We all have that one person in our office that seems to have it all; perfectly managing both their personal and professional lives, and making us feel worse about our own limitations to achieve the same. This feeling becomes paramount when we are forced to choose between important events in work and personal lives. However, if a recent study is anything to go by continuously thinking about achieving a perfect balance, damages our health more than we can imagine.
What is the study?
Researchers at the Oregon State University (OSU) studied 203 people, all aged between 24 and 76, each in a romantic relationship, and two-thirds of them having one or more children.
The focus was on two kinds of repetitive thinking, namely, rumination and worry. The study explains, “Repetitive thought is related to two other types of cognition that also can have adverse effects on health: rumination and worry. Rumination is persistent, redundant thinking that usually looks backward and is associated with depression; worry is also persistent, redundant thinking but tends to look forward and is typically more associated with anxious apprehension.”
The study analysed subject’s repetitive thought, or how frequently they worried about a clash between work and family life; for example, whether to attend a meeting or an important family event. In this study, “health conditions referred to a list of 22 conditions or problems, such as stroke or diabetes. Participants were scored based on how many times they answered yes. In the category of perceived health, participants were asked to rate their health on a five-point scale.”
Kelly D. Davis of OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences lead author of the study said, “The main objective of this study was to test a conceptual model in which repetitive thought explained the association between work-family conflict and health.”
What were the results?
The results showed that repeatedly worrying about striking a balance, and feeling conflicted and inadequate in situations where your lives clashed impacted health severely; by inducing stress and fatigue, decreasing the sense of satisfaction, perceiving one’s health worse than it actually is, and several other health conditions, like increasing the risk of developing blood pressure, depression, and stress.
The results established a relationship between ‘repetitive thought’ and negative effects in the health categories of life satisfaction, positive effect, negative effect, fatigue, perceived health and other health conditions. “There was support for repetitive thought as a mediator in the association between work-family conflict and all six health outcomes.” says Davis. The study notes that the problem originated from consistently and repeatedly dwelling on the divide between work and home, and pondering over it keep the stress-inducers in play, which prohibits recovery. Additionally, this challenge is shared by men and women, as well as workers without children, who could be looking after unwell elders at home.
The study advises that the best way to minimise this stress is by accepting one’s limitations, and staying in the moment. It says, “One technique that can help is mindfulness: intentionally paying attention to the present-moment experience, such as physical sensations, perceptions, affective states, thoughts and imagery, in a nonjudgmental way.” Davis suggested that instead of worrying, we should give ourselves time to plan ahead, and make sure we keep a strong network of family and friends for support.
The study also added that warding off this stress and maintaining a work-life balance cannot be only the responsibility of the employee, and employers play an important role in the process as well. Suggestions like mindfulness training or implementing a more supportive culture that acknowledges the lives of the employees outside of their work are mentioned in the study. Kelly Davis says that employers should take a cue from the study and fulfil their role in giving employees the support and space to cope with stresses of both their work and family life. She says, “... Not all of us are so fortunate to have backup plans for our family responsibilities to stop us from repetitively thinking about work-family conflict. We need changes in the ways in which organizations treat their employees. We can't deny the fact that work and family influence one another, so by improving the lives of employees, you get that return on investment with positive work and family lives spilling over onto one another.”
A perfect work-life balance seems like a utopian concept; but that must not be a deterrent for us to work towards establishing it. Even employees, who seemingly have it all, surely face challenges unique to their situation. Of course staying in the present moment, and focussing on balancing small challenges, rather than constantly worrying about the bigger picture, seems like a less worrying method to deal with the stress, but it is easier said than done.
Mindfulness, ironically, is evasive and needs a conscious effort and practice. Davis, while admitting that it is ‘near-impossible’ to address all these concerns, sums it up best, “Planning ahead and having a backup plan, having a network to support one another, those things make you better able to reduce work-family conflict. You stay in the moment and acknowledge what you are feeling, recognize that those are real feelings, and process them, putting things in perspective.” That will although require discipline, effort, and most of all, a strong will.