From The Straits Times    |

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A lot has been said in recent years about achieving a work-life balance. This is especially relevant for women, many of whom have to juggle a full-time job, housework and caring for children, parents or other loved ones. 

The line between work and life has also somewhat been blurred since the Covid pandemic. Working from home has meant we’re often doing both at the same time and it can be hard to get back into a routine once you’re back at the office.

In a 2021 survey by UK bedding manufacturer Sleepseeker that was often quoted locally, Singapore emerged as ‘the most fatigued country in the world’. The survey came to this conclusion after looking into factors such as the number of hours worked per year and average screen time per day. 

However, there is a ray of light in this situation. Respondents to a survey by mental health advocacy organisation Silver Ribbon (Singapore) revealed earlier this year that a sense of fulfilment and work-life balance matter more than salary when picking a job. 

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So what is work-life balance and how can you achieve it? Turns out, it’s not as easy as setting aside x number of hours a day to work and x number of hours a day for personal time. It shouldn’t be seen as a goal we need to hit each day but instead a moving target. It’s a life-long process that involves self-awareness and tweaks.  

Dr Natalie Games, a clinical psychologist at Alliance Counselling, reveals that there is no ‘perfect’ work-life balance, no one-size-fits-all solution. 

“Strive for a realistic schedule that addresses your fluid and changing needs – balance is achieved over time, not each day,” she explains. “Assess where you are – check in with your needs, goals and priorities and allow yourself to be open and flexible to these needs.”

Grace Loh, psychotherapist, counsellor and coach at Counselling Perspective, stresses the point that it’s more than merely aiming to compensate for the same time spent in either your professional or personal life. It is crucial to come to a mindful self-awareness of the current state of the other various aspects of your life.

“Pause and centre yourself to reflect on the other key components of your life such as family, physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects,” she says. “Quality engagement with mindful presence to replenish these other life aspects can bring better life harmony, even if it is just spending 10 to 15 minutes on these other forgotten areas every other day.”

The importance of work-life balance 

Achieving work-life balance is not just a buzzword. There are numerous benefits once you get there. Dr Games acknowledges that maintaining a healthy work-life balance is not only important for health and relationships, it can also improve your productivity and ultimately overall wellbeing. Other benefits include more engagement with your work, reduced risk of burning out and increased ability to be mindful.

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“Research shows that when people are less stressed and overworked, they have better physical and mental health,” she says. “A study conducted by University College London of more than 10,000 participants stated that white-collar workers who worked three or more hours longer than required had a 60% higher risk of heart-related problems than those who didn’t work overtime.”

Look out for these signs

Dr Games says that your overall well-being is low when you haven’t got the right work-life balance. Here are some signs you should look out for: 

  • You’re tired and your physical, emotional and mental health are suffering
  • You’re getting out of shape
  • You don’t have enough time to enjoy yourself
  • Your relationships are struggling
  • Your work time is eating into your sleep, exercise or time with loved ones
  • You never stop thinking about
  • You constantly feel stressed
  • You have no hobbies or have stopped participating in previously-enjoyed activities

It can also manifest in the form of emotional symptoms. Grace lists emotional exhaustion, cynicism or depersonalisation and reduced personal accomplishment as possible as a result of work or other life stressors. 

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“Emotional exhaustion can be described as feeling worn out, loss of energy, debilitation and fatigue,” she explains. “Cynicism refers to losing an emotional or cognitive involvement with work, and depersonalisation can result in negative or excessively detached responses towards one’s job, colleagues or clients, such as irritability and withdrawal. Reduced personal accomplishment refers to feelings of incompetence, low morale, reduced productivity and an inability to cope.”

Take the first step

As with every journey in life, working towards getting your work-life balance right starts with the first step. Dr Games suggests understanding what your individual priorities are with regards to professional and personal life commitments and set boundaries to protect those. 

Grace advises to check-in with yourself to take stock of your current situation. This will give you awareness of your physiological, emotional and mental states and reactions. Reassess your whys for doing what you do – is the current situation working for you and your loved ones and aligned with your true values and priorities? Is there a tenable alternative? 

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“Have a conversation with your supervisor about re-crafting your job so that you can do more of what you are strong at and discuss how productivity can be redefined so that you can meet this optimally and feasibly. Can you fit in a few minutes of self-care throughout your work day? What are the resource pools you can develop and utilise at work when you need them?” she adds. 

How to achieve work-life balance

Dr Games has the following tips:

  1. Prioritise sleep, nutrition and movement in your everyday.
  2. Understand your short- and long-term goals – proper planning enables you to focus on those important tasks and not waste time on things of no or little value.
  3. Be flexible – in your thinking and your day. When things come up, assess their importance and adjust your schedule if necessary.
  4. Nurture your family/other important personal relationships. 
  5. Work smarter not harder and know when to ask for help.

“Work-life balance will mean different things to different people because, after all, we are unique individuals who have different life commitments. As balance is a very personal thing, only you are able to understand the lifestyle that works best for your overall wellbeing and happiness,” she adds. 

Grace proposes adopting the ABC PLEASE skill, developed by Dr Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, to achieve work-life balance. She says it is a useful emotional regulation skill that can help to decrease vulnerability to emotions and burnout.

Here is a summary of what it involves:

Accumulate Positive Emotions: In the short term, do activities that are pleasant to you, that are possible in the moment. In the longer term, create positive changes in your life based on your true intention and design.

Build Mastery: Engage in activities that can build a sense of self-efficacy to combat helplessness and hopelessness. Create a list of your strengths at work, set a plan to develop these and speak to your supervisor if these strengths development can be aligned with a career growth plan.

Cope ahead of time with difficult situations: Rehearse a plan ahead of time so that you are prepared to cope skillfully with foreseen challenging situations such as preparing and practising for an important presentation, identify potential roadblocks to project processes and problem-solve ahead of time, engage supportive colleagues, requesting for help when you need it. 

PLEASE:

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Treat PhysicaL Illness: Take good care of your physical health by seeking medical attention when needed, taking medications as prescribed, using sick leave when you’re unwell and going for annual health checkups. Treat mental health as you would physical health and seek psychological help from a professional if you have difficulty coping. 

Balanced Eating: Eat a mindful balanced diet without skipping meals even when you are busy, allowing indulgences in moderation. 

Avoid Mood Altering Substances: Such as too much caffeine or alcohol. 

Balanced Sleep: Make quality sleep a priority. Research has shown that people who sleep 4 or 6 hours perform on the same cognitive level as someone who has been awake for 48 hours straight. 7-9 hours is recommended for adults 18 – 64 years old. Set a sleep routine by setting an alarm for when you should go to bed. 

Exercise: Cardiovascular exercise and resistance training have been proven to generate greater positive well-being and personal accomplishment and simultaneously reduces psychological distress, perceived stress and emotional exhaustion. Deep breathing and movement can alleviate the buildup of stress, induce calm and improve mental acuity.