As you navigate the demands of your job, household and family relationships, it might seem like you’re constantly treading a tightrope, one foot in front of the other, arms out to your sides as you struggle to stay steady.
Some days, when all of the countless factors miraculously work in your favor, you manage to keep your footing. You finish the project your boss needs just in the nick of time and are still able to make it home to cook dinner for your family. But other days, you fall. That might mean getting stuck at the office when a meeting runs late, causing you to miss your daughter’s soccer game or tucking in your son.
Ah, the classic "work-life balance" conundrum. It’s an oft-used and buzzy phrase, but what does it really mean? The answer is different for everyone and the concept has evolved a lot over the years, but Wikipedia describes it as "the state of equilibrium in which demands of personal life, professional life and family life are equal."
Sounds idyllic, but it’s easier said than done. According to one statistic, the U.S. ranks 30 out of 38 countries in terms of work-life balance, with more than 11 percent of people working 50 hours per week or more, and just over 11 hours per day devoted to leisure and personal care. In comparison, less than one percent of employees in the Netherlands work that number of hours, and they devote nearly 16 hours per day to leisure and personal care.
Sure, it’s admirable to have a strong work ethic, but being on the clock, well, around the clock on a regular basis can eventually have a detrimental impact, leading to feelings of guilt, burnout, fatigue, stress or even physical ailments.
If you feel like you’re in danger of losing your balance (or perhaps have yet to find it in the first place), the first step in improving the situation is to recognize the red flags. If any of these sound familiar, it may be time to regroup and realign your priorities.
You’re almost always tired.
These days, many people seem to wear fatigue as a badge of honor, but scarce sleep is nothing to brag about. If you’re burning the midnight oil only to wake up at the crack of dawn to hop on your computer, you’re not doing your productivity any favors. And if you’re already getting the recommended amount of sleep but are still feeling perpetually tired, that could be your brain’s way of begging for a break.
Right the ship: Do your best to devote at least seven to eight hours to sleep each night, and create an environment that is conducive to restful slumber (think dark, quiet and cool, without a screen in sight). Also schedule several short mental rest periods into your day, whether that includes a few minutes of meditation, stretching or reading a book.
You have no interests outside of work.
"While being passionate about your profession is a good thing, it can become unhealthy if it becomes the only thing in your life," warns Miguel A. Suro, a Miami-based attorney and lifestyle writer at The Rich Miser. If the hobbies, activities and perhaps even the people you used to enjoy have slid to the back burner, that’s a sign your job is getting too much of your attention.
Right the ship: If you fall into this category, try to find interests outside of work. "Think about what you enjoy, what makes you smile or even what you liked to do in the past," Suro suggests. "Then, slowly work that into your life so it becomes part of your routine." For workaholics, he finds pursuits that are challenging and take time to master work well since they appeal to a goal-oriented personality. Some potential examples include cooking, learning about wine or taking up a sport such as tennis or golf.
You’re often irritable.
If you catch yourself snapping at family members, losing your cool with imperfect drivers during your commute or feeling impatient when interacting with co-workers, those could be signs that your work-life balance needs some fine-tuning. Of course, it’s normal to lose your temper now and then, but if irritability becomes more of the rule rather than the exception, something could be out of whack.
Right the ship: Next time you feel your fuse start to shorten, take a deep breath and recognize that your resentment likely stems from a lack of balance rather than the person on the receiving end. Use the irritability as a cue to take a much-needed break so you can return feeling refreshed and open to interaction.
You rarely use any vacation time.
If you consistently have PTO days left over at the end of each year, it’s a surefire sign that you’re neglecting the "life" part of the equation. Vacation and other paid time off only qualifies as a benefit if you use it, and failing to do so can lead to higher levels of stress and burnout over time.
Right the ship: If you can’t remember the last time you took a vacation, it’s time to get it on the books. Ease into it with a short trip: Suro suggests taking the Thursday and Friday before a holiday weekend to go for a getaway with your partner or friend. "Try doing something active, like skiing or hiking, since the need to pay attention to what you’re doing will take your mind off work," he recommends. No time or money to travel? Start by taking just a couple of days off to relax at home, spend time with loved ones or pursue a personal passion.
You consistently work outside of your regular shift, even when it’s not required.
If you obsessively check email after-hours, spend your evenings getting a head-start on the next day’s work or log on well before the start of your regular shift, you could be working compulsively—which may lead to burnout.
Right the ship: Direct your compulsiveness elsewhere, suggests Suro. Find something that’s challenging and devote some of your free time to mastering it. This might mean writing and self-publishing a book, or taking online courses in a subject you enjoy.
You’re sacrificing your health to work more.
Let's make this clear: Your health is and should always be top priority. Putting your health on the back burner could mean you’re giving up exercise in favor of extra office hours, or that you’re grabbing fast food because you’ve convinced yourself you have no time to prepare healthy lunches. Maybe you’re sacrificing sleep, relying on extra glasses of wine to curb stress or adopting other unhealthy behaviors. "To be blunt, you’re slowly killing yourself, and setting yourself up for costly and prolonged medical treatment in the future," warns Suro.
Right the ship: The key, Suro says, is to reestablish healthy habits. "Start by taking a regular walk or doing other light exercise. If you’re drinking too much, begin by having one less drink than usual," he suggests.
While it might be unrealistic to expect to achieve the perfect work-life balance all the time, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs that yours is way off-kilter. By staying attuned to your mental and physical cues and making some smart adjustments, you can help ensure that both your job and your home life are getting the attention they need to thrive—at least most of the time!