How do you leave work at work? How do you recover during personal time? Do you identify as someone with good work-life balance? What does good work-life balance mean to you? These are important questions but ones that many of us pay little attention to. This month’s Year of the Healthy Nurse topic is Work-life Balance. We will talk about the ever-common struggle with work-life balance, why it is important, and practical strategies for better balance, more meaningful use of your time.
Let’s rewind back to the year 1977. Elsa wakes up in the morning at 6:30 am and spends the first five minutes of the day stretching in bed and brewing a pot of coffee. She then sits down for breakfast with her children and partner. Around 8:15, she departs the homestead for work. For the next eight hours (excluding a break for lunch) she is immersed in her work. Her attention is focused on her job. When the clock strikes 4:30 pm, Elsa gets in her car and cruises home. She tidies the living room, prepares dinner with her four-year-old, and spends the remainder of the evening spending time with her family and catching up with a friend on the phone. Work is decidedly out of sight and out of mind.
Fast forward forty years and this storyline might look a little different. Elsa wakes up in the morning at 6:30 am. Before even stepping foot out of bed, she checks her smart phone for any pressing emails or texts that may have come in during the night. She prompts her Amazon Alexa to read her the top headlines for the day. As a result of reading emails before getting out of bed, she is now ruminating about a curious message from her boss that entered the inbox around 10 pm last night. Her physical body? At home, in bed. Her attention? Solidly on work. She devours a granola bar and hurries into work. At 4:30 pm, she texts her partner to say she will be a couple hours late tonight. There is more work to do, always. When she arrives home at 7 pm, she is still fuming about a maddening conversation she had with a coworker. She walks in the door and projects all of that negative energy throughout her home. When her phone dings during dinner, she excuses herself from the table to see what just came in. Inside, she is still perseverating about that interaction with her coworker, which took place over five hours ago. She crawls into bed, reaches for the glass, taking a gulp of water. Her attention is again grabbed by her phone resting on the bedside charging station, and she scrolls through her inbox one last time before dozing off to bed, the blue-lit screen glaring in her eyes. She lies in bed for a good forty-five minutes, replaying various fragments of her work-day over and over in her head, before resignedly falling into sleep.
While the details of Elsa’s day may not be relatable for you, did you find yourself drawing any parallels between this story and your life? Do you ever find yourself re-playing conversations with colleagues or challenging situations with patients over and over in your head after leaving work? Maybe you can recall a time when you came home after a tough day on the unit or in clinic and immediately spouted off about all of the stressors of your day to your loved ones. Perhaps, a time or two, you have found yourself lying in bed, mentally scrolling through the list of tasks to be tackled the next day. While work-life balance is about making time for both in your life and ensuring that work does not overtake the rest of your priorities, it is also about being present with whatever you are doing. Being at work when you are at work. Being in your garden with the warm sun and the birds and the tomato plants when you are in your garden.
While I do believe that work-life balance is rising on the list of Americans’ collective priorities (several recent studies have shown that millennials value schedule flexibility & work-life balance over increased pay), it remains a challenge for many of us. Author of One Second Ahead, Rasmus Hougaard, calls this the shift from “work-life separation” to “work-life integration.” When we aren’t practicing a balanced lifestyle, one part of our life can begin to overtake others. You spend the duration of your son’s gymnastics competition making work-related phone calls. Your son took notice. You leave the hospital after a physically and mentally draining day, and you find yourself deliberating in your head about all the what-if’s and should-have’s, even though…the work day is done. Behind you. You are invited to a work-related gathering outside of work hours at a local watering hole. You are long overdue for some serious self-care (picture: hot bath, spellbinding book, herbal tea and some soft jazz), but you say yes because that unfriendly word SHOULD is tapping you on the shoulder. Many of us frequently engage in behaviors that we know are not good for us, or will not serve us. But behavior change is hard! So first, cut yourself some slack. Second, keep reading!
It Begins with Awareness
Author Rasmus Hougaard says that “work-life balance is a state of mind,” and it looks different for each person. According to MindTools, “balance is a subjective concept” and “life balance is a perceived state: only you know when your life is or isn’t in balance.” Begin by identifying what you are doing well. In what ways do you have good work-life balance? In what ways could you improve? Be honest with yourself. Maybe you’re really good at leaving email at work, but you carry work-related stressors home with you like Elsa in the example above. Maybe you are not interested in carrying work home with you, but you can’t seem to unglue from your electronic devices. Perhaps you believe that being always on makes you a more valuable asset to your employer, makes you feel more highly valued. Is this true? Or could it be your perception?
Take a moment and really ponder the strengths and areas for improvement that you identified. What one thing can you start doing tomorrow to enhance your work-life balance and your ability to leave work at work? If you’re having a tough time identifying an action, I will offer some suggestions:
- Before riding into the sunset on your bike, before getting on the bus, before sliding into your car, or before entering your home after work, stop. Pause with purpose. Set an intention for your evening. It could be a single word (gratitude, family, compassion) or an “I” statement (I will, I am, I forgive…)
- Spend one full minute focusing your attention on your breath. Notice where you feel the air moving, and trace your inhales and exhales. Bring this breathing exercising to a close with the longest and deepest inhale of your day. Pause at the top of the breath, and release all of the air from your lungs with a sigh. Along with the breath, make an intention to release everything from your day.
- Set boundaries. Develop a personal rule around technology (i.e. phone, iPad, and computer off – no ifs, ands or buts – at 7 pm).
- Write it down. If you had a challenging day at work, put it to paper immediately after work. Release it onto paper and you take away the power it has over you. This may reduce the likelihood that it will seep into your personal time, because you have already let it go.
- From Harvard Business Review, “create a third space” because “it’s easy to just shuttle back and forth — physically and emotionally — between work and home.” A third space is a space between work and home (either physical or mental space) where you ritualistically let go of whatever came before.
Consider Your Priorities
How do you spend the time between work days? Whether you work 12- or 8-hour shifts, whether you work days or evenings or nights, you likely have a little bit of time to fill between your shifts. Whether it is six hours or 30 minutes, you get to choose how you spend the time. How do you choose to spend the time between work days? Is it the best use of your time? Is it purposeful, meaningful, rejuvenating, energizing, renewing, loving, and self-compassionate? While it does not always have to be these things, I encourage you to think carefully about how you are spending your time and then get really clear about whether it is serving you and your relationships or not.
Have you ever begun your day with aspirations to go for a brisk walk or jog after work, cook yourself a nutritious meal and then connect with an old pal on the telephone? Then 3 pm rolls around and any ounce of inspiration you had to do those things has floated away on the summer breeze? Your tank is empty, and all you can think of is 1) the couch, 2) your favorite microwavable pad thai-in-a-box and 3) a glass of red wine. Have you ever experienced something like this? Yes? Me too. It can be challenging to follow through on commitments to yourself and others, or seemingly lofty aspirations to move your body every day. But I can assure you that if you spend your time in a way that nurtures your body and mind, you will sleep better, eat better, and have more energy and a stronger sense of self-awareness. Finally, you will come into closer connection with what really matters to you in life.
How About a Little Self-Love?
How often do you experience remorse after doing something that is enriching, enlivening, meaningful and/or simply good for your body and mind? When was the last time you went out for a long hike, enjoying the rich hues of red, gold, and green as the fall colors were arriving, afterward lamenting that you wish you had cracked open a jug of chocolate milk and a pack of double-stuffed Oreos to watch season 6 of The Office from your couch? (Spoiler Alert! Jim and Pam still got married at Niagara Falls and Michael remains revolted by Toby). Or have you ever had an especially relaxing evening and nourishing night of restful sleep, and awoken to think, I should have stayed up until 2 a.m. catching up on social media happenings? Not likely. We feel good when we are good to ourselves, when we nurture our bodies and minds and when we feed our relationships.
It is often the things we need the most that trickle to the bottom of the priority list. Reading a book for pleasure. Cooking a meal with a loved one. Finally making it to Dane Dances on the Monona Terrace. Fifteen minutes of restorative yoga before bed when you’ve been having trouble sleeping. Prioritizing activities like these – the ones that are important and frequently abandoned – is a strategy to leave work at work, and more fully experience your time at home. What makes you feel refreshed and rejuvenated? How do you come home to yourself? When you take good care of yourself, you may find that you will lean toward better balance.
Practice Presence of Mind
In last month’s post, I highlighted a 2010 study demonstrating that people are happier when they are focused on what is happening in the present moment, irrespective of what they were doing. This practice of mindful presence, of intentionally placing your attention in the moment before you, is an immensely important tool when it comes to fostering better work-life balance. Establishing a regular meditation practice can help to enhance your brain’s propensity toward this kind of mindful attention. Meditation can actually help train your brain (this article is amazing!), making it easier to focus your attention. I recently began using the Calm app, which is full of both short and long guided meditations, meditation series, progressive relaxation recordings, and even what they call sleep stories to promote better sleep! Whether you’re just a little bit curious about meditation or you’re a long-time meditator, I highly recommend that you give it a try.
What were your takeaways from this post? What will you do with them? Please use the comments section below to share personal experiences, insights, or questions related to this month’s topic. There is so much we can learn from one another! As always, thank you for taking some time for yourself.
Warmly, Keeley, RN
- Check out the Stress Management Resources page of the Wellness Options at Work blog for a meditation app, relaxation techniques & to learn about various locations around UW Health where you can find quiet space
- 6 Apps That’ll Make Work Life Balance a Reality and Not Just a Fantasy
- Finding the Right Work-Life Balance
- Preventing and Mitigating Nurse Fatigue in Health Care