Many people, too many people, believe that working hard equates to working more, to longer hours, and a complete lack of a personal life. This doesn't have to be the case -- people can be ambitious while maintaining work-life alignment with the help of productivity tools and knowledge which allow people to get more done in smaller amounts of time.
Stress expert Jan Bruce, co-founder of meQuilibrium, says this is exactly what leads to overworked employees, which thus leads to higher levels of stress (which, in itself, comes with a long list of health issues). Bruce says there are two ways to overcome overworked employees -- a change of policy from managers and an overall change in culture from leaders. She talks to us about balancing stress and how both employers and employees can change to combat burnout.
1. What contributes to employees feeling overworked?
I like to say “busy is the new black” – it’s in fashion and it goes with everything. The common belief is the harder you work and the more stressed you are, the more committed, ambitious, and successful you must be.
2. What can employers do to help lower worker stress and encourage a better work-life balance?
People won’t change by themselves—the norms are too great. As leaders we should try to give people the tools to make changes. We won’t make it if we don’t change the way we work. We need to better manage the relationship between working and renewing our energy so we’ll be more sustainable and likely more efficient. Encourage employees to take frequent breaks and renew themselves—you’ll get a more calm, focused team as a result. Instill a sense of purpose. Having a connection to what you do elevates your sense of worth and contribution; but more importantly, it builds your resilience so that you can cope with stress and setbacks. Without any inner alignment or connection to their work, why would your team show up when the going gets tough? Of course people will show up for the paycheck, but it’s vastly more rewarding to believe what you do matters and makes a difference.
3. For those who don't have such encouraging employers, what can employees do themselves to help find better balance in their lives and not feel so overworked?
Stop blaming other people or circumstances for making you stressed. Take responsibility for your own stress response. You do that by owning up to the choices you make that either improve or lessen your ability to cope—as well as owning up to the vibe you put out in the world around you. Just as you must take responsibility and advocate for yourself in any relationship, so it goes with work. There will always be looming deadlines and annoying coworkers, and big battles to fight. And there are also some things you must simply let go, being able to disengage with the things that work you to a frenzy can be the healthiest, wisest decision.
Think about what you can make flexible in your own life to accommodate your needs. For instance: Can you get up a bit early to do even a 20-minute brisk walk before work? Can you take lunch and leave the building and carve out even half an hour for yourself?
4. Many people have the misconception that working more equals working harder. What would you say to these people?
Stop wearing stress as a badge of honor. We’ve all seen at least some of the signs of burnout first hand – overwhelm, exhaustion, irritability, feeling too drained to cope with work or personal obligations. Putting in too much time at work leads to declines in performance, creativity, and judgment. Stress, left untreated, leads to physical and mental health problems, such as weight gain, heart disease, depression, and insomnia. A culture of overwork is literally driving us into the ground.
5. What outcomes will people find if they follow your advice?
The question is how to turn a situation of constant pressure and overwhelm into one of productivity and satisfaction.
First, the idea that you should be in perfect balance is completely unrealistic. I prefer to use the term “balance” as a verb, not a noun, something you continue to do to manage the ups and downs of your life. At meQuilibrium, we refer to these as “lifts” (the things that buffer your stress) and “drags” (those that make your stress worse). The goal isn’t to eliminate the drags, but to bolster them with lifts. When you feel yourself being dragged down by obligations and worry, you haven’t “failed” at balance—you just need to counter the drags with more lifts. Talk with a friend instead of canceling to do more work. Go for a long walk at lunch instead of sitting and staring at the screen. Spend a little more quality time with your partner before rushing off to reply to emails after dinner. Watch dopey cat videos until you laugh at something—anything.