Robert Brooks, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, recalls a colleague with a demanding private practice who never had time to exercise. After surviving a heart attack, Brooks says his colleague began a special exercise program for heart attack survivors and reduced his workload by seeing fewer patients.
But it shouldn’t take a drastic, life-altering emergency to realize you need to lead a healthier, more balanced life. Brooks, co-author of The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence and Personal Strength in Your Life, says his colleague typifies many who struggle with work overtaking their lives.
Technology is a big reason for a work-focused culture, says Bettina A. Deynes, Vice President of Human Resources and Diversity at the Society for Human Resource Management. While technology has made it easier to work from home or check email from anywhere, many employees feel they need to respond to every email immediately. In a recent poll commissioned by Adobe Systems, 87% of respondents said they checked their business email outside of working hours.
“If mismanaged, it can take over your life,” Deynes says. Working an excessive number of hours can lead to mental and physical exhaustion, Brooks adds, while a break from work can recharge employees, making them more energized on the job.
So how do you make sure it doesn’t take a medical emergency to get the work-life balance you need? The following insights from experts may be a starting point.
Take your vacation. Research done in 2015 by the U.S. Travel Association’s Project: Time Off found that 55% of Americans didn’t take all their vacation time, with many saying they felt they couldn’t leave because no one else could get the job done. Research shows that employees who take vacation return to work rejuvenated and are generally healthier, Deynes says. To overcome that feeling of leaving your projects unmaintained while you’re away, she suggests delegating: Designate a capable employee to take on your responsibilities while you’re gone, so you don’t feel tempted to jump in and solve problems.
Unplug after hours. Establish a firm quitting time at the end of each day and stick to it, says Deynes. Try to limit the amount of time you check email or answer your cell phone regarding anything business-related after hours, especially on weekends and an hour before bedtime, because screen viewing can disrupt sleep. Make sure you adhere to this on vacation. If there’s some expectation that you stay connected with work, let your supervisor know that you’ll check email a minimal amount for urgent messages. And don’t feel compelled to respond to every email immediately as that sets up the expectation that you’ll always be there, adds Randy Simon, a Clinical Psychologist and former Human Resources Executive based in Summit, New Jersey.
Exercise. It promotes both emotional and physical health. You don’t need to run five miles to get the benefits, says Brooks. Research shows that walking just a half hour a day or regularly taking the steps instead of an elevator can help you feel better and more balanced. He also recommends meditation. Just sitting in your seat and focusing on your breathing for even as little as five minutes “can help you learn to relax and be more in control of what’s going on,” he says.
Schedule family time. With a calendar full of work-related appointments, family can often get pushed down on the priority list. Brooks suggests deliberately scheduling family events. In addition to being home for dinner almost every night, he had regular meals out separately with each of his sons as well as date nights with his wife. Simon suggests if being home for dinner with young children is important, let your supervisor know that you’ll leave every afternoon at 5:00, then get back online — if necessary — once the kids are tucked into bed. “These days, you’re not bound by office hours,” she says.
Set short- and long-term goals. It’s important to have a model for how you want your life to look, says Michael D. Rabin, a Life Coach in Manhattan, New York. Map out a diagram of the percentage of your life you want to devote to work as opposed to other pursuits over the next two to five years. “If you’re consciously working toward a specific kind of balance, it’s easier to make decisions along the way that enable you to get there,” he says. For example, a person who wants more time with their family may decide to forego a work promotion that requires too much time away from home.
Focus more on deliverables, less on hours. If you can contribute to what’s important in your department and demonstrate you’re a high-performing employee, you’ll be given more latitude about taking time off, says Simon. Focus on quality rather than quantity.
Leave your job. If, despite your best efforts, your boss makes demands that don’t jive with your personal values, consider whether it’s the right place for you. “Placing all emphasis on any one aspect of life will lead to frustration down the road,” Simon says. “You have to be attentive to signs of burnout.”