As a corporate executive, Jeff Wolf worked 14-hour days. Out of necessity, he told himself there were decisions to make, colleagues to help, meetings to hold, presentations to prepare, calls to return and the never-ending stream of e-mail to answer. He also expected the same level of commitment from the other members of his executive team because for Wolf, work
Years later, he powered down his laptop, locked his office door and stepped into the warm sunshine to enjoy a weekday afternoon with his family, having attained that elusive, mythical state of “work-life balance.”
The concept of work-life balance has been part of the lexicon of working America for almost 30 years, introduced as a response to the dilemma of workers forced to choose between job and family, work and everything else. Yet despite the professed desire of employees to achieve that balance and reduce work-related stress, studies have shown that the average American full-time worker’s hours have actually increased over time.
But it is not just longer hours that contribute to the stress. It is also the amount of work they are expected to do in those hours. Diane Roberts, founder of Foundation Yoga and Wellness Center in Solana Beach, uses e-mail and a cell phone every day in the operation of her small business and she recognizes the hastened pace at which we work, thanks to those same essential technologies.
“A lot of stress is generated just by keeping up to the pace of our lives,” she said. “We have the same bodies as cavemen, but [we] are asking ourselves to function at a 21st century speed - what might seem like the speed of light to our ancestors.”
The quest for work-life balance is a common, perhaps even universal one. Wolf, now the CEO and founder of Wolf Management Consultants of La Jolla, works one-on-one with busy executives, guiding them to more productive, efficient and, ultimately, a more balanced life.
“Work-life balance rears its ugly head with 95 percent of executives I work with,” Wolf said. “It is an issue that I deal with on a daily basis.”
The problem extends far beyond executives. Whether you work in an office or from home, have a boss or are your own, workers are servants to the constant contact, instantaneous response culture that comes with modern technology and a competitive business climate.
“We are always asked to take on more responsibilities, deadlines and commitments,” Wolf said. “We try to please everyone all the time, but you can’t.”
When a worker finally realizes that simple truth, anxiety, anger and stress mounts, often spreading beyond the workplace, consuming other areas of one’s life and pushing work-life balance that much further out of reach.
The continuing rise in unemployment numbers does not help the work-life balance problem either. Workers with jobs are keen to keep them and are willing to work longer and harder to distinguish themselves to avoid the chopping block. Others are desperate for ways to make a safe job more tolerable in the long-term by achieving work-life balance.
Leading the charge are Baby Boomers seeking to make up for lost time with their families and the Gen X and Gen Y workers. Members of these two disparate groups either witnessed the consequences of poorly balanced lives in their families or experienced the consequences themselves - stress, addiction, depression, divorce or increased rates of illness.
The workplace, like the worker, is beginning to change. Thirty years on, even the most monolithic corporations are beginning to understand the value of having healthy, satisfied employees. Wolf points out the fact that businesses can no longer demand service from their employees up to and beyond the point of “burnout.” Instead, companies now commonly use the “work-life balance” carrot in recruitment campaigns.
The upside for employers is that balanced employees tend to be more focused, more energetic with better decision making capabilities.
“When things are in balance in your life, you are less likely to be stressed, more productive and find more satisfaction in your work,” Roberts said.
Unfortunately, creating work-life balance is not as easy as recognizing the value of having it.
“It takes a fundamental shift in the way you look at your life,” Roberts said.
Five Steps to a More Balanced Life
- Make a schedule and stick to it: Schedule the truly important tasks that actually need to be done, even the non-work aspects of your life. Don’t let unscheduled, last-minute tasks or events get in the way of your day.
- Learn to say “no": If you can’t say no, your to-do list and your schedule will grow beyond your capability to manage it, destroying the balance you were trying to achieve.
- Delegate or empower others: You can focus on your essential tasks by empowering others to take care of your less critical affairs, whether reviewing mounds of incoming mail or clearing the table after dinner.
- Maintain your energy and stave off stress: Whether you are rejuvenated by a 10-minute walk to the beach or 45 sweaty minutes at the gym, take the time to refocus and burn off stress.
- Recognize that most of the pressure comes from you: We tend to put the needs of others before our own, whether in the office or at home. Have some compassion for yourself. Admit that you’re not perfect and that no one expects you to be.