Expert Health Articles

Work Life Balance

Nancy ProctorNancy Proctor, BSN, MAE

Education/Patient Experience Manager

The World Health Organization defines wellness as “complete physical, mental and emotional wellness, not merely the absence of disease and infirmity.” Gone are the black and white days when being “at ease” meant you were healthy and being at “dis-ease” meant you were physically ill.  Many authors further identify wellness as a balance in six dimensions: physical, emotional, spiritual, social, intellectual and environmental. The caveat is, being extremely successful in one or two does not make up for inadequacies in the others. The goal is balance. We hear a lot lately about “work-life balance” and its benefit to results in the work place and wellness in the individual. The challenge is when you put three or four different generations in the work place and expect them to agree on work-life balance, their differences in thinking can be a source of conflict.

Consider the baby boomers’ mantra of “living to work.” This group never questioned that an 80 hour work week was more productive than a 40 hour one. Time at work meant results. Fast forward to Generation X who decided a healthier outlook was to “work to live,” and began wondering if being at work for 80 hours didn’t necessarily equate to better results and certainly diminished optimal health in several dimensions in and out of the workplace. The Millennials, or Generation Y, seem to have put it all together based on a few truths we’ve all learned along the way.

Ultradian Rhythms related to adult attention spans are defined as 90-120 min cycles that take us from high energy to physiologic troughs (intellectual dimension). Without a break after one of these cycles, results and productivity decrease dramatically. Throw in ten to fifteen minutes in another dimension, such as a walk outside (physical dimension) or a brief chat with a friend/co-worker (social dimension), ten minutes of deliberate breathing or meditation (spiritual dimension) and you’re ready to restart your rhythm at high energy. Some would perceive these kinds of breaks equally as integral to results as the intellectual dimension, while others would see them as an excuse to do your job in a less than effective way.

There’s also the mind, body connection, meaning conditioning your body for movement conditions your mind for confidence, productivity, creativity and happiness. As Dr. Shawn Achor says, “When you exercise it teaches your brain that your behavior matters.” How many of us neglect our physical dimension to stack our intellectual one? Could it be that given a four-hour block of time to achieve an intellectual goal and using one hour of it in another dimension we could be even more productive in the other three hours resulting in a higher level of intellectual, physical and emotional wellness?

Some of us take time in our social and emotional dimensions in the form of vacation, but do we really get the full benefit of participating in these dimensions, thus increasing our wellness? Or, do we continue to multi-task by temporarily shifting our attention from one task to another such as stopping to answer an email or taking a phone call. This negates the re-energizing effect of taking a break, and we never fully relax. At work, multi-tasking increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25 percent - a phenomenon known as “switching time.” It is better to fully focus 90-120 minutes, take a true break, then fully focus on the next the activity (i.e. Ultradian Sprints and when on vacation, unplug!)

Dr. Susan Jeffers wrote the book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Here, she asks the reader to take a tic tac toe grid and fill in each square with something that defines them. She concedes WORK is almost always in the middle square, but how would you fill in the other eight? What she found was most baby boomers are hard pressed to fill in even two or three more and begin to realize their intellectual dimension dominates their life, leaving the rest sorely empty and their level of wellness less than optimal. Gen X and Y are more successful, but risk being admonished and having to defend themselves in the work place for their better balance.

Our spiritual dimension defines our values and beliefs that drive our behavior and productivity. Do you have one? Do you listen to it? Does your spiritual dimension jive with your workplace culture and values, or are you in constant conflict? If so, this is not a good recipe for wellness.

The national Healthy People initiative suggests that health is measured by life expectancy, conditions from which people die and dollars spent on health care. I posit that balance in all dimensions of wellness affect these measures. Furthermore, it might be something to pay more attention to and even consider shifting the “work place paradigm” to include and appreciate time spent in all dimensions with the goal of driving results and wellness.