A year of adjustments to work-life balance

Jan 4 2011 - 10:58am

In most workplaces, 2010 proved to be a strange year -- painful and rewarding, trying and exciting. The topic of work/life balance became more relevant than ever.

Almost universally, stress hit an all-time high, fueled by heavier workloads, fear of job loss and 24/7 connectivity.

"Workers are being pushed and pushed, and they lack the energy to deal with it," was how Joyce Gioia of The Herman Group summed it up for a column earlier this year. Experts say it will be difficult for the economy to fully recover until employers find a way to help workers cope.

The best advice for a worker or business owner: Take breaks throughout the day; be physically active; consider yoga or meditation and, most important, always cool off before answering an e-mail or phone call.

This year, I personally struggled with work/life balance concerns, transitioning to working mostly from home and learning how to find boundaries. I turned to experts for help, sharing my discoveries with readers.

As we feel overwhelmed, it becomes important to distinguish the difference between being productive and being busy. We're putting in longer hours, but we're not necessarily landing more business or moving closer to our goals. My column on this topic triggered a huge response. My favorite tip came from Tim Ferriss, author of "The 4-Hour Workweek," who told me: "We need to reprogram ourselves from 'more is better' to making better decisions about how we spend our time."

In the middle of the year, I found myself in desperate need of mastering the art of saying "no." Gauging from reader response, I have lots of company in this work-life dilemma. Experts told me the most powerful and effective "no's" are the least complicated. "Say no politely, keep explanations to a minimum and repeat yourself as often as necessary," advises Greg Cootsona, a California pastor and author of "Say Yes to No."

MORE SHUT-EYE: Recently, I noticed every conversation with a busy professional revealed a common approach to getting more done: sacrifice sleep. And, so it goes with American workers today. We push our bedtime back to fit in extra work. We get up early for a jump-start on the competition. Our disrespect for sleep has become a national epidemic, and many of us have forgotten the feeling of being rested. But giving up sleep accelerates the aging process. In a September column, I shared some tips for getting more shut-eye: Turn off your computer an hour before bed and keep your smart phone out of the bedroom.

Mixing with the unemployed inspired a column in which I pointed out that just as work/life balance is a struggle for those with jobs, the challenges of time management can be equally complex for those who are looking for work.

"Get involved in something you love and wish you had time for and use it as a way to meet others who can help you," advised Lauryn Franzoni, vice president of ExecuNet.com.

DIG DEEPER: In another column aimed at job seekers, I tackled the importance of knowing what work-life sacrifices you are getting into when you take a new job. Some advice I shared: dig deeper into the company culture by looking at its website, asking why a position is open, probing about your future boss and mining your social networks for insight.

One of my favorite columns this year appeared around Father's Day. Talking to dads, I learned that the recession has added to the pull they are experiencing: Fathers are worried about finances and feeling intense pressure to perform at work. At the same time, expectations are higher than ever at home to be full partners in child rearing. They are fighting debt, fearful of losing their jobs and experiencing the intense desire to bond with and guide their children.

The good news: Going forward, there's a lot of optimism that work/life balance will ease for fathers. Men said they are using informal flexibility at work, rather than the formal arrangements many mothers use. They said their immediate managers, as opposed to top executives, were from dual-career households too and were quite empathetic of their work-life challenges.

At the same time, men are experiencing a re-evaluation of priorities. That discovery led to a column on health and squeezing fitness into the workday.

"For the last decade, most men were working hard, earning money and buying things. Now all of a sudden, they have hypertension and high cholesterol, and what was it for?" said Bill Cortright, a corporate wellness expert, gym owner and author of "The Stress Response Diet and Lifestyle Program." "If there's anything good that's come out of the recession, it is that men are refocusing on health."

As we head into 2011, most employers should realize that employee engagement needs to be a priority if they want more from workers than to just show up. Over the past year, most of us felt fortunate to have jobs or keep our businesses afloat. Going forward, we want more. We want to feel like what we get paid to do each day makes a difference. Fulfillment is the cornerstone of balance.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegalgmail.com. Read her columns and blog at http://worklifebalancingact.com/.

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