The Importance of Maintaining a Work-Life Balance

“Don’t forget, we are all family,” is a phrase I have heard by numerous supervisors, directors, and CEOs throughout my career. After all, we do spend 8 hours a day, 5 days a week with one another, so it’s only natural that we become close, like a family, right? Well, speaking as someone who showed up to work 15 minutes early every single day for 4 years without fail, never took a single sick day, learned every job in my department to make myself irreplaceable — only to find myself unemployed for several months after being laid off — I can say that you and your employer are NOT families.
I don’t want to sound like a cynic. In fact, during my unemployment, I learned that the unhealthy devotion I gave to my job was actually leading me down a dangerous path, and by the time I was let go, I had started to show serious symptoms of burnout. I had major depression, and my anxiety and stress exhausted me to the point that I’d take a 2-hour nap after work and wake up long enough to shower and (sometimes) eat, then go right back to bed because I was just too sad and too tired to even want to be awake longer than absolutely necessary. Being laid off may have actually saved my life, and when a position in a different department opened up at the same bank that laid me off, I applied and accepted the job without a second thought — but with a completely different attitude that is less focused on being a workaholic and more focused on keeping a healthy work-life balance— and the reason why I went back to the place that nearly led me to burnout is that it was a place I was comfortable with, it was a place I knew, it was truly my “Second home.” And it’s okay to think of your place of business that way, but if you find that your second home is starting to become more important than your actual home, that’s an issue that could end up having serious consequences.
So, what can be done? How do we, in a capitalistic society, change our mindset from seeing working until 7 P.M. at a 9 to 5 job as a problem instead of an achievement? The answer is surprisingly simple: Stop working so hard!
I certainly don’t mean do a poor job or strive for the bare minimum. Each day I show up to work knowing I am being paid to do my job to the best of my ability, and I always make sure I do so. But what I mean by “stop working so hard” is make sure you have a definitive boundary where you can give 100% of your effort to your employer during work hours, and ONLY during those hours. Sure, there may be a rare instance where you need to stay late or need to bring your work home with you to finish something up, especially these days (meaning COVID-19, which has affected staffing in every type of business), but constantly mixing your professional life and personal life can lead to burnout and what will it all be for? So that hopefully you’ll be seen as “irreplaceable?” As stated in the beginning, I’ve been there. All it takes is a restructure to prove there is NO such thing is irreplaceable.
It took me an exceptionally long time to learn that being a hard worker is a great quality, but being a workaholic is dangerous and unhealthy. Once I accepted the new position at the bank, I wrote a list of things people had told me for years (things that I used to scoff at) to help maintain a healthy work-life balance:
  1. Take Vacations
Vacations are like a reset button when it comes to job burnout. Whether you travel to a different place or just stay home, a vacation is necessary to maintain a healthy work-life balance. It’s a way to be present and to unwind. But you MUST make it a rule to not check work emails or handle work situations while on vacation. Otherwise, it’s not a vacation, it’s working remotely. Spend time with friends, family, or just yourself and you’ll see that these moments are far more important than any budget spreadsheet.
2. Prioritize / Make a List
My work schedule is 8:30 A.M. to 5:30 P.M., Monday through Friday. Some days (most days) are busier than others. Some days it feels like I am drowning in paperwork and there’s just no way I can get all my tasks done. In the past, I would stay until everything was finished, even if that meant leaving at 6:30–7:00. But now I prioritize and shift the workload by making a list of items I know must be done the same day, the following day, and what can wait until later. That way instead of looking at it as 30 things needing to be done, it becomes 10 things needing to be done today, and so on. Which brings me to my next tip —
3. It Will Be There Tomorrow
If you work 9 to 5 and at 5 P.M. you see that there’s still work to finish but it isn’t anything that needs to be done ASAP, then leave it. It will be there tomorrow, and you can finish it then. I discovered that the longer I stayed at work to finish a few unimportant tasks, the more I tended to get sidetracked and would start working on other things so that the tasks I originally stayed to finish still didn’t get done. I might have intended to stay just a little longer to file some documents, but then I’d see an email to process a loan and would think, “Well that won’t take long,” so I’d end up starting it and then while processing, I might see that the information is incomplete, so then I’d have to research and find the information and before I knew it, it’s almost 7 and now I’m completely overwhelmed with a half-processed loan to finish as well as all the stuff I still need to file and didn’t get around to doing. However, once I started leaving things for “tomorrow,” I found that I would start my day with the mindset of needing to complete the unfinished tasks from yesterday before starting today’s items, and would focus solely on getting that done. No rabbit holes to fall into, no getting sidetracked.
4. Avoid Time-Wasting Activities
Taking a break during the day is extremely helpful, even if it’s just a few moments where you just breathe and maybe respond to a text or social media message; It helps to break up the monotony of the day. But if you find that getting onto social media to respond to that message or even unlocking your phone to reply to a text turns into 10 or 15 minutes every couple of hours of scrolling through Facebook and then Instagram, and then Snapchat, etc., then perhaps the best thing to do is leave your phone in your desk drawer or in your bag. If you spend 10 minutes every hour checking social media (assuming you work 9 to 5 and factoring in a 1-hour lunch break) you have not only spent 1 hour and 10 minutes of your workday not working, but the vitriol of social media might even do more harm to your mental health if you’re already having a stressful day. So, if you do need a break, which is essential at any job, instead of social media find a place to meditate or maybe even do some stretches at your desk if you aren’t able to get away for a few minutes. This will help keep your mind and body healthy, leading to a decrease in stress that could save you from burnout.
5. Learn to Say No
This one was the hardest for me. I had a coworker who constantly told me, “If you keep letting them push things onto you, at some point they are going to just start giving you all their work.” And she was right. I was a doormat who never said no and believe me, people WILL take that for granted. They may not have bad intentions, but they know if they get behind, you’ll help them out even if you’re behind too. I didn’t mind taking things they needed help with because I knew I’d stay late to make sure everything got done (see tip #3). But eventually, I noticed that they would spend a vast amount of their day not working, while the list of stuff I was helping them finish greatly surpassed my own work and it ended up with a supervisor talking to me privately about how I was the only one not getting my stuff finished in a timely manner, (but she knew how everyone else was able to do so.) So, I finally had to start saying, “I’m sorry, but I already have a lot needing to take care of.” (And I eventually dropped the, “I’m sorry,” part because there was no reason to be sorry.) It’s okay to help someone, but constantly taking everyone else's work while your own piles up can lead to resentment and increased stress ending in burnout. Don’t be afraid to say no.
Job burnout is a public health crisis that isn’t discussed as openly as it needs to be. It has, in a way, become its own global pandemic to the point that the World Health Organization has actually added it to its International Classification of Diseases. It has led to the spending of almost $190 billion in healthcare costs and claims the lives of nearly 120,000 people each year. On the business side, the WHO reports that as of 2019, side-effects of burnout (mainly depression and anxiety) costs the global workforce nearly $1 trillion in lost productivity every year. While I may have only shared 5 quick tips that have helped me maintain a work-life balance, there are still many different easy ways you can keep yourself from succumbing to job burnout. For instance, I’m friends with a couple who allot themselves 15 minutes when they first get home to discuss/rant about their day (unless something truly significant happened) and then they don’t say anything else about work because they want to “leave the office at the office.” And they swear it has done wonders for their relationship by not having the stress and burdens of the job entering their personal space.
As a final thought, I just want to leave you with a quote I found when I was unemployed and truly started looking into just how real burnout is. I couldn’t find a true source for it, but it’s probably the best reminder of just how replaceable we are when it comes to our jobs, and I think of it each time I catch myself starting to break my own rules regarding overworking —
Your job will be posted before your obituary.”
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