Finding Time: The Erosion of Work / Life Balance

People in office shaking hands

If you type “work / life balance” into Google, you’ll find the web awash with hundreds of articles telling you “Why it’s important to have a work / life balance”, and offering “Tips for a great work / life balance.”

Despite this plethora of helpful information at our fingertips, many of us still can’t seem to find that holy grail: allowing ourselves the time and space we personally need, while also feeling like we’re staying on top of things at work.

The 2017 UK Employee Pulse Survey by Qualtrics surveyed 4,000 UK workers and found that:

  • 47% feel overwhelmed by their workloads most of the time

  • 52% believe their employer does not promote a healthy work/life balance

  • 85% say that their work is causing them stress

  • 47% of Londoners are not happy with their work/life balance

The survey also revealed that some industries are better at maintaining a work / life balance than others. For example, 41% of workers in media and advertising said they felt stressed or emotional because of work “most” or “all of the time”, compared to just 18% of public sector workers.

When you think about it, it comes as no surprise that more competitive, target-driven industries have the most stressed workers. Certain job roles condition us to feel like our self-worth is based on how much we are able to do. We’re measured by profits and targets, and we’re reminded in every appraisal that we should be chasing that promotion or pay rise. The doing never stops.

There’s a big problem with this. As human beings, we must allow ourselves time to “be”. We cannot become human doings, because if we continue to relentlessly “do” – to tick things off our task lists with ever-increasing velocity, to be in action all the time, to always be moving towards the next target – sooner or later we are going to burn out.

Unease leads to disease

The old adage that “unease leads to disease” is true. Our bodies are designed to cope with small amounts of stress for short periods. Historically, that’s how human beings have survived.

However, when we spend prolonged periods of time in a state of stress and anxiety, it takes its toll on our physical health. This is because when we’re stressed, our bodies are flooded with “stress chemicals” including adrenaline and cortisol:

  • Adrenaline increases our heart rate and raises our blood pressure, boosting energy and getting us ready to flee from any danger. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, this would have been vital for survival. Today, our bodies can’t distinguish between real and imagined threats.

  • Cortisol, the main stress hormone, suppresses bodily functions that might be detrimental in a fight or flight scenario: such as our immune system response, digestive system, and reproductive system. Therefore you can see why, in the long term, high levels of cortisol caused by stress could be damaging.

When we’re feeling stressed, it’s easier than ever to fall into the “trap of busy-ness”. We tell ourselves it’s selfish for us to take time to relax, exercise, meditate, or do anything that’s just for us rather than for others. We put work first, we put our families first, and yet by not looking after ourselves we’re not doing those we want to help any favours.

Of course, the irony is that the more we say we “don’t have time” or we “have too much to do”, the busier we feel. Whereas when we make the effort to reclaim even just half an hour, and allow ourselves space to step back from life and take a breather, the more productive and healthier we will be in the long run.

How meditation can help your work / life balance

There are plenty of ways that we can begin to address our work life balance, as evidenced by the numerous self-help articles out there. But I’m going to focus on what I believe is the fundamental first step: meditation.

Meditation isn’t just about taking time out to relax and reset, though in itself that is certainly a huge and immediate benefit. Research has shown that when we meditate, our bodies release “bliss chemicals” including endocannabinoids, dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin and GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) which combine to make us feel positive, calm, and relaxed.

When our bodies are full of these chemicals – rather than cortisol or adrenaline – we’re more productive, focused, and motivated. We get more done. Therefore, while it might feel like taking two 20-minute meditations every day is impossible when our diaries are full, prioritising our meditation can make those pressing tasks feel easier, allow us to complete them faster, and create even more time in our working day.

That all sounds great, but how do I make time to meditate?

The wonderful thing about Vedic Meditation is that it was designed for people with busy lives. It doesn’t need you to carry props with you, it doesn’t need you to sit in a special room where you can be left totally alone, and it needn’t eat into your working day or personal time at all.

Your first meditation of the day can be taken as soon as you wake up. Set your alarm clock half an hour earlier than usual, get yourself a glass of water, do what you need to do to feel comfortable, and sit on your bed. The deep rest you gain from your meditation will more than compensate for that extra half an hour of sleep, and increased efficiency in thought and action throughout the day is the dividend from taking the time to meditate at the start of the day.

If you don’t want to sit in your bedroom, sit in the living room, or the kitchen. If you live with a partner, housemate, or older children, simply tell them that when you’re meditating you don’t want to be disturbed.

Your second meditation of the day could be taken when you finish work: in the staff room, in an empty meeting room, at your desk, in the coffee shop across the road, or on the train or bus home. You don’t need to be alone or in silence to meditate, you only need to be uninterrupted.

After a few days, you’ll be going into your days more energised, making you feel more productive. You’ll get home feeling less tired, and able to enjoy your evenings better. In a few weeks, the time that you’re spending observing your thoughts and reconnecting with your mind and body will make you better able to prioritise tasks, think with clarity, and communicate with others from a place of empathy and connection.

As I always say, the meditation isn’t about the time that you spend meditating each day: it’s about the benefits that carry over into the other 23 hours and 20 minutes of your day. And an improvement in work / life balance is one of the biggest benefits there is.

If you’re employer and want to find out more about how a meditation programme can benefit your workplace, take a look at Why Business Owners Benefit from Teaching Employees to Meditate and How Meditation Combats The Impact Of A Stressful Job.

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Anthony Thompson