The Quest for Work-Life Balance

Everyone’s searching for the ideal: Work-Life Balance.

Like you, I have a million things going on — too many it seems at times. But with too many balls in the air – overwhelm can get the best of me. My energy gets sapped and I have to work extra hard to produce my best work. Can you relate?

I also realize that the “too much to do” problem is usually my own fault!   

I have a copy of an Ashleigh Brilliant saying in my office, “Lord, Help me to meet this self-imposed and totally unnecessary challenge.” (Pot-Shots No. 2588). How True! I get excited about being involved in many projects; clearly, my NO button doesn’t always work. My awareness of this tendency is helping me try not to overextend myself, though. 

Help me to meet unnecessary challenges

Imbalances between work and life may be our own doing!

 

 

Because many of the readers of this blog are highly motivated nurses who likely have many balls in the air, too; I thought this topic would resonate with all of you.  Especially for those of you who are shift-workers, working while going back to school, or nurse faculty.  I mean work-life balance is a fantasy, right?

 

 

 

Is Work-Life Balance Feasible?

I think about the fact that most nursing students do not have the luxury of not working.  They have families and full-time jobs.  Throw in the rigor of school and need to excel on top of that mix – and now try to find that Work-Life balance!

Maybe the real question is, “Is Work-Life balance feasible?”  Some writers say yes. Some writers say “No” or, at least, not feasible in the way we think of a perfectly balanced scale. 

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.” 
― Alain de Botton, writer

I like Watson’s take on the topic of work-life balance: “There are times when you need to work, there are times when you need to rest, and these vary from day to day, person-to-person; different priorities, different lives” (p. 31). I agree. 

The fact is that sometimes we have to concentrate on a specific priority or task to the detriment of others.  You put other tasks aside to concentrate on the priorities. Once a priority goal is completed, you can reallocate your energy to the tasks or needs you put aside. 

These points make me think of the famous passage in Ecclesiastes 3:1 “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven….” (KJV) (turn, turn, turn…)

What are some methods you can use to try to achieve work-life balance?

Finding Work-Life Harmony

There are tons of online blog posts and articles about work-life balance: what it is, how to achieve it, how to measure it, etc. Amazon has almost 8600 book titles on this subject! So how do we get closer to that ideal of work and life being perfectly balanced? 

From what I can see, the key is to find harmony between the work you have to do and the various aspects of your life.  Identify what is important to you and plan your time to meet those goals. I think you have to be good with some uncertainty — you have to teach yourself to be okay with choosing what to work on and what to save for later.  There are times when I have to concentrate on X and Y to produce my best work … Z just has to wait.

Be Deliberate and Plan!

When I set my schedule and choose how to allot my time to certain projects, I am productive. The simple act of writing down my to-do list and identifying priorities and deadlines has helped me to reverse engineer the time I need to get my work done.  I am less stressed about deadlines because I’ve become so much better at focusing on one task at a time. I’m still not at 100%, but I’m working on it!

For example, I have multiple email accounts and [used to] check email many times throughout the day.  I’m also trying to keep my Inbox as close to zero as possible. So now I schedule time to clear and respond to email in the morning and in the evening.  I’m disciplining myself to not check my email during the time I’ve set aside for content creation (e.g., writing a blog post, creating free handouts, working on an article for my column, planning a course). I’m finding that getting into this routine is training my brain to expect concentrated work sessions. Breaks are also scheduled for brain recovery!  

Multitasking is not the answer, by the way. Research shows that, despite what we think, we don’t do our best work when we switch our focus back and forth among projects. I wrote about this in a recent post on how to stay focused

Use the Support Around You

Be clear about the importance of meeting your goals and ask your family members or significant others or colleagues to help you be successful. Talk about and set expectations, especially for time-limited goals. “Honey, this paper/grant/report is due in two weeks and I need you to know that I’ll be concentrating on getting this ready to go. Can you do the grocery shopping for the next two weeks?” Or you might ask a work colleague to cover a shift or two or a fellow faculty member to guest teach a class — think about the help you may need to get through that intense period before a deadline and ask for help. 

Trust me. Having clear expectations and asking for help can significantly lower your stress over what you need to get done and your guilt over not doing the things you think you should be doing. Hopefully, that makes sense? 

Stress Management

Mullen reported that hospital nurses could achieve more balance in their lives by managing their stress or “learn[ing] to nurse the nurse within.”(p. 97). Stress management works, whatever your role.  Her strategies included:

  • Taking a self-assessment of priority needs and stressors 
  • Acknowledging that change is necessary
  • Creating a self-care plan for lifestyle changes and self-improvement
  • Using support tools, such as a lifestyle coach, personal journal, peer accountability contracts, etc. 

“Nurses must access tools they use to advocate for their clients to help themselves make healthy lifestyle changes.” (Mullen, 2015, p. 98) 

Nurse Faculty Work

The “balls in the air” for nurse faculty include the university mission mandates of teaching, research, service, and/or practice. Each of these missions comes with their own responsibilities (teaching workload, student advising, committee work, grant writing, clinical supervision, professional activities, etc.) that must be managed. The strategies discussed can work to schedule your “seasons” (teaching, grant writing, clinical practice, etc.), too. 

According to a study by Smeltzer et al., “good” work-life balance for nurse faculty occurred with higher academic rank, faculty education experience, and years in their current position. Older age, having obtained tenure, and no involvement in clinical practice were other factors associated with a good work-life balance.

Now if you are on the tenure-track — yeah, your life is going to be overwhelming for a while, but you will have to “play the game” if you want that tenure. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be sane through it all, though. 🙂

Work-life balance is possible for faculty, but work-life integration may be the better solution. 

How is Work-Life Integration Different from Work-Life Balance?

Recently, I’ve started seeing many blog posts and online articles touting Work-Life Integration, instead of Balance. This is the realization that the boundaries between work and life are not distinct, but blurred, and therefore personal and professional work has to get done at the same time. Other names for this are work-life flexibility or work-life blend. Technology and the increase in remote workers are major drivers of this new reality. 

Friedman says that people who have been successful integrating work and life are skilled at the following principles: “be real, be whole, and be innovative.” In this case, competing demands are not at odds with life – you just have to be creative as to how they all fit. So attending your child’s soccer game and getting that report done for tomorrow is possible by leaving work early to catch the game and finishing the report at home after dinner. Granted, integration works better for nurses not tied to a strict schedule. “There are ways for everyone… to achieve professional success without always having to sacrifice the things that matter in their personal lives.”

The concept of work-life integration is still new — and many companies are accepting the fact that work-life integration is inescapable, so they have to adapt to keep employees on board. Vanderkam noted that, while many companies have started to embrace this new reality, many employers don’t have specific guidance or policies regarding how to acceptably integrate personal needs with work needs.

We will probably never perfectly balance all aspects of our lives, but according to Boogaard, Friedman, and Vanderkam we might not have to.  Integration may just make you happier in the long run.  

If you need help structuring your priority work to create better balance in your life, you might like my post and free handout on strategies to help you focus.

What do you think about work-life integration versus balance? Share your tips and strategies in the Comments!

References

Boogaard, K. (2016, August 15). Instead of work-life balance, try to achieve work-life integration. Inc. Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.inc.com/kat-boogaard/4-tips-to-better-integrate-your-work-and-life.html   

Friedman, S. (2014, October 7). What successful work and life integration looks like. Harvard Business Review.  Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/10/what-successful-work-and-life-integration-looks-like.html

Mullen, K. (2015). Barriers to work–life balance for hospital nurses. Workplace Health & Safety, 63(3), 96-99. DOI: 10.1177/2165079914565355

Smeltzer, S. C., Sharts-Hopko, N. C., Cantrell, M. A., Heverly, M. A., Jenkinson, A., & Nthenge, S. (2015). Work-life balance of nursing faculty in research- and practice-focused doctoral programs, Nursing Outlook, 63(6), 621-631. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.outlook.2015.04.008.

Watson, B. (2016). Is it possible to have a work-life balance? As nurses we have all at some time experienced shift work where you were at work and everyone else wasn’t! Australian Nursing & Midwifery Journal, 23,(8), 31.

Vanderkam, L. (2015, March 6). Work-life balance is dead — here’s why that might be a good thing. Fortune Magazine. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2015/03/06/work-life-integration/