What does a good work-life balance look like, post-COVID?
How the stresses of lockdown and working from home have increased the pressures on our mental health. In the past 12 months, talk of the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance has developed a greater sense of urgency as the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on our mental health.As it is, the UK was already lagging behind the rest of Europe in this regard: in a 2018 study by Mahabis, the UK came 16th out of 20 in their ‘work-life index’. Only Greece, the US, Japan and South Korea scored worse, with the UK having the highest proportion of employees working over 50 hours a week in western Europe (12.7%, compared to 4.6% in Germany and 0.45% in the Netherlands).
Working from home: the positives and the negatives
In some ways, we have never been more prepared for lockdown – with our 24/7 digital culture and instant access to devices that allow us to genuinely work efficiently from home, communicate instantly via video messaging, make secure payments online and access remote servers. Furthermore, the sense that the connected world was ironically making us feel disconnected – and that social media has been promoting antisocial behaviour – has partly been redressed during lockdown, as we have rediscovered the intended purpose and benefits of life online.But there are statistics suggesting that ‘WFH’ is stifling creativity – as we struggle to differentiate between our office and our home. Indeed, Forbes even suggests that pitting work against life offers a false narrative that causes further damage to our mental health. (As author and life coach Naz Behesti explains, ‘Life is not a pie chart’.)
Increased pressures on our mental health
The Centre for Mental Health predicts that, as a result of the pandemic, 1.3 million people in the UK (who have not had mental health problems previously) will need treatment for moderate to severe anxiety, and 1.8 million people will need treatment for moderate to severe depression.
The demands and pressures of lockdown – juggling WFH, home-schooling and the mental health issues affecting us all in these strange times – mean that our working hours are fluid and undefined, while job security is threatened as never before. Not to mention the stress of awaiting or chasing payments, constantly refreshing your banking app to see if the ‘pending’ transactions update. The expectation to work longer or inconvenient hours simply to retain one’s job adds to the stress of daily life, and can of course affect productivity. (The Mental Health Foundation estimates that work-related stress already costs British business a combined total of 10.4 million working days per year.) But the cost to the industry is nothing compared to the cost to individuals.
There is no simple answer to all this, but there are some strategies for coping, that we can all adopt or encourage:
• Work smart, not long – try to clearly define your day, giving yourself regular screen breaks.
• Don’t over promise – you’re only adding to your own pressures.
• Ask for help – seeking out support isn’t a sign of weakness.
• Empathise – while 69% of employees feel that flexible working helps them to maintain a work-life balance, their employers struggle with how best to manage it. Meanwhile, many staff still feel that asking for flexible time might adversely affect their promotion prospects*.
Life is hard enough at the moment, however and wherever your work fits into it. And it’s important to remember that the two are intertwined – more so now than ever – so anything that helps to relieve the pressure (for yourself or your employees / colleagues) should be welcomed. To coin a phrase: take it easy on yourself.