We hear a lot about how important it is to get the ‘right’ work-life balance, but what does that even mean?
Technically work-life balance (WLB) is defined as ‘the division of one’s time and focus between working and family or leisure activities’, and I think we all know the literal meaning of the term! However, it’s important to remember that the concept of work-life balance can have different meanings to different individuals, and having the ‘right’ work-life balance can vary for people, and for us all at different stages of our lives.
Since starting VetYogi I have had lots of conversations with veterinary professionals about work-life balance, and it’s apparent that the vets and nurses who consider themselves to have a good WLB are happier in their day-to-day lives, and vice versa. This has been backed up numerous times in studies done across the business world (including within the veterinary profession), which have shown that employees with a healthy work-life balance are happier, healthier, more productive, and take less time off, and those who feel they have a poor work-life balance are less satisfied, and more likely to leave their place of work. I’ve also spoken to some people who never really stop to consider what their WLB is, and some who view ‘work-life balance’ as just yet another thing to stress over and worry that they aren’t doing it properly!
I’ve been thinking a fair amount recently about what ‘work-life balance’ means to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m back in New Zealand, where a good work-life balance mindset is already in place (Work-life balance crucial for Kiwis), or because I’ve been setting up my diary for the next couple of months, and paying attention to how much work I am booking, whilst taking care to leave time to explore NZ.
I know from my own experience as a locum vet that during the times in the past when I have overbooked myself and taken too much on, I am obviously more fatigued, but also usually have higher levels of stress and anxiety, don’t sleep as well, and can be more irritable. I’m also less likely to go out and do the things I enjoy in what little free time I may have, because I have given too much time and energy to work. I have become much better over the years at managing my own schedule, whilst still giving when it’s needed (i.e. absolutely not just walking out the door at 7pm when mayhem has ensued at the clinic), but learning to say no when I feel it is appropriate, without feeling guilty.
However, for me the opposite is also true; as much as I love a good holiday, (and those who know me can attest to my travel addiction), after a few weeks off I am usually raring to get back to work. It’s wonderful to have the time to unwind and not be in work mode, and I appreciate that I am very lucky with all of the travelling I do, but there is honestly only so much time off my driven and busy mind can handle without being keen to go back to the job that helps to give me purpose! I suppose that is why is is called work-life balance, because as much as the idea of it being all ‘life’ is tempting (especially initially), it’s not realistic or achievable for the vast majority of us, nor is it actually what I want.
Don’t get me wrong, I realise that is easier to say when you have the option of taking a few weeks off when needed, and for many that is not realistic due to practice/work commitments, family/mortgage/bills, etc. I recognise that my current choices allow me to locum and travel freely, which is what I love, but then on the other hand it’s because I choose not to have a mortgage/practice responsibilities/children/pets at the moment that I am able to do what I do. Those things may become more important to me in time, in which case a lifestyle change and shift in balance will be needed.
From my general musings and reading on the subject, here are some points about work-life balance that I think are important to remember:
- It’s individual. Some people need more time off than others for various reasons, others thrive off spending more time at work whilst doing some or few recreational activities.
- It’s transitional. At certain times of our lives we will want to tilt the balance in favour of work, e.g. when we are learning new things intensively (like an internship/certificate study/in-house training), or increasing our level of responsibility (e.g. becoming a new partner/head of department). At other times we will want to increase our ‘life’ balance, e.g. starting a family, coming towards the end of your career, time off to recover from an injury/illness, or prioritising time to do something outside of work, like travel or write a book, etc!
- It’s imperfect. Constantly striving to achieve a ‘perfect’ work-life balance will likely add to your stress and sense of dissatisfaction, because it’s very rarely obtainable. Be realistic and aim for a ‘better’ work-life balance.
- It’s imbalanced. For a lot of us (myself included) we’re not actually spending 50% of time at work, and 50% doing leisure or family activities. Most of us will be spending more time at work, and that’s ok. How you get a good sense of balance can be making sure you do have enough time off to do the things you enjoy and spend time with people you love, and that some of your time off is spent pursuing what is right for you at that time. Sometimes that may be organising a big family dinner, maybe escaping to the mountains with friends, but other times it might be taking a day to yourself and doing nothing, if you need a day of rest.
- It’s up to you! Only you can improve or maintain your work-life balance. Identify where your areas of imbalance are, and set small targets for how you can spend more time in an area you would like to, and less in a negatively pervasive one. Establish some small boundaries with your friends/family and colleagues, perhaps something like a fixed day off so you can attend the sports team practice/choir/art group, etc.
If you want to reflect on how you feel about your current WLB, take The VetYogi Work-Life Balance Quiz to get you thinking about if there are any small changes you could make.
Oh, and here’s my predictably biased tip: practice yoga and meditation to give your mind, body and soul what it needs during your time off, and regain your balance! #stethoscopedownyogaup (Sorry, I just had to….)
(2006) Work-related stress in the veterinary profession in New Zealand, New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 54:3, 119-124,