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All work and no play? Why a good work-life balance is so important and how to strike one

It can be difficult to say “no” to things, especially when it comes to taking on extra work or staying late at the office. And remote working has made separating work and leisure even harder for many of us. 

While doing a bit of overtime here or there may not be harmful to your wellbeing, overworking consistently can take its toll on your body and your mind. In extreme cases, it can even become what’s known as a work addiction – when a person becomes unable to stop working despite the negative ways it may be affecting their personal life, health and wellbeing. 

So how do you know if you’re working too much and what can you do about it? 

Overworking: spotting the signs

The simplest way to figure out whether you’re overworking is to think about whether your work interferes with your life. For example:

  • Do you skip social engagements to continue working?
  • Do you struggle to take time off?
  • Do you find that you can’t switch off from work in the evenings or at weekends?

Other signs might include not having the time to prepare dinner after a long day, leading to more takeaways than you might like to be eating. Equally, you may struggle to fit in exercise, such as the walk you’d like to take at lunch or a gym session after work. Sitting too long at your desk can mean you develop back pain or repetitive strain injury too. 

You may feel like you rely on caffeine to keep you alert. This might not even be enough – making mistakes, not feeling creative and not being able to multi-task could also be indicators that you’re overworking. 

Even if you aren’t feeling the effects of overworking right now, studies have shown that it can have a negative impact in the long term, increasing the risk of: 

  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Dependence on unhealthy behaviours such as excessive smoking and drinking
  • Poor sleep and chronic fatigue
  • Stress, both relating to work and to life more generally

Why we push ourselves too hard

The urge to overwork is common and there are many reasons why you might feel it.

For example, the high cost of living can make it seem like you need to work as hard as you possibly can simply to pay the bills, and many of us will turn to overworking to prove ourselves worthy of a promotion.

If you really enjoy your job, you may find it tricky to limit the amount of time you spend doing it. But even if you’re lucky enough to love what you do, it’s still important to have a life outside of work.

Research has found links between perfectionism and overworking. Perfectionists may become anxious or self-critical if they don’t meet their expectations of themselves, which tend to be unrealistically high. Not doing what they consider to be ‘the best’ can lead them to feel worthless and unable to acknowledge other successes.

Even if you’re not a perfectionist, you may find yourself tying your self-worth to your work performance, rather than to other things like how good a friend you are or how much you contribute to your community.

Any job that rewards exceptional performance with financial incentives may drive employees to overwork. And if you work in a high-pressure industry where long hours and not taking leave are a normal part of the company culture, you’re less likely to question overworking.

Striking a balance 

Maintaining a good work-life balance is crucial for our overall health and happiness. Although this will inevitably look different to everyone, it’s important to reach a point where you feel content in both areas of your life. Here are some tips to get you started in balancing work with everything else that’s important to you:

  • Set and stick to working hours: If you’re out of the habit of working a set number of hours, it might be difficult to bring yourself to shut your laptop at the end of the day. But, by forcing yourself to finish at a set time, you’ll leave more time to recharge before the next day
  • Make time for proper breaks: It can be tempting to work through lunch if you’re in the zone and close to finishing the task at hand. But remember that you’re legally entitled to take breaks – and it’ll do your concentration and motivation good too
  • Learn to say no and be assertive: If colleagues ask favours of you or suggest you work a bit later to finish something off, it can be hard to say “no”. The same is true of overtime, which might seem appealing because of the extra money it may bring in. However, you should try to feel comfortable declining based on having other commitments or just wanting to rest
  • Talk to your manager about boundaries: How you are managed can make the difference between you having a healthy versus unhealthy relationship with work. If your manager expects you to work late, for example, you could ask to meet with them to discuss this. Set out your criteria for achieving a better work-life balance and see what they say

Even if you don’t realise you’re overworking, it may be negatively affecting your wellbeing. Take some time to consider whether you could better balance work, rest and play. You may need to make extra effort if you’re working from home – it's even easier to let the boundaries between work and life blur. If you don’t feel equipped to tackle the problem alone, seek advice from a GP who may be able to refer you for psychological support.

By Happence, This Can Happen 2021 Exhibitor

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