I thought a good way to tackle this issue would be to share my own experience. To do this we have to go back to when I left my previous job in November 2013. One of the main reasons for leaving was the commute – although for most people and particularly for those living in/near London, 1.5 hours commuting in each direction doesn’t sound like a lot, for me it just didn’t work. It sapped my energy and made me majorly unhealthy. I didn’t have any time for exercise, ate too many snacks on the train (I’m looking at you, McDonalds mozarella dippers) and eating way too many takeaways in the evenings due to being too tired to cook after dragging myself all the way back home.
Once I started my new job in Sheffield, the work/life balance did get a bit more even to begin with, as I gleefully skipped home (I say skipped, I mean sweated as I walked up a not so steep hill!) at 16:30 having started at 8am, literally giddy at the lack of commute and flexibility I had. But then came the ever increasing hours, the working through lunch breaks, and the tiredness associated with a sometimes stressful job. Slowly but surely, I realised that my evenings were ever shorter, I was checking my work emails at weekends, I was eating lunch at my desk and not getting enough of a break or any fresh air, and was feeling pretty lousy.
It was at this point that I made a decision to try and make an effort to sort out the balance in my life. The first steps towards a better balance included trying to take regular lunch breaks, and trying not to do too many late nights and early mornings. I also focused on making the absolute most of the time I am away from work, and to do this I sat down with my partner and made a list of things we wanted to do in the local area. When the weekend came, we always made sure to do at least one thing from the list.
The list includes a whole range of things like walking round Ladybower Reservoir, going for brunch at a local cafe, going to watch a friend play cricket, going for a picnic, hiring a rowing boat. As we did things on the list, we found more things we wanted to do, and added them to the list as well. The point is not to finish the list, but to make sure that we always have ideas of things to do at the weekend, and really make the most of our time off. It’s not always about doing things, either, sometimes we look at the list and decide what we really want to do is absolutely nothing.
I also decided to try and make more time to have ‘for me’. This might mean having a long bath when I get home from work, or spending time with friends, or meeting colleagues for a drink after work on a weeknight. The key thing is, these things aren’t big changes, but do mean that I spend more quality time with people who matter to me. As a consequence, I feel like I’m making the most of the life I have away from work.
The list has been so important in helping us to get a better balance between the demands of work, and life outside of my career. No, the balance is never 100% perfect, and it’s always changing as one week to the next everything is very different and the demands of work and life seem to alter constantly. Even though it’s a work in progress, the main thing is that I am making progress, making an effort, and for now it seems to be helping on the road to happiness, wherever that is.
My top tips for trying to ensure balance (disclaimer: these work for me but aren’t right for everyone!):
– Turn your work emails off when you’re not at work. By this I mean don’t have them on your phone if you are going to look at the inbox when you’re not at work. Unless you are super important within the organisation, there isn’t anything that you can solve over the weekend anyway, so it will just stress you out to see the emails rolling in when there isn’t a lot you can do about them.
– Take care of yourself. It’s all too easy to have run out of energy at the end of the working day if you’re eating and drinking the wrong things, and not moving very much. Just drinking more water can help up my energy levels.
– Take a lunch break away from your desk. Even if you stay in your office (though getting fresh air is preferable, it’s not always possible), moving away from your desk and taking even just half an hour to have a break can be really helpful and often makes me more productive in the afternoon.
– Make the most of the time when you’re away from work. I know this can sound silly, but if all you do every evening and weekend is absolutely nothing, it can skew how you feel about work/life balance. By making more of the time you are away from work, and doing more of the things you’re interested in and love during that time, it can help the balance to seem more palatable even though actual balance in terms of cold hard hours hasn’t changed at all.
– Make sure you rest. Although this can seem a bit at odds to the point above about making the most of time away from work, it’s important to accept that sometimes the way to make the most of our time off is to get some rest. I know this isn’t always straightforward if you have children or other dependents and real life responsibilities, but it is important to have some relaxation time.
– Try to keep a handle on the hours you work. This is a tough one, because sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. Also, we all know that working only your contracted hours can be a difficult task in itself. I can only share my approach – although I don’t tend to work only my contracted hours and am often in the office for at least an extra hour a day, I try to make sure that over the course of the week I am not doing significant numbers of extra hours. I know that some weeks (or months) are particularly busy and I have to do several longer days in order to get everything done, but I try not to make this a permanent habit.