We’re all too familiar with the term ‘work-life balance’. However, according to Afresh Performance Coach, Deirdre Cronnelly, it’s in need of a refresh. “The concept of the old work-life balance is outdated”, she says. “It’s now about the work-life merge.”
We live in an always-on, tech-heavy society where busyness is worn as a badge of honour. For Deirdre, this is problematic. “We’re always ‘on’ and this, in part, is down to technology”, she explains. “How do we expect ourselves to be switched on mentally when we aren’t taking the time out to recharge our minds and bodies properly?” It’s come to a point where some of us would rather burn out than be seen taking a break. In fact, a 2013 Harvard study showed that 96% of our leaders were complaining of burnout. The likes of former Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan and Barclays former Head of Compliance Hector Sants both suffered burnouts, citing exhaustion, stress and inability to switch off.
People often now consider essential things like eating, sleeping and relationships as optional, this is referred to as the ‘exhaustion funnel’ says Deirdre. “We no longer pay enough attention to them, because we’re working so much. We have a tendency to let work take over completely, and self-care goes out the window.”
So, what’s the solution? “We need to give employees personal responsibility, and help people understand the importance of switching off,” says Deirdre. “Whether you’re someone who works well bright and early at 6am, or you don’t perform your best until 11pm, you just need to figure out your own rhythm. Employers need to honour and respect employees by trusting them to know their own work patterns. There are companies who work this way and see its benefit.” One company in the US, for example, gives employees an end-of-year bonus if they do three key things: take all their allocated holidays, properly disconnect (no answering mails), and don’t do any work while they’re away. “Clever companies know that having these policies in place makes long-term sense for productivity. When employees take time to really switch off, they work better,” says Deirdre.
As well as reviewing what times of day we excel at, it’s also crucial to remember we work best in peaks and troughs, as many studies have shown. “Once you get into a period of concentrated focus, you can actually only hold that for 90 - 100 minutes”, says Deirdre. “Then you need to take a break. This is called the ultradian cycle. If you don’t take that time-out, you won’t get back to your peak productivity level.” Less breaks mean more stress, which can lead to mental health problems. “Anxiety and depression are some of the biggest causes of absenteeism in today’s workforce”, Deirdre adds.
We’re all guilty of thinking we can do it all at once. Sending an email while talking to our colleague sitting next to us, while trying to remember the next three things on our to-do list for the afternoon. This is called continuous partial attention. “If you work in this way, it will take 30% longer to get the job done,” says Deirdre.
Technology and society have trained us into working a certain way, and though it might feel like too much of a task to change our patterns, it’s crucial for our mental health and well-being. “Work-life merging can be so beneficial when we’re aware of its challenges and our own limitations,” says Deirdre. “Employers need to learn to become sufficiently savvy, give us the tools and implement policies that will help us achieve it."