A colleague of mine was putting together some guidelines for her company about how to minimize workplace stress, and stay mentally and emotionally well at work, and she asked me to have a look over it and provide some feedback.

Looking at the list of strategies her company had come up with, I noticed that about 90% of them focused on things like limiting work hours to the 8 hour shift, making sure to ‘switch off’ from work as soon as you leave, not accessing work emails and phones outside of work hours, and basically adhering to a strict distinction between “work time” and “life” time. Now this isn’t an uncommon idea, we’ve all heard of the phrase ‘work – life balance’, but let’s delve in a bit deeper.
Work life balance
It you look at the language used in this expression and the subconscious connotations it sends, you might come to the conclusion that it would be better not to use the phrase at all, and definitely not promote it.

Firstly, when we juxtapose two ideas like this next to each other, we are implying that they are opposite of each other, or at least very distinct and different elements. This is especially dangerous when we compare ‘work’ and ‘life’. Let me ask you – what is the opposite of life? …. It’s ‘death’, right? So by juxtaposing work and life, we are actually equating ‘work’ with death! Are you not alive at work? When did ‘work’ become a bad thing?

Now I know this isn’t what is intended when people use the expression, or recommend it to others, but, psychologically, this interpretation can be made very quickly and subconsciously, without us really paying any conscious attention to it. After all, it’s not what we mean, but what is being heard.

If we really buy into the idea of work-life balance, it often is not long before we experience ‘life’ as good, and ‘work’ as bad, and then it makes sense to want to put some limits and boundaries around how long we spend in that ‘bad’ place. As a manager, is that the message you want to send your staff?

But what if work wasn’t bad at all? After all, the research shows that overall, work is good for your mental health and for recovery from mental distress. And what if work was simply a part of life? What if you even enjoyed, looked forward to, and found fulfillment in your work?  Would you want to limit how long you spent in that state?

Now of course, our lives are rich and full of different aspects. It is important, and most people get a great sense of fulfillment from spending time, energy and attention on other things too, like family, friends, health, travel, hobbies, etc. We should make sure we do have time for these activities. But there is inherent danger in separating work from these areas, and viewing it as a negative part of life.

Our recommendation would be to find work that you do enjoy, and is fulfilling, where you are not spending each day watching the clock and measuring, to make sure you give no more than you have to. If you love what you’re doing its not work anyway.

If you look at the people who are very successful in their field of endeavor, whether its business, sports, creative arts, parenting, or anything else, they don’t usually stick to a minimum number of hours. They don’t need to ‘switch off’ afterwards, because they love thinking and talking about their passion.

So, next time you catch yourself talking about ‘work-life balance’, think about this. It’s all ‘life’ – there are 24 hours a day and your life is made up of how you choose to spend your time. I hope you’re doing something you enjoy.

And if you’re a manager, I’m sure you appreciate a team of people who enjoy doing what they do, and are flexible enough to take on some additional responsibilities from time to time, or do some overtime occasionally. And of course, as a manager who is conscious of mental health and wellbeing, you wouldn’t take advantage of that flexibility, and you would appreciate and recognize that person’s contribution.

Author: Emi Golding
Emi GoldingEmmaline (Emi) Golding is a registered psychologist and Director of Psychology for the Workplace Mental Health Institute. With experience both at the frontline and in Senior Management positions within mental health services, Emi is passionate about educating and expanding people’s knowledge of mental health issues, particularly within workplaces. For her own well being, Emi loves to dance and spend time with friends. She also enjoys learning languages and travelling to new and exciting places around the world.

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