In this three-part series we will look at work-life balance during the pandemic and beyond. In Part 1 we looked at how to create boundaries where there are none. In Part 2 we’ll explore 5 steps for creating work-life balance while working from home. And in Part 3 we’ll look at how to provide employees a sense of balance after they return to work.
In last week’s installment we talked about how much our lives have been tipped out of balance as the result of the pandemic. Smoking, drinking and recreational drug use have skyrocketed. According to a recent article in the NY Times, a third of Americans say they are burned out by working at home. I naively thought there would be an increase in self-care as the result of working from home but that definitely didn’t happen. At the height of the pandemic, Americans simply converted their commuting time into MORE work time averaging, 3 extra hours of work per day!
I think one of the reasons work and life got so out of balance during the pandemic was that all of the sudden, there were absolutely no boundaries between work and home life. Our technology robbed us of a clear boundary between work and home years ago, since we can hop on a computer or smart phone from anywhere, and answer emails, respond to texts and take forwarded phone calls from home.
But there was still that physical boundary created by leaving work at the end of the day and arriving home, where even if you did have to occasionally work from home, at least you KNEW when you were breaking that boundary. Now, many of us can’t even establish a boundary between our bedrooms and work!
So how do we create balance where there isn’t any and boundaries where there are none? Experts agree that balance is a moving target. And you can’t separate life easily into the separate buckets of work life and home life. With those issues in mind, I created the following five steps to achieve what I call Work-life Balance 2.0:
1) Setting up virtual boundaries where there aren't any actual boundaries. For those of us working remotely, all boundaries must now be considered “virtual.” They must be created by you, since there aren’t any real boundaries anymore. Let’s start with smart phones. In order to establish boundaries here, you need to create some house rules. No checking the cell phone during dinner. I leave my phone on silent most of the day, and check it hourly for notifications or calls I might have missed. And here’s a radical suggestion: What about leaving the cell phone outside your bedroom at night? How about not taking any work calls after a certain hour? This is what I mean by setting up virtual boundaries. You make up the rules and then abide by them.
2) Integrating work-life and home-life. I’ve been working from home for almost 30 years now. In the beginning, when clients would hear my kids in the background they would always remark (with a bit of condescension) “Oh, you must be working from home.” There were almost no stay-at-home dads back then, but I always liked the challenge of taking care of my kids and working from home. Whenever I could, I’d take my kids on business errands whether it was a trip to the bank or dropping off a package at a client’s office. In my home office I’d let my kids “play” with the photocopier, the stapler, different colored pens, stamp pads and as much paper as they wanted. When my youngest daughter turned five, she would sit on my lap and help me edit videos. (I let her press the buttons and pick in and out points.) She’s 25 now and does this professionally.
3) Creating balance from within. Creating balance is really an inside job. Since our work and home lives don’t fall neatly into separate buckets anymore, we have to create a sense of balance internally. A mindfulness practice can really help with that. Wherever you find yourself during your day, whether it’s eating lunch outside or taking an online exercise class in your living room, reminding yourself to fully inhabit that moment and not allowing your mind to wander off on some work-related tangent, helps you to maintain boundaries where there aren’t any and create balance from within.
4) Managing stress on the fly. According to a meta-study (a study of over a dozen different studies) one the best methods for managing stress at work is cognitive restructuring. Cognitive Restructuring is the term that psychologists use to describe what I call: managing stress on the fly. By understanding the role that your thinking (and negative self-talk) plays in every single stressful event you experience, you begin to find peace in the prospect of changing your self-talk from overly negative, muddled and irrational to more positive, clear and rational. Psychologist Albert Ellis (and a cofounder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) developed many tools to help you do this, and you can read about them at this link.
5) Living life in accordance with your highest values. Whether you value family, career success, health, wealth, certain religious beliefs or integrity, your work-life needs to be in sync with these values, or your home life will become quickly out of balance. Make a list of your top five values. Carefully consider what is your MOST important value and work down from there. A person who values integrity over success is going to be a very different person from one who values success over integrity, so the order of your values matters. Once you have your top five values in place, take a look at how you spend your time, particularly how much time you spend working. If your work life (and particularly the amount of time you spend doing it) isn’t in sync with your values, you may need to make a change because your WHOLE life will never be in balance otherwise.
I love the picture at the top of this article, because it seems to embody all the five steps outlined above. I see the boundary where there isn’t any right between the two desks. Both of these fellows are observing it. There’s also no question that home-life and work-life are integrated, and as long as the two of them remain (for the most part) mindful of that virtual boundary, balance (at least for the Dad) can be maintained from within. Managing stress on the fly is in part created by THINKING up creative ways to solve life’s problems. And this picture seems to say: (at least in this moment) problem solved.
One doesn’t even need to question what this man’s highest values are: It’s family. And he’s certainly living life in accordance with that. Next week we’ll look at scheduling flexibility and how important that will be to workers, in order to maintain a sense of balance, after they return to work.