Life Mental Health

Saturday 30 August 2014

Work-life balance: Between a clock and a hard pace

In a world that never switches off, our work-life balance has become dangerously disrupted, says Aine O'Connor

Published 05/07/2014 | 02:30

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Stress damages physical health on a cellular and organ level. Picture posed. Thinkstock Images
Stress damages physical health on a cellular and organ level. Picture posed. Thinkstock Images

Henry Ford was not very popular with his fellow manufacturers in 1914. It was no whim that inspired him to double his workers' pay and cut their shifts from nine hours to eight. It was a step only taken after a decade's careful study, but still he was criticised harshly by The National Association of Manufacturers.

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How, they asked, was industry to remain profitable if workers were being paid more and working less? Proof was in the proverbial and within a few years they were following suit. Time and again, study after study has proven that shorter working weeks are more productive working weeks. It is a lesson that each new generation has had to relearn but now, as technology has changed and we are all "on" so much more of the time, it seems this fundamental lesson is becoming unlearnable and unliveable. How can we maintain a good, healthy work-life balance in a world that never switches off?

Most adults will have gone through some kind of mental or emotional health event like depression, bereavement or stress and will know just how damaging these are to every single aspect of life. Stress damages physical health on a cellular and organ level. There are the obvious risks of high blood pressure but bodies awash with the stress hormone cortisol also suffer many different kinds of damage that are less easy to detect. There is also considerable damage to home life, emotional life, social life – all of the things that make us well – and there is also significant damage to work life.

Henry Ford had not based his radical reforms on nothing. Trade unions had been pushing for better conditions since early in the 19th Century. Employers across the board were initially resistant but, once they were forced into providing shorter working weeks, it became very quickly apparent that employees who worked fewer hours worked better and safer. After the British Parliament passed the ten-hours law in 1848, output per worker, per day, increased markedly. When, in the 1890s, employers experimented with this newfangled eight-hour day, output increased again. Such was its success that the 40-hour work week was enshrined in the New Deal in 1937. America's economic boom followed soon after.

Study after study has proven that workers have eight good hours in them. Overall output is no better from a ten-hour day than an eight-hour day or from a six-day week than a five-day week. Also accidents are far less likely to happen and mistakes are less likely to be made.

This is not just true in industrial or physical labour situations, in fact so-called "knowledge workers", people working in offices, have about six good productive hours a day. The rest is meetings or emails. Or messing.

Within those good hours there are also mini periods of maximum productivity. Circadian rhythms are the internal rhythms of our bodies that regulate sleep and activity but there are also Ultradian rhythms within that. These are 90 to 120-minute rhythm cycles, how long exactly depends on the individual, during which we have best productivity and focus. After that the there is a dip and then we come up again. People who take a break when requested by their body, 10 or 15 minutes away from the task in hand, have renewed vigour when the up time of the Ultradian rhythm kicks back in than those who have forced through it.

However, in a work environment where few people even take a lunch break anymore, what hope is there listening to the Ultradian rhythm? The general rule enshrined in the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 is that an employee is entitled to a 15-minute break for every four and a half hours worked. If you work more than six hours you are entitled to a break of 30 minutes. There is no obligation to pay people during breaks, however, and many people are not paid for their lunch break, but still they work through it.

If you work in an environment where no-one takes a lunch break – where the prevailing ethos is to work through lunch – it can be terribly difficult to break the mould. But again, not only is there no benefit in working for too long without a break, there is detriment on several levels. This is why good management, one that enforces healthy practices and environment, is so important. And scarily rare.

Knowledge workers are also more susceptible to sleep loss. Research by the US military has shown that just one hour of lost sleep per night for a week results in the same cognitive impairment as a 0.10 blood alcohol level. Two different investigations in part attributed the Exxon Valdez disaster to sleep impairment in the decision-makers.

There has long been concern expressed over the cognitive ability of any medical staff working the extraordinary hours required of so many junior doctors. It was an extreme case, but when 24-year-old copywriter Mita Diran tweeted "30 hours of working and still going strong" last December she could not have been more wrong. A few hours later she collapsed and died of overwork and exhaustion.

Last August, Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old German intern at a London bank, was found dead following an epileptic seizure that the coroner could not say was unrelated to his long work hours. He had just worked 72 hours in a row.

Several studies have proven there is short-term gain from intense periods of overtime when there is a specific goal or project in mind. Research by the US Business Roundtable in the '80s found that people can work extremely well for 70 hours a week when that is for a limited time and with a specific purpose. However, they also found that increasing a team's time in the office by 50pc does not result in a 50pc increase in output. It is generally closer to 25-30pc increased output because after eight hours people are no longer working at full capacity and productivity levels drop each hour thereafter.

The increased output from overtime also only works in the first week (something first proven in 1909 by Sidney Chapman, and in many studies since). After that it diminishes again and again and again. So for every week we work over 40 hours we are less productive, more inclined to lose focus, less inclined to eat well, exercise and sleep well, more inclined to make mistakes and then to waste time having to correct those mistakes.

It is not unheard of for overworked teams to go into negative progress, making more errors than they can fix. To top it off, the longer burnout goes on, the harder it is to get back to full productivity. It is, very simply, the mark of a poor management team when employees are expected to work too hard, for too long.

So it's a no-brainer. Work less and work well. Something which is even simpler than in the past with all of the labour saving technology we have, just as economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930.

Sadly, the opposite is true. A recent survey by Fastnet recruitment in Cork has found that "81pc of employers and 68pc of employees find it difficult to achieve a work-life balance as a result of communications technology".

Their survey of 450 employees found that 60pc access work emails outside of work time, and these are not zealots. Sixty-one per cent of employers expect their employees' brains to be accessible outside of work hours. One employer who did not wish to be named said: "Of course I expect them to check their emails, why else would you give staff a smartphone?"

Over half of the survey respondents checked their work email while on annual leave, although 81pc of employers did not expect that level of dedication. Or paranoia. There is no question that recessionary times wreak havoc with people's perception of work duties. When there is a notion abroad that a person is lucky to have a job, there is a notion abroad that they should go above and beyond to prove they deserve that job.

A recent Citrix Work Life Barometer study made for sobering reading. In Ireland, professionals work an average of six hours longer than contracted per week, which, apart from the work-life balance issues, equates to €92,736,000 in wages every week. Not surprisingly, 55pc of professionals said they suffered work-related stress over the past year; 31pc of the workforce are dissatisfied with their current position and the worst affected are mid-level employees, dubbed the 'squeezed middle' as they are more likely to work longer hours without overtime (55pc) and are more likely to be dissatisfied with their job (32pc) than other working professionals.

The Organisation of Working Time Law states that an employee is entitled to "11 consecutive hours rest in any period of 24 hours. In addition, you should get 24 consecutive hours rest in any period of seven days and this should normally follow on from one of the 11-hour rest periods already mentioned, or as an alternative your employer can give you two 24-hour rest periods in the week that follows one in which you did not get the entitlement described above." For many people that is just not happening.

The question of email on annual leave raises another issue. Increasing numbers of people are employed on a contract basis or freelance. This means, in real terms, neither paid annual leave nor indeed paid sick leave or much in the way of maternity benefit.

It also means few rights. Anyone who pays their own tax has virtually no employment rights, something many employers have been allowed to exploit for decades. The idea that a person is lucky to have the work, and should go the extra mile to keep it, is especially acute for contract workers who in return have little or no protection.

Exactly a century on from when Henry Ford set a valuable example we seem to be worse off. That lovely balanced equation of eight hours work, eight hours leisure and eight hours sleep is long gone and will not, under any reasonable interpretation, come back.

It is not of course just a question of work. This notion of always being "on" is something we contribute to ourselves. Whether it is catching up on housework, reading 'improving' materials, updating our personal brand on social media or simply beating ourselves up for not doing enough, for many of us work-life balance has become something we cannot even get a handle on. When there are children in the equation as well, or parents or relatives who need care, the balance of Have To far outweighs the Want To, even if we had time to work out what we wanted.

Twenty-four hour services are excellent in some respects, but the fact that you can go shopping at midnight, pay bills in the evening and insure your car at six in the morning means that what once had to be fitted into business opening times is now spread all over the day and night. We put vast chunks of what was once achieved in the eight-hour work window into the eight-hour leisure window, even occasionally into the sleep hours. The days are just too long.

Many people are living in a constant state of feeling stressed and overwhelmed. It's a shortcut to unhappiness, even mental illness, and can feel like we are on an unstoppable wheel of obligation. To top it off, given the increase in life expectancy, it is highly likely that the age of 65 will no longer be synonomous with the end of one's working life. And given the large amounts of people with no private pension, there is little enough chance some of us will be able to retire at all.

So we need to make some changes, tweak that balance and take our lives back.

Declutter Your... Worklife

INBOXING CLEVER: There is some debate as to the precise timing of when an email should be checked. Some time-management experts say never first thing, while others say always first thing. It does perhaps depend on your job, on whether the people you work with and the things you work on might be altered by the contents of an email.

Whatever the precise hours, the experts agree that email checking times should be set and kept to twice a day. Do not answer every email as it comes in. The number of emails we each receive is not growing as fast as it did at the end of the last decade but the number of ways we receive messages has grown radically. There used to be just the phone. Now there is email, text, messaging and any number of apps all coming at us. Consider allocating specific times only to access these things. Also keep emails brief and to the point.

GET THE TEMPERATURE RIGHT: A Cornell University study found that office temperature made a big difference to productivity. At temperatures lower than 20°C, employees made 44pc more mistakes than at optimal room temperature of 25°C.

SINGULAR VISION: What we think is multitasking is often just switching from one task to another quickly, which generally decreases productivity and increases stress. Focus more on single-tasking, getting one thing finished before moving on to another.

TIDY DESK, TIDY MIND: Declutter your workspace, take the time to sort through the pile of tasks you'll do One Day, throw out rubbish and be amazed at the feeling of relief.

REDUCE COMMUTE TIMES: The recent TomTom survey of European traffic congestion found that at peak times Dublin drivers were delayed 43 minutes for every hour, 96 hours a year on a 30-minute commute. Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings are the worst days. The recent Citrix work life barometer report found that 21pc of working professionals who own their own home would consider moving in order to shorten their commute. If you can work from home or avoid rush hour, consider it.

START A FRIDAY ROUTINE: Reflect on the accomplishments of the week rather than on the failures. Prioritise the upcoming week in advance and make plans in order to maximise time and avoid wastage. Clean out email, reduce the amount of things hanging over you. Have a little ritual to end the week, whether it's an hour in the gym, a drink with colleagues or just simply an official 'Goodbye, I'm off'.

SCHEDULE LEISURE TIME: The most successful people in the world don't just prioritise and plan work events, they plan leisure time, too. The benefit of being organised is that it means time boundaries are clear. This is work time, this is what I have to do, this is when I will do it and after that I am off. Downtime is not something you fit in if you can. Downtime is the key to success in every area of your life and it has to receive the same careful attention as every other aspect of life.

Consider hospice worker Bronnie Ware's famous 'Top Five Regrets of the Dying'. No-one ever said: "I wish I'd worked more."

Declutter Your...Mind

WORK OUT YOUR CORE VALUES for life and make time every day to attend to these. Don't wait for something awful to happen before you realise what is most important. Work, cleaning and shopping can all wait far more than we choose to see sometimes.

OTHER PEOPLE'S EXPECTATIONS OF US can be limiting, especially because so often our interpretation of what other people expect from us, or how they see us, is incorrect. More damaging still can be how you speak to yourself. Would you allow someone else to say 'You're not good enough', 'You're too fat', 'You're a bad parent'? If you find that no-one treats you as badly as you treat yourself, work on changing how you speak to yourself. Focus on the positives for at least some time every day. Examine the standards you have set for yourself.

SPEND TIME IN NATURE: Just being outside is good for us in terms of mood and health. Vitamin D deficiency is increasingly an issue for Irish people, but being out in any kind of sunlight can help and Vitamin D is not only to do with calcium absorption but mood. Natural light helps regulate cortisol levels. Also, the quietness of the countryside is more conducive to relaxation than the busyness of a city street. An American meteorological study found that people are happiest when the weather outside is at 13.9°C.

EXERCISE: In Shawn Achor's book 'The Happiness Advantage', three groups treated depression with medication, exercise or a combination. Straight off, all three groups improved, but after six months 38pc of people on meds alone had relapsed into depression, 31pc of the combination group had relapsed, yet only 9pc of the exercise-only group had relapsed. So if it can beat depression, it can make anyone happier and just seven minutes a day has proven effective.

SLEEP MORE: The benefits of sleep have inspired entire books. Set yourself a goal of sleeping even one more hour a week. Arianna Huffington, who once fainted from exhaustion and broke her cheekbone, gave a TED talk extolling the virtues of sleep as "the way to a more productive, inspired, joyful life".

MAKE TIME FOR YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY: The rewards in terms of happiness are proven over and over again. Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert says: "We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends."

HELP OTHERS: Prof Martin Seligman is quoted as saying "we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested".

PRACTISE GRATITUDE: Whether it be keeping a diary of the good things, simply learning to pause and reflect on tiny kindnesses or telling happy stories instead of moany ones.

GET RID OF TOXIC RELATIONSHIPS: Sometimes even, or especially, old relationships can be bad for us. If being around someone brings you down it is probably long overdue that the relationship ends. Life really is too short.

Declutter Your... Wardrobe

During her work as the Style Fairy, putting together outfits for people and updating their wardrobes, fashion stylist Naomi Clarke saw that in the pleasure of fashion there was also pain – clothing could be a source of stress. She offers a Wardrobe Detox service which aims to help people streamline their wardrobes and simplify their lives.

"I hear women say it all the time that they have loads of clothes but nothing to wear," she says

On average, Irish women wear 20pc of their wardrobe 80pc of the time, essentially because there are too many things that don't fit, don't go with anything or need repairs. It can be a real niggle to look at wardrobes stuffed with things you don't wear, so The Style Fairy's mission is to reduce that stress for people.

For €190, Naomi will come to your home and go through your entire wardrobe of clothes, shoes and accessories with a view to getting rid of all the things that don't work and creating a series of outfits that do.

"It's all about the little things," she says. "Both women and men find mornings so much easier if all your clothes are in use and you have pre-styled outfits ready to go."

She also offers a virtual personal shopping service for women who have events coming up but no time to shop. They fill in an email questionnaire and get back images of an outfit and where to buy online. The service costs €50.

Naomi's top 10 tips for clearing out your wardrobe are on thestylefairy.ie

Declutter Your... Environment

Breda Stack, the 'Declutter Therapist' is on a mission to create awareness around the many practical and holistic benefits of decluttering in order to help people enjoy simpler, happier lives.

Breda says: "Decluttering goes beyond cleaning, organising, or putting broken items in the bin. Clutter is anything physical, mental or emotional that doesn't serve us. It's letting go of anything that doesn't enhance our life. Decluttering helps us make room for better things. It reduces stress and makes us feel happier and in control – I hear the words 'freedom' and 'relief' a lot."

She adds: "Unwanted items often hold sadness, regret and guilt around wasted money. Decluttering helps us to make peace with these negative feelings and associations."

She believes "sorting out your stuff and making space for new and better really is life-changing".

Breda is currently working with Oxfam, encouraging people to bring the spoils of their decluttering process to one of the 51 Oxfam shops around Ireland.

thedecluttertherapist.ie oxfam.ie

Case Study

Amanda Cahir-O'Donnell is the founding director of TIO Consulting Ltd and has spent more than two decades specialising in executive coaching, team development and leadership development.

She came highly recommended so it was to her that I turned for advice on how best to achieve everything. The answer was surprising: "What I see is that people can never achieve everything they have planned. People are very caught up in what they feel they 'should' or 'ought' to be doing but this simply sets them up for guilt which is terribly destructive. If I had to give one word it would be 'stop'."

Many of her corporate coaching clients are in their mid-forties, a classic time of flux. "I call that the 'sandwich generation'," Amanda explains, "they are often caught between children and parents and they hold the space for everybody without a lot of space or time for themselves.

"I've been delivering training to people since the 1990s and I notice a big shift in how we live. In the 1990s it was about getting more done within a limited amount of time, now, because we are 'always on' it can become neverending. We need to be able to make peace with not getting everything done."

As she begins to work with people, Amanda has them fill out a questionnaire from which both she and the client can build an accurate and honest picture of their whole life. However, the most important picture she wants to create is of the client's values.

"A person has to be honest with themselves because more fundamental than getting organised or learning to save time is to work out a person's core values," Amanda says.

"I also get people to focus on their core purpose, to find the essence of themselves. It is like an onion, removing layers to find what you're really about and what you really believe. It's about finding and following your inner compass."

She says that people are perhaps sometimes surprised at this approach but that it has been proven to work time and again. "The principle is the same for a corporate fix as for a personal one. If you don't know where you're going you can't get there.

"Once a person knows what they want to put first, we put systems in place to facilitate that. I use the Stephen Covey Matrix, which essentially distinguishes priorities, based on urgency and importance. The impact this relatively straightforward matrix can have on individuals and teams surprises me every time. For a lot of clients, men and women, balancing family and career poses a real dilemma."

Amanda says it's important to recognise there will always be setbacks, but a life in balance (with a clear compass) copes better with these. She adds that family dynamics shift, so it is important to "keep up the conversation" about what best suits your life. What works when a person has two toddlers does not necessarily apply when those toddlers are teens, an ill parent whose care has been a large part of a life may die, relationships can end, jobs change. It is important to adapt as the situations do.

As a parting comment Amanda quotes poet Mary Oliver: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Amanda@tioconsulting.ie / 045 486180

Amanda's five tips for Restructuring Your Life

End-Game: Know your destination and raison d'etre

Personal Compass: Identify and prioritise your core values

Reality Check: Where are you now vis-a-vis your destination?

Route Plan: Decide on your best route to success

Repair Kit: Remember – resilience helps you to deal with the unexpected

Case Study

Sheryl Sandberg, former Google executive and currently Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, has, by any standards, an impressive career. She is officially a billionaire since last January and as well as the career trajectory that most can only dream of she is also an activist, philanthropist and author. All of which she has managed to balance with a successful family life: she has a 10-year marriage and two young children. The most surprising of all her achievements, however, is that she leaves the office every day at 5.30.

In a recent video on successful women, she said: "I walk out of this office every day at 5:30 so I'm home for dinner with my kids at 6:00, and interestingly, I've been doing that since I had kids. I did that when I was at Google, I did that here, and I would say it's not until the last year, two years, that I'm brave enough to talk about it publicly. Now I certainly wouldn't lie, but I wasn't running around giving speeches on it."

The reason she would have been reluctant to admit to leaving on time is because our work culture so values the ability to work longer than everyone else. As a woman especially there is a perception that if you value your family time you might not really be that dedicated.

Workers without children will often complain that colleagues who are parents are reluctant to work late, the inference being that they work less. However, the statistics prove, over and over again, longer working hours are not proof of better work. It's quite the contrary on occasion. Sandberg is often held up as a gold standard of working mothers, however she is in fact the gold standard of achieving a life balance.

The root cause of stress is when one or more of our emotional needs are not being met. The feeling that we have so many obligations and are always looking out for other people's needs instead of our own is particularly common amongst people who have dependents and the more competent a person seems the less likely others are to look out for them. This situation can tip out of control quite fast leading to feelings of being overwhelmed and underappreciated.

There are lots of courses available on time-management strategies. People are taught practical tips on making a list of priorities and how to segment actions into urgent and less urgent. There are many apps that will do the same with email, allowing people to prioritise with a view to achieving everything in the best time scale possible. You can get everything done if you just get organised.

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