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Let the dog out, pick up the kids from daycare, remember the orthodontist appointment, stop at the grocery store for dinner ingredients… the list goes on. Each day, people have to juggle multiple to-do lists—the one for work deadlines, the household chores, and the list it takes to be functional as a human (shower, iron, etc.). Is work-life balance a real concept? It may not be a reality for many individuals living in the United States. In fact, many workplaces adhere to a particularly rigid schedule that makes flexing time for personal or family reasons nearly impossible.

With time management systems that require clocking in and clocking out to the minute for breaks and at the beginning and end of the day, flexibility sounds like a joke. Badging, missed punches, and time sheets all give the impression of mistrust and scrutiny. Instead of a focus on deadlines and results, many workplaces emphasize time spent in the office. People are praised for making it in to work during storms and for having perfect attendance. Merit awards exist, but there are few, if any, awards for the most work accomplished from off site.

Some careers, like dentistry, allow for selecting a customized schedule. Patients can be seen at differing times throughout the week, based on a dentist’s availability. Unfortunately, many other professions do not afford the same luxury.

“Balance” suggests that work and the rest of life are both separate and divided equally. If someone is really working in a career that they love, perhaps they consider it part of the “life” category. It is important to define expectations for each individual about ideally how much time would be spent working versus living. If these are indeed separate categories, there may even be cause to examine whether the individual’s career is a fulfilling fit for their lifestyle. Having control over different aspects of life (work, exercise, family responsibilities, household) is an important factor. Typically, people are more satisfied when they have control over areas of their lives and know what to expect versus having to deal with unexpected circumstances regularly.

Achieving some sort of satisfaction from the amount of work an individual does may be critical to health. High levels of stress can be detrimental physically. As cortisol (a stress hormone) is released into the body, it engages the sympathetic nervous system and a fight-or-flight response. Continuation of this response over an extended period of time wears the body down and depresses the abilities of the immune system. People who have high stress jobs are likely to be overweight, which correlates with cardiovascular difficulties and even diabetes. While a little pressure may help to motivate employees to meet deadlines, extended periods of stress have critical impacts on physical health.

When people are allowed to flex their schedules in order to meet life and family needs, stress is relieved and people are just as productive, if not more so. When people can work off site at times of their choice, they get more done. A forty hour week is becoming rarer, and people appreciate being able to pick the long hours they work. Beyond productivity, these individuals are more satisfied with life overall. This sort of flexibility honors the needs for self-care, rejuvenation, and recharging that all humans have. There is a multitude of ways for workplaces to adopt transparency and flexibility into scheduling. The more organizations that accommodate the pace of life, the more employees will respond positively. Productivity will improve in the long run.

Achieving balance between work and the other parts of life is crucial for people’s mental and physical health. As the pace of life outside of work increases, more demand for flexibility will emerge. Individuals should take initiative to make their schedules work for them to remain satisfied and healthy.

 

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