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A Fix for the Work-Life Imbalance

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A Fix for the Work-Life Imbalance

We are literally working ourselves to death. One age-old principle provides a solution to this growing problem.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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Melinda Gates, wife of Microsoft’s founder and multibillionaire Bill Gates, acknowledges the invasive effect technology can have these days. In a column featured on social networking site LinkedIn, she wrote that “most companies are asking employees to work more. The American workweek has soared from less than 40 hours to nearly 50…Technology has made it harder to pull away from our jobs, and easier to wonder whether a night off or a long weekend is damaging our careers.”

Mrs. Gates’ article was mainly about how women fare in today’s workplace. But her observations on how people often work excessively, technology facilitating it, is a case in point.

Work is a good thing. It makes us feel useful, productive, challenged, accomplished. Work allows us to contribute something to society, paves the way for wealth, pays the bills, and puts food on the table.

Yet, as with everything in life, work has its limits. Somewhere near the edge of those bounds, with our current ability to stay connected 24/7, a hidden trap lurks.

“Most of us know that continually logging excessive hours can be bad for our backs and brains, as well as strain relationships (especially when we type on our iPhones during family dinners),” journalist Laura Petrecca wrote for USA Today. “But it’s just one more email to send. Oh wait, it’s two, maybe three…suddenly it’s a half-hour later.”

Her article continued: “Technical advances provide employees with greater flexibility, yet there’s also the expectation that with increased access, workers will be more available, says Patrick Kulesa, director of employee research at human resources consulting firm Willis Towers Watson.

“That constantly-connected expectation comes at a time when work demands are already high. ‘There is pressure globally—it’s not constrained by borders—certainly for multinational organizations to deliver more with less and to be more productive,’ Kulesa says. It’s so difficult to escape the information onslaught that some countries have taken action to help employees maintain some sort of work-life balance.”

Yet that balance has never been so askew as today. Most of us no longer can leave the job behind when we head home. The office is now with us continually. It is on our cellphones, our laptops, our tablets. We are then confronted with an irony: achieving work-life balance now takes work. We might as well more accurately refer to it as the work-life imbalance.

Too Much of a Good Thing

In extreme cases, overworking can kill you. Sounds like a stretch? Not in Japan, where a lady made international news after it was announced she died of congestive heart failure at age 31 after logging over one hundred hours of work per week.

Several news outlets featured her story. Her death nevertheless is far from a rare, isolated event. Karoshi (Japanese for “overwork death”) is so prevalent there that some employers are implementing creative and drastic measures. One company reportedly plays the theme from the movie “Rocky” at the end of the work day to remind employees it is time to go home.

The Japanese are far from the only ones with a proclivity to break work-life balance norms. While other countries may not be at the level of karoshi, overworking is a 21st-century reality for countless professionals the world over.

Ben Waber, CEO and president of the people analytics company Humanyze, had a thought-provoking comparison in an article for news outlet Quartz: “In the US, most discussion of karoshi has assumed that overwork culture is specific to Japan. What many don’t realize is that the problem of overwork is possibly worse in the United States.”

Mr. Waber studied two years’ worth of communication data from some of his clients in both countries.

“At first glance,” he wrote, “it appears that Japanese workers extend their workdays longer, working an average of 47 minutes after 6 pm versus an average of 30 minutes for American workers…When we look into the actual timing of this work, however, it appears that workers at Japanese companies aren’t working as much through the late hours. In Japan, about 58% of all e-mails after 6 pm are sent between 6 pm and 7 pm. By contrast, in US companies only 25% of these emails are sent between 6 pm and 7 pm, implying that, in the US, workers tend to splice work into their home lives to a greater degree.”

What about other countries? According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Better Life Index website, out of the 20 countries it monitors: “Turkey is by far the country with the highest proportion of people working very long hours, with 39%, followed by Mexico with nearly 28% and Israel with over a sixth of employees.”

All this overworking is counterproductive and detrimental to our health. It puts an extra toll on our hearts due to stress. As a Harvard Business School/Stanford University study put it a few years ago, stress at work can be just as damaging to a worker’s health as secondhand smoke.

According to the American Institute of Stress, “studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. Increased levels of job stress as assessed by the perception of having little control but lots of demands have been demonstrated to be associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and other disorders. In New York, [Los Angeles], and other municipalities, the relationship between job stress and heart attacks is so well acknowledged, that any police officer who suffers a coronary event on or off the job is assumed to have a work related injury and is compensated accordingly…”

To summarize: chronic overwork equals karoshi on the installment plan.

Undesirable Side Effects

A slew of unhealthy habits can be traced back to overworking. “All too often the things we do to cope are not healthy,” Wendell Potter wrote in a post featured by Thrive Global, a start-up that strives “to end the stress and burnout epidemic.”

Mr. Potter continued describing that his was “drinking too much. And like a lot of other people, I bought things I didn’t need, racking up credit card debt and finding out, repeatedly, that instant gratification is just that, gratification that barely lasts an instant. Many of us buy bigger and fancier houses than we need, and take on more mortgage debt than we know we should, further assigning ourselves to a hamster wheel that all too soon seems impossible to get off. We become enslaved to our employer and our creditors.”

Other detrimental behaviors that stem from overworking include excess caffeine intake, impulse eating, smoking and drug abuse.

Beyond these self-destructive effects, overworking can also take a damaging toll on relationships. Spouses and families must compete with jobs.

Chronic over-workers are absent from family gatherings. They miss their children’s concerts, sports games, and parent-student nights. They claim to not have time for a date night. Their conversations are mainly about their jobs, which makes them seem self-absorbed and plain boring. They bristle anytime someone even hints they are working too much.

You likely experience some or all of these symptoms. Or you have a loved one who does.

Long-term Fix

If you are staring in the face of the work-life imbalance, the quest to reach equilibrium can seem daunting, impossible. Yet realize that you must be alive to work! So, what can you do to restore order?

Recall that work is good. Overwork is not. The plain antidote to overwork is rest. Rest is the part of life that has the power to counteract the effects of overwork.

In the book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang wrote: “I argue that we misunderstand the relationship between work and rest. Work and rest are not polar opposites. You cannot talk about rest without also talking about work. Writing about only one is like writing a romance and naming only one of the lovers.”

Rest’s positive effects on work productivity are nothing new. Some employers partially support this principle through promoting “stop days”—days off, or at least without meetings, or interruptions—or “tech sabbaths,” which are days without interaction with technology.

“Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, perhaps best known her film Connected and for founding the Webby Awards, goes without electronics from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday every week—a kind of Tech Shabbat…” a 2013 Fast Company story stated. “Her whole family takes the time with her. She says it turns every weekend into a mini-vacation and prevents the technology fatigue that’s so ever-present among those of us who spend all day in front of screens.”

The principle behind “sabbaticals” is alike. Sabbaticals is a manmade idea derived from the biblical command to take a year off from farming every seven years, to allow for a “land sabbath”—a full year of rest for the land.

In all these initiatives, the idea is to rest, or disconnect, from whatever environment is sapping your energy, focus and time to strike a balance. It is a way to allow time to compensate for extreme work.

It is unsurprising that some of these practices allude to the term “Sabbath.” What may surprise you is that within the original “day of rest” command, a fix for the work-life imbalance was prescribed thousands of years ago.

In the first book of the Bible—a Book read by many prominent professionals—it states, “On the seventh day God ended His work which He had made” (Gen. 2:2).

The fourth commandment reveals how to strike a perfect, God-ordained work-life balance: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God: in it you shall not do any work” (Deut. 5:13-14).

Realize that the language makes the Sabbath non-negotiable rest time. Additionally, this command not only contains instruction to rest on the seventh-day Sabbath, but also to work outside of it. One action complements the other. It shows the appropriate work-life balance in action and essentially defines overwork as anything done outside a six-day framework.

Setting 24 hours aside for the Sabbath, out of 168 hours in a week, goes a long way in helping solve the work-life imbalance. It is much more comprehensive than a “tech sabbath,” a “stop day,” a “sabbatical,” or simply having “weekends off.” It is a day to be recharged wholly—physically and spiritually.

When done right, keeping the Sabbath can be utterly transformative. This millennia-old principle is still helping many people today keep themselves from the dangers of overworking. For more on what the Bible outlines for this weekly day of rest, read Saturday or Sunday – Which Is the Sabbath?

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