Work-life balance is not the solution

We hear and read a lot about topics such as "self-management", "mental health", "resilience" and "inner world". We are looking for help to better cope with today's demands. A recent study by Techniker Krankenkasse shows that a third of Germans sometimes feel stressed and a quarter even feel this way frequently.

In its 2023 health study, the AOK shows that stress as a cause of mental illness is increasing sharply from year to year. To avoid becoming part of these statistics yourself (or to get out of them) and to be healthy and balanced, you need to do something - mental health needs to be prioritised.

Black and white or work-life?

As an executive coach, I have met a wide variety of people in different positions and areas of responsibility over the last few years. For almost all of them, stress is an issue that they want to manage better. They often feel exhausted, unfocussed, irritable, lacking in energy and dissatisfied. In most cases, those affected already have a solution that they want to implement: "I need to improve my work-life balance."

In the many conversations I had, I increasingly got the impression that "work" is seen as the dark side of power and "life" as "paradise". An attitude that generally does not correspond to reality and is not helpful for stress management. It is not uncommon to hear about private life, the house that is currently being built, sleepless nights as a young mother or father, illness in the family, problems in the partnership and much more.

Work is not the dark side of life

On the "other side", you work for a recognised brand that inspires many. You have just solved a complicated problem and sold the software to the customer. You may have been transferred to a new team and have been able to contribute and integrate well.

Against this background, the question arises as to whether "life" really only brings relaxation and energy and "work" only consumes our resources. It has helped many of my clients to reflect on this attitude and clarify what really needs to be in balance or in a healthy relationship.

Which balance really helps?

Our resilience to stress is very individual. It depends on personality traits, learned behaviours for dealing with stress (habits) and our current mental state.

Our personality is given to us and can ultimately only be changed to a limited extent. However, we have many opportunities to learn behaviours and take responsibility for our own state.

How to get to know your energy balance

I like to use the FiRE model (Factors Improving Resilience Effectiveness®) in coaching to support my clients in strengthening their crisis resilience. Based on a large number of different studies, this model suggests various fields of action that have an influence on our resilience.

One area of action, for example, is personal energy management. How do I "manage" my energy? How exactly do I know what drains my "battery" and what fills it up, and how do I take this into account in my everyday life? Finding a balance in energy management is essential, as otherwise you are constantly running on "reserve" and cannot find a way out in this state.

Reduce energy consumers

There are many triggers that rob us of energy, such as information overload, a vacuum of meaning in our activities, work intensification, a lack of social relationships and constant availability. In my coaching practice, I often hear the following statements:

"My to-do list is fuller in the evening than in the morning."

"I am very externally driven and get nothing done."

"Some of the processes I have to follow are pointless."

Of course, it's important to have enough "life" time to balance work, experience different things, relax and recharge your batteries. But would that really help with these three points? What my coachees often decide to do after our discussions is:

Becoming aware of your own effectiveness

If I start the working day with a list of to-dos in the morning and have hardly managed to do anything in the evening, I feel ineffective and therefore dissatisfied, my battery is drained. This is also the reason why many people work in the garden or do crafts in their free time. You can see what you have achieved and you can touch it.

But why is it that the list is almost unchanged in the evening? Many topics come up unplanned during the working day, have a high priority and disrupt the intended schedule - you have to leave the original daily plan. If these topics are objectively important, so that they cannot be negated, scheduled or delegated (although this must be reflected on very critically), then it often helps:

  • Include the item "Flexibility for the unplannable" in the to-do list. These issues are part of the actual task and are not disruptive factors.
  • At the end of the working day, perceive the processing of the unplannable as "done". This has a significant effect on effectiveness and satisfaction. The unplannable issues are no longer seen as disruptions, but are part of the completed tasks. This takes up less energy.

Stay in the "driver's seat"

Now, not all unplannable topics are so important that you have to drop everything and make them part of your daily task. To avoid the energy-sapping feeling at the end of a working week of having "navigated" through projects under someone else's control and losing focus, my clients often make the following resolution after meetings:

 

  • At the end of the working week, briefly reflect on which three to five focus topics are important next week. This clarity increases the likelihood of "staying on the ball".
  • Block out time in the calendar to deal with these topics. Otherwise, your calendar will fill up with other meetings and tasks. Stay consistent and prioritise your focus topics.
  • Reduce interruptions during these times and, for example, switch off your mobile phone, go to a meeting room and switch off electronic notification functions. Interruptions are a major factor in losing focus. It takes up to 20 minutes to get back to the same level of concentration after an interruption. Set aside fixed times each day to deal with messages, emails, phone calls, etc.

Finding meaning

In coaching, we often talk about tasks and processes that annoy us because the meaning and purpose behind them is unclear. Meaningfulness is an important factor for our satisfaction and therefore our stability. But what do I do with the Excel spreadsheet that I have to update regularly without knowing why? What you can ask yourself in these cases is:

  • Am I being uncomfortable enough and taking initiative to optimise this process? Or do I find myself in an observer role without initiating improvements? What would a better process look like and who do I need to convince? What specific steps am I taking to initiate change?
  • Do I have no control over this process and am I unable to exert any influence? In these cases, the question arises as to how much time and energy I am investing in the anger about this situation? Is this time and energy in reasonable proportion to the importance of the issue? Can I regulate myself and consciously reduce my anger and frustration? Can I stay out of groups that are already talking about it again?

Recharge your batteries

In addition to consciously dealing with the issues that drain our energy at work, it is just as important to regularly "recharge our batteries". What do you know about yourself that is good for you? For example, what needs to happen every day to keep you balanced? If you know this, these should be non-negotiable activities and an absolute priority. What I have learnt from my clients as effective non-negotiables are

  • Starting the day with a ritual and not reading the first emails. This can be time for breakfast, sport or exercise in general, meditation and much more.
  • Take short breaks during work for a breathing exercise. By consciously breathing calmly, we take out restlessness and hecticness. We shut down the hard drive briefly, so to speak.
  • Time for light, air, exercise and appropriate nutrition. Use breaks to take a quick walk around the block, not to eat lunch at your desk. Register how productive you are afterwards and how useful this time is.
  • Realise which activities get you into the flow and when you are full of commitment and energy. Can you do as much of this as possible or schedule it at times of the day when it helps your energy management?

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