I’ve always been aware of the importance of a work/life balance but had never given it too much thought until recently. I began to notice the imbalance and associated guilt a few weeks ago before Covid struck. The point, however, I think is even more relevant with many of us working from home.
Here’s how it all started. It got to 5.15pm at the end of the day and I started preparing to go home. Walking out the door I joked with colleagues still at their computers that I felt bad leaving; like I was leaving early. One of them pointed out it was now 5.20pm and work finished at 5.00pm. I wasn’t leaving early, I was leaving late. And yet, I still felt guilty.
Giving this a bit more thought I realised this is happening to me more and more. I feel bad or guilty doing things I am entitled to do. Particularly if other people are not taking the opportunity. However, it’s not only limited to others actions. Now working from home I’m finding it hard to turn off at 5.00pm. I’m tempted to keep my emails up for an extra hour or check in during weekends.
I’ve been wondering what this is about. Responses from others have been mixed. Some believe it’s just the world we live in. There’s no such thing as a 9-5 job anymore. Others agreed that there’s extra pressure to go above and beyond. As if we have something to prove. We need to earn the right to our lunch break or to leave on time.
I think there is something in this idea of unreachable standards. We live in a society always pushing us to reach higher, go further, earn more, achieve better. And the list goes on, and on and on. And where does it stop? Or does it? I’m aware that my behaviours are only contributing to this Catch-22 situation. If we all keep buying-in to the idea then it will never end.
As a society or a community we are reliant on each other. And so we take notice of each others actions. For some of us, we can’t leave on time because we fear that we look as if we’re leaving early in comparison to those who stay even later. We fear that doing our job well looks inadequate to those going above and beyond even further. We compare ourselves to those around us and worry that others do too; particularly employers.
It’s common to talk about us being trapped in a rat race. Or that we live in a dog eat dog world. Correct me if I’m wrong but this situation is getting out of hand. We’re creating a society where nothing is good enough anymore. Even doing our best, or doing our job is not enough. Working harder and for longer, sleeping less and sacrificing our health have become the new status symbols.
In this post or current Covid-19 world many of us are working from home. There’s no longer an escape from work. In the past, when I finally dragged myself away from my computer it marked the end of my working day. Yes, I could check my work email from home. But it was easier to put down those boundaries and stop myself at home in a space I associated with leisure rather than work.
Now my couch and dining room table have become my home office. I work in the same spaces I watch TV, read a book, eat meals and socialize. That barrier I put up is starting to crumble. When 5.00pm hits I no longer have that switch in environment to remind me what this new period of time is for. I’ve got nowhere to go and wind down and escape my work. It’s within the four walls of my home and it’s inescapable.
The guilt element has also survived the pandemic. I wonder whether my colleagues are signing off at the end of their working day. And if they’re not, the pressure is there to prove that I’m working just as hard as they are. On top of all this is the awareness that businesses and companies are suffering in the economic downturn. I want to work harder for my employer and show that I’m a team player. That I understand that in these extenuating circumstances something has got to give and I’m happy to be one of those givers.
There’s lots of information out there about how to achieve that work/life balance (for signs of unhealthy balance check here). But here’s what’s been working for me.
Firstly, I have to stick to my morning routines. Yes, it’s so much easier to wake up 5 minutes before work starts and grab our laptop to work from bed. I’ve had to fight the temptation to do this. Getting up earlier has helped. It gives me time to get up and shower, brush my teeth and do my skin routine. I make time for breakfast and to get dressed. I’m choosing clothes that help me feel professional rather than clothes I’d wear to lounge around the house or wear on a lazy Sunday. There’s something in this routine which is grounding but sets me up for the day of work.
Choosing my work space carefully has also helped. I’ve had to try a few places out – not so easy in a small flat. Sitting on my couch or in bed is technically comfier but it doesn’t set the tone in the same way. I’ve found setting my laptop up at the table far more effective. My posture is far more upright and I feel more attentive or motivated. I gather whatever I need for my working day around me. But at the end of the day I put these away. Into another room goes the stationary, diary and notebooks. I’ve learnt the hard way that if I can see them then I’ll think about them or start working again. Out of sight, out of mind works for me.
The same is true for my laptop. I need to do the same kind of ‘clean – up’ virtually as well as physically. At the days end I push myself to close down my work email and turn off notifications. I save and shut down any documents that I’m working on. If they stay open whilst I’m using my laptop after working hours then leisure time quickly slides back into working hours. This de-cluttering can be annoying when you’re just going to need everything the next morning but I’ve found it really helps. It’s another way to resurrect those work/life boundaries which have become so fluid.
My last thought focuses on the life part of the work/life balance. I’m working on keeping this balance but it’s also made me reconsider what I do in the time I’m not at work. When you’re home all the time it’s important that these time periods become distinctive. Going to the office and attending meetings and working from a work computer feels different to coming home and sitting at my laptop. Now my work life sits with my laptop too. Whilst I do the ‘clean up’ I referred to before; I need more to really feel the difference.
As I wrote in an earlier Covid-19 article about re-framing anxiety, I’m choosing to think about this time of self-isolation as time to invest in myself. I’m focusing the life part of work/life balance on hobbies and pursuits that too often get forgotten. It’s about taking my eyes off the laptop screen I spend whole days staring at. This isn’t easy to do. After a day of work, even from home, I often feel exhausted or drained. (I’m convinced more energy goes into working from home than in an office). I’m tempted to play around on my laptop or watch TV but I try and do something different. So far, this has included trying out some new recipes, decluttering some storage spaces, practising calligraphy, reading and listening to podcasts. Anything that doesn’t have work associations gets the green light from me!
Let me know in the comments how you’re finding the work/life balance? What are your tips and tricks to manage better?