Balancing act to integrate work and life

In our connected, “always on” age it is increasingly difficult to separate work and personal life, to create genuine work-life balance. But learning “intra-personal” skills enables us to better understand how our physical bodies react to external stressors, argues Dr Helena Lass.

The concept of the work-life balance has always been false and is a long-outdated approach. The use of technology means there is no longer a clear distinction between work and life.

Offices are no longer confined to a permanent location. Working from home, remotely, as “gig economy” or contract workers has become the new norm. If we have our devices, we can be at work – in the car, at the shops, on our bikes, when with friends, at the gym; wherever we go, we are always at work.

About the author

Dr Helena Lass is a psychiatrist specialising in mental wellness and founder of online training solution Wellness Orbit

Being more connected and constantly online has caused a shift in the way we conduct our lives and business. It is one of the reasons people feel increasingly stressed and one of the main contributing factors in why we find ourselves in the midst of an unfolding mental health crisis.

The days of going home to relax and spend quality time with loved ones without any work distractions seems a concept from a bygone era. Finding a way to better integrate aspects of our work and life will serve us well in preventing fatigue, stress and ultimately burnout and depression, which directly and indirectly affect all aspects of our lives, none more so than our places of work.

Stressed nation

It is very often the case that companies, organisations and business owners themselves bear the brunt in terms of the costs relating to workplace-related mental health problems. Work-related stress, burnout, depression and anxiety all have major effects on businesses.

Presenteeism and absenteeism result in employee sick leave and unfinished work-related tasks at critical moments and cost businesses dearly. The Centre for Mental Health a report entitled Mental health at work: developing the business case in 2017 which showed the cost to British employers of stress, anxiety and depression to be £1,300 per employee per year.

This reflects a significant 25.6% rise compared to the exact same study carried out by the centre (then The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health) 10 years previously. Absenteeism increased 17.9% and presenteeism 30.5% when compared to the 2006 report. The overall cost of mental health problems to the UK economy was £34.9 billion in 2016, a 34.7 percent increase from £25.9 billion in 2006.

To coincide with last year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, Cascade HR conducted a survey among UK workforce to assess the extent in which stress plays a role in the UK workforce. This found that four out of five people felt that stress had become a “way of life” for them and that, in the past 12 months, 62% of respondents found they had been stressed at work for a period of one week or more, with 20% so stressed that they had to take time off work as a result.

The report, quite rightly, pointed out that, although the number of people with mental health problems may not have significantly changed in recent years, worries about things like money and job security and so on are making it increasingly harder for people to cope.

Using awareness as a tool

Stress is an emotional experience often linked with nervousness, tension and strain, triggered by internal or external factors. We experience workplace stress when the demands and pressures put upon us outweigh our skills, experience and time limits.

Because of this shortage we are likely to feel overwhelmed and therefore unable to cope. But what tools do we have at our disposal to effectively deal with the pressure?

The first and most important notion is, that one feels this pressure always internally. Be it nervousness, fear or guilt – these are not felt “out there”, but “in here”. So, regardless the trigger, what really makes us suffer is our own inner reaction. These reactions appear when a trigger hits our inner “button”, an inner complex.

Awareness is our intimate contact with everything and connects us to objects around us and within us. It is a practical tool we can train to be used and directed at will. Awareness is the only tool that enables us to become aware that we indeed do have reactions to various situations. Also, what are the components of that “button”.

This new, emerging field in psychology goes beyond mindfulness and in addition to becoming aware of reactions, helps to identify and eliminate the “buttons”. These are totally new skills that have been unknown to humanity and are accessible through active use of awareness. So, the fundamental solution lies in practical skills to extinguish “buttons”, not in dealing with triggers or reactions, as has been the focus so far.

By training our awareness, we are more careful about where we choose to place our attention or focus. According to a study by Thompson and Gauntlett-Gilbert (2008), applied awareness creates potential for greater self-awareness, improved impulse control, and decreased emotional reactivity to challenging events.

When untrained, our awareness is at risk of being caught by random objects, including irrelevant thoughts. This wandering awareness regime can be called “monkey mind”, preventing us from concentrating, learning as well as from switching off. Untamed awareness is constantly after new stimuli and is the main reason we struggle to be “in tune” or relax.

The fact that most people don’t know how to discontinue their train of thought at will only adds to the problem. Constant thinking is one of the main cause of our worries. It is the reason we wake at 3am wandering if that email included the correct attachment or if we sent it to the correct person. The constant never-ending thinking doesn’t actually help us and is often totally counterproductive.

The irony of thinking about home when at work and of work when at home is a modern-day paradox and is something we likely do unintentionally, subconsciously. By learning to use and direct our awareness, we can focus on the actual task at hand. Meaning when we are at work we can be totally focused on our work tasks, when we are at home, we enjoy our home environment and time with our loved ones.

Once we are able to identify where our awareness is, we increase the potential to notice our reactions, automatic thoughts and feelings. We can now begin to tame our monkey mind and free ourselves from the autopilot mode that we have started to rely on too excessively.

Intrapersonal skills as practical tools

Noticing where our awareness is gives us the freedom to discern what is important in any given moment, be it related to work or our personal life. Directing of our own awareness is the most fundamental intrapersonal skill. The term intrapersonal, “intra” meaning inside, separates our inner functions and processes from the physiological functions of our physical body.

Intrapersonal skills are the foundation of work-life integration and formulate a strong base for professional skills.

Active use of awareness and learning intrapersonal skills enables us to overcome the current limitations seen in mindfulness and mediation practices. By learning, training and directing intrapersonal skills we can open our inner potential and lead ourselves towards better mental wellness. If we are mentally well, then we work well and live well.

Common examples of intrapersonal skills

  • Being able to control and lead your emotions at will. For example: Knowing what drives you to anger, frustration, inspiration or calmness.
  • Keeping your focus on task at hand as long as needed.
  • Understanding your strengths and limitations.
  • Understanding the pros and cons of taking risks or responsibilities.
  • Learning to stay calm in pressured, stressful situations.
  • Knowing how to relax.

References
Mental health at work: developing the business case:
2007 report: http://www.impact.ie/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Mental-Health-at-Work.pdf
2017 report: https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/publications/mental-health-work-business-costs-ten-years
Cascade HR report: https://www.cascadehr.co.uk/app/uploads/2018/05/2018-stress-report..pdf
Thompson and Gauntlett-Gilbert (2008): ‘Mindfulness with Children and Adolescents: Effective Clinical Application’ published in Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 13(3):395-407 · August 2008

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