Achieving a healthy work-life balance has always been difficult, but let’s face it, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the age-old challenge of setting boundaries immensely. The data seems to agree: the pandemic has resulted in a massive decline in mental health, with 53% of Americans feeling that their mental health was negatively impacted. And among those who were forced to shelter in place, 47% reported increased stress and anxiety.
Those numbers are high, but not surprising. Every facet of life has changed, including— and maybe even especially— our work lives. With the rise in remote work, less and less people are commuting to and from an office. This means the distinction between personal life and professional life gets blurry— you’re no longer stepping out of your home and into an office, or vice versa, and without those physical distinctions, it can be more difficult to create mental ones, too.
This implies that for some of us, perhaps now more than ever, we are struggling to draw healthy boundaries. In fact, the average worker puts in 48 minutes long per day as a result of remote work. On a day-to-day basis, this may not seem so significant, but this adds up to 188 extra hours per year. That’s more than a month of work weeks!
So whether you’re feeling the strain in trying to balance your mental health, or you’re struggling to create boundaries between work and life, it’s time to make room for changes and practices that can help you find your work life balance.
- Set boundaries at work
Maybe you’ve made the mistake of setting the precedent that you’re available to respond to an email no matter the day or time, or maybe people can always count on you to say “yes,” that you’re beginning to spread yourself too thin.
The thing is, though, that it’s not too late to start saying “no.” Now, the delicate thing here is learning how to say “no” without too abrasively saying “no!” Know what I mean? If not, here’s a helpful example. Let’s say you receive a work email at 9:30pm. Unless it’s immediately pressing, wait until the start of business hours the following morning, and respond promptly, but don’t apologize for the delay. By doing this, you’re implicitly saying “no” to working late hours.
- If you’re working from home, build your schedule as if you were going to the office
Like I mentioned before, I think one of the hardest things about working from home is that it removes all the normal structure of our days, including a commute. Commutes can be a hassle, but they also give you time to yourself; in the morning, a commute can give you the necessary time to prepare for the day, and in the evening, time to relax and unwind.
Because many of us no longer have the normal commute, we have to find a way to get creative. I have a friend who, every morning since March 2020, has taken a walk before work. Or sometimes he’ll get in his car and go for a drive, or get a cup of coffee. According to him, he feels ready to tackle the day because of this new habit he created for himself in the wake of the pandemic.
And, by the way, walking is actually one of the best things you can do to recalibrate your brain for work. A Stanford study found that when participants were performing mental tasks, walking gave a major boost to creative thinking.
With that being said, walking’s not the only way to get yourself in the right, alert mindset for work. Take a real lunch break, go out and pick up lunch and take some real time for yourself. Sign up for 6 p.m. yoga class, or make plans for a virtual drink. Maybe take a bubble bath, or unwind with a glass of wine after the workday.
- Do a cell phone detox
This day and age, this can seem like one of the hardest things to do. I mean, 35% of Americans check their phones more than 50 times a day, and almost half of us have no problem admitting we don’t think we could live a day without our smartphones. But despite how attached we feel to our devices, disconnecting is one of the most impactful things we can do in creating a healthy work life balance.
The digital-age we live in is still relatively new, so studies are just beginning to explain the effects of smartphone use on mental health. A study of 300 graduate university students linked smartphone addiction to anxiety and depression.
The negative effects of excessive phone use varies from person to person, but it’s valuable for anyone to take a break from the phone.
You can start to detach yourself from your tiny little computer by cutting yourself off before bed. The blue light from your phone screen can suppress your brain’s production of melatonin, a natural sleep hormone, and hence disrupt your circadian rhythm.
And, anyway, beyond the positive effects that setting limits on phone use can have on your mental health, taking time away from your phone will help you set better boundaries around work communications outside of working hours.
- Prioritize sleep
Sleep is so, so important for your overall health. The CDC recommends no less than seven hours of sleep per night for adults, and a study found that sleep deprivation can lead to mood effects including anger, irritability, general sadness, and mental fatigue.
Insomnia and trouble sleeping can be a part of many common mental health conditions including anxiety and depression. Given all this, you want to keep in mind that something as simple as sleep can contribute to creating a healthy work life balance.
Here are some tips from the CDC on how to improve sleep hygiene:
- Avoid screens before bed.
- Consistency is key. Make an effort to go to sleep and wake at the same time every day.
- Darkness, consistent temperature, and anything else you can do to make your bedroom a relaxing environment.
- Daily exercise.
- Avoid sugar or caffeine before bed. This means cutting off caffeinated drinks four to six hours before you go to sleep.
- Schedule time for personal and professional development
A huge part of maintaining a healthy work-life balance has to do with investing in yourself outside of the workplace. Make time for personal and professional development outside of the work.
Start with 15 minutes a day, or maybe make sure that you’re getting three to five hours per week in engaging with personal development materials. In my opinion, TED Talks are a fun and interesting way to engage with new ideas that will grow your mindset and help you develop new skills.
If you’re looking for one to get you started on an enriching TED rabbit hole, check out my recent TEDx talk, “How to figure out what you really want.”
Other great resources are:
- Coursera. This platform offers free courses taught by leading experts at universities around the globe.
- Lumosity. Lumosity is designed to be a fun and fulfilling workout for your brain, so whether you want to improve your writing, your math skills, or your scientific thinking, this is the place to do it.
- Wikipedia. Ok, this may seem like a strange one, but Wikipedia gives you the ability to deep dive into new subjects with ease. If you’re ever beginning to take interest in a certain topic, Wikipedia is a great place to start.
There’s no way of overstating how important it is to draw boundaries between your professional and personal self. People are complex, and gratification can come to us in many different forms, so it’s absolutely critical to maintain a healthy work-life balance. It may sound cheesy, but it’s true: self-care is the surest way of being the best person you can be both in and outside of the office. If you’re struggling with work life balance, don’t be afraid to prioritize your mental health!