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Achieving a Healthy Work-life Balance

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By Deepak Santhiraj, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

A former U.S. Gallup Poll report highlights that the average full-time American worker engages in work-related activities for more than 47 hours on average each week. This has become substantially more than even Western European nations as Germany and Sweden that work on average of 35 hours a week. Additionally, most Americans receive around two weeks of paid vacation and about 54% actually take a vacation. A research correspondence found that 1 in 5 Americans actually eat lunch during their breaks, but the rest are chained to their desk and work through the typical lunch time, skipping meals to be productive and engaged within the workplace. In nations like Sweden, built-in breaks exist, called the fika, where a coffee break with opportunities to socialize with other employees are supported during the work day.

work-life balance

Taking breaks throughout the day have proven to demonstrate increases in creativity, focus, and retention of information. Many other cultures, contrastingly, maintain a punctuative distinction between work life and personal life. According to the International Labour Organization, Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours than the British and 499 more hours per year than French workers.

Recently, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that Americans have increased in work productivity by 400% in contrast to 1950. Author Juliet Schor, who wrote the bestseller The Overworked American in 1992, gave evidence and reflected that in 1990 Americans worked an average of about one month more per year than in 1970. Americans work more so than anyone else within the industrialized world, take less vacation time, work longer days, and retire later in life. The data trends continue to reflect the current statistical significance of Americans working demanding hours, and the global perception remains that “Americans don’t stop working.”

This current work-life imbalance has created cultural assumptions about the hurried pace of life as part of a generation’s mindset. We attest to an American culture that values productivity, efficiency, and quickness in speed. Being in a hurry describes the current pace of a lifestyle fully immersed within the digital age, and a preoccupation with work efficiency has produced a cultural bias toward hurry. As part of this cultural matrix, hurry fails to create present-tense enjoyment of the journey and rushes us into the final destination. The current mindset declares, “Being in a hurry is evidence of my importance. Hurry is efficiency, and it is productive.” Within the digital age, technology has promised to increase leisure time and bring us a more unhurried existence; yet, being filled with more work and activity every minute has created more distraction and weariness.

Yes, more is being accomplished but few now argue that life is more meaningful. New fields of research are starting to address time pathologies with facing time pressure, time urgency, and hurry sickness. Living at an accelerated pace of life has produced an increasingly fragmented sense of self that results in: becoming more easily emotionally overwhelmed, reacting more sensitively with chronic sensory arousal, and experiencing difficulty in remaining indifferent toward everyday activities that bring pleasure and joy.

Understanding the implications of biological intelligence as it relates to bodily rhythms of rest can prove to be transformative for individuals, communities, and ultimately societal regions. Some of history’s greatest geniuses chose not to resist their biological capacities and developed healthy rhythms of rest as built into their everyday life schedules.

work-life balance

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang gives consideration of these biological factors for developing a healthy rhythm of rest. Creatives throughout history as G.H. Hardy, a great mathematician of the 20th century and widely celebrated author for his life story, worked for four hours at a time, being most productive in the mornings and establishing breaks in between hours. Another great physicist and mathematician, Henri Poincare, typically worked from 10AM-12PM and 5-7PM, and his creative work was reflected through his operations as Chief Engineer for the French National Corps des Mines. Each of their work lifestyles, along with many others throughout contemporary history, can provide us instructive and inspirational thought into the biological link between the body and the brain, and reflect times of highest alertness based on these biological clocks.

The interval of 90-minute periods between work and rest are proven through current research studies. Typically, our sleep cycles operate in 90-minute sleep stages to provide the body and brain valuable rest needed for optimal functioning. Current-day industrial consultants reflect that 90-minute cycles of work and productivity are ideal, and beyond this work productivity ceases to become as meaningful.

Even the exercise movement of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) proves this current research that the brain and body maximizes intense activity with periods of rest following, and the optimal time frame being at 90 minutes. Having dynamic periods of work and rest allow for the body and brain to unite and sync into one information system, providing advantages for learning and regrowth.

How to Create a Healthy Work-life Balance:

1. Human creative activity, whether related to “brain” or “brawn,” is limited by fatigue that is biologically limited. Pang notes varied studies where the most productive scientists worked the least hours at “creative” work—10-20 hours a week.

2. Rest periods are required for the gains of intense activity to be recorded and maintained. Sleep is a special kind of rest where muscle and mental memory are sifted, refined, and recreated. Understand the better habits to a healthy lifestyle of sleep here.

3. Build in regular breaks within your work day if possible. Ninety minutes seems to be a particular cycle for optimal human creativity and productivity.

4. Much of “ordinary” work, like Poincare’s rebuilding of the French train system, can be accomplished during “downtime” from more intensely creative work.

5. Age sets different capacities for different kinds of creative work. Athletes and mathematicians need the agility and combinatorial chemistry of youth for certain kinds of achievements, while experience can lead to different kinds of powerful aesthetic and social creativity in later years.

6. Like aging, biological clocks benefit from different kinds of creativity. Many writers and mathematicians describe their best work as occurring during morning hours, with major exceptions for night owls.

Both doing and being  are not entirely synonymous, and at times the root problem of Americans that are overworking is the comfort of doing something. We typically maintain the belief of efficiency and have been conditioned by its effect: when we rest and cease from work, it feels selfish, lazy, irresponsible, and even unproductive. We realize the need to rest, but we do not acknowledge the value of rest as an end to itself but rather only worthwhile to help recharge us to become even more efficient for the next period of productivity.

Many Americans struggle to enter into the goodness of rest as an end to itself and feel valuable when able to check off items on the to-do list. Yet, good work is a direct outflow from good rest. Those that are consistently living a hurried life feel that they live in a constricted world that has narrower and smaller dimensions: narrower in vision and smaller in perspective on what matters most.

Getting snared by the belief that we are what we do is a common misinterpretation of our innate human worth. Essentially, what we do is an expression of who we are. Contrastly, what we do does not contribute to adding more or less to our human worth. Not understanding this reversal to primary and secondary identity can add an unhealthy drivenness to the human condition.

We must tap into biological intelligence to carve out measures of personal success in creativity and work productivity. Within the digital age when much of Western work lifestyles are dominated by acquisition of knowledge and long periods of work, it becomes imperative to intensely work with periods of intensely resting for optimal results. As the future of work continues to be dominated by knowledge industries, we must recognize that the human body is not a machine that can work unceasingly for long hours – which ultimately will lead to burnout, fatigue, and poor performance.

We must attend to our biological rhythms, limits, and capacities that ache for rest and play intertwined with work. Hyperactivity may produce impressive quantitative results, but consequently are we settling for obvious outward success at the expense of lasting soul-satisfying outcomes for our inner lives? Developing biological intelligence promotes the work life balance we desire. If we take heed to our biological intelligence, we have the invitation to live an unhurried and fruitful life.

Recommended Resources:

  • Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to a Culture of Now by Walter Brueggemann
  • High Performance Habits by Brendon Burchard
  • Lead With Balance: How To Master Work-Life Balance in an Imbalanced Culture by Donnie Hutchinson
  • The Life You’ve Always Wanted by John Ortberg Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World by A.J. Swoboda