Your work-life juggling act just got a little trickier

Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

If you've been in the healthcare workforce a while, chances are you've spent some time pondering this mythical idea of “work-life balance.”

We at McKnight's certainly have, from conferences that fall during holidays to appeasing prospective millennial employees who expect their job to encourage and accommodate work-life balance. After all, achieving some form of work-life balance has been proven to improve employee productivity, reduce staff turnover, and make for a healthier, happier staff overall.

So imagine my surprise when a study crossed my radar last week that basically concluded that my current beliefs — that to achieve work-life balance you have to actively think about it — may be wrong.

According to researchers at Oregon State University's College of Public Health and Human Sciences, repeatedly thinking about the conflicts between your work life and your personal life may be adding on to the stress instead of remedying it. Their analysis of roughly 200 workers found that “repetitive thoughts” about how their career interferes with their home and social life may negatively impact overall life satisfaction, perceived health and other health conditions, as well as causing fatigue, worry and negative moods.

We don't necessarily need a study to tell us that over-thinking anything probably isn't going to make us healthier. But this recent research — appropriately published in Health and Stress — throws a wrench in the ongoing struggle to find work-life balance. How can we reach the right mix of career and personal life without thinking about it? How do we know when we've crossed that line from “actively pursuing work-life balance” to “you'll make yourself sick if you keep worrying about this?”

Lead researcher Kelly D. Davis, Ph.D., thankfully has some suggestions for what employees can do when faced with these repetitive thoughts. The biggest recommendation? Use mindfulness — intentionally paying attention to your current thoughts, perceptions and physical sensations in a “nonjudgmental” way — to think about your work-life concepts without overdoing it.

“You stay in the moment and acknowledge what you are feeling, recognize that those are real feelings, and process them, putting things in perspective,” Davis said.

Davis offers the example of having to miss a child's baseball game because of a late-afternoon meeting. Instead of thinking repeatedly about the conflict, a person in this scenario could “acknowledge the disappointment and frustration he was feeling as legitimate, honest feelings, and then also think in terms of ‘these meeting conflicts don't happen that often, there are lots of games left for me to watch my child play, etc.'”

But employees shouldn't have to work on balancing their thoughts about work-life balance alone — strategies at an organizational level can benefit the entire workplace, Davis adds.

“For example, a business could implement mindfulness training or other strategies in the workplace that make it a more supportive culture, one that recognizes employees have a life outside of work and that sometimes there's conflict,” Davis said. “There can be a good return on investment for businesses for managing work-family stress, because positive experiences and feelings at home can carry over to work and vice versa.”

Acknowledging and accepting the fact that our work and family lives have an impact on each other, instead of dwelling on it, may be a key strategy for those of us trying to balance the two.

For organizations looking to recruit new employees, and keep the current ones happy, Davis' suggestion for mindfulness could be the missing piece in the work-life balance puzzle. Let employees know that your facility is a good, supportive environment to work in — and that you understand there are times when they'll have to attend to matters outside your walls.

It may seem like a complicated juggling routine, but take this new research to heart. After all, a rational, mindful juggler is probably going to perform better than one who's stressed out and frazzled.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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