Work/Life Balance Lowers Stress for Better Mental Health

For Mental Health Month this May, in partnership with others exploring how Work-life Balance, Humor, Social Interaction and Recreation; Spirituality and Religion, and Animal Companionship, all play roles to help people improve mental health. And when it comes to work, of course, we all need it so that we can provide for ourselves and our loved ones. However, for many, work takes over their life, which can negatively affect both physical and mental health.

Over time, continued strain on your body from routine stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, as well as mental disorders like depression or anxiety.”1a

The National Institute of Mental Health

Stress and Mental Health

In fact, in a survey taken by the Harvard School of Public Health, they found that half of all Americans had a major life event, such as a death of a loved one or job loss in the last year that caused them stress. They also found that one in four American felt high levels of stress at least once a month, every month.1b

The mental and physical health impacts of workplace burnout and stress are estimated to cost “anywhere from $125 to $190 billion dollars a year” (upwards of $6,025 per second) in healthcare spending in the U.S.

Michael Blanding, “National Health Costs Could Decrease if Managers Reduce Work Stress

In their report this month, Mental Health America cautions that over time stress “weakens our immune systems, and makes us susceptible to a variety of ailments from colds to backaches to heart disease. The newest research shows that chronic stress can actually double our risk of having a heart attack. That statistic alone is enough to raise your blood pressure!”2

Not all stress is bad.
Stress can motivate people to prepare or perform, like when they need to take a test or interview for a new job. Stress can even be life-saving in some situations. In response to danger, your body prepares to face a threat or flee to safety. In these situations, your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity—all functions aimed at survival.

National Institute of Mental Health

Of course, the key to managing stress is balance. In a study of seven cultures, the Journal of Vocational Behavior reported, “People who feel they have good work-life balance are more satisfied with their job and their life, and experience fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.”3 While that sounds good the problem is, according to Gallup survey, that more than half of all working Americans are putting in more than 50 hours per week leaving little time for that balance.4

In their own survey, Mental Health America found:

  • “More than half of people who responded to MHA’s Work Health Survey say that they do unhealthy things (e.g. drinking, drug use, lashing out at others) to cope with workplace stress.
  • “Over 75% of people are afraid of getting punished for taking a day off to attend to their mental health.
  • “More than two-thirds of people have had their sleep negatively affected by workplace issues.
  • “People who work in manufacturing, retail, and food/beverage jobs were most likely to report that work stress ‘Always or Often’ impacted their personal relationships.”

To counter all of this they offer these practical steps we take to “loosen the grip that stress has on us and win back the balance in our lives. Read on and reap the benefits:”

Balance At Work

  • Set manageable goals each day. Being able to meet priorities helps us feel a sense of accomplishment and control. The latest research shows that the more control we have over our work, the less stressed we get. So be realistic about workloads and deadlines. Make a “to do” list, and take care of important tasks first and eliminate unessential ones. Ask for help when necessary.
  • Be efficient with your time at work. When we procrastinate, the task often grows in our minds until it seems insurmountable. So when you face a big project at work or home, start by dividing it into smaller tasks. Complete the first one before moving on to the next. Give yourself small rewards upon each completion, whether it’s a five-minute break or a walk to the coffee shop. If you feel overwhelmed by routines that seem unnecessary, tell your boss. The less time you spend doing busy work or procrastinating, the more time you can spend productively, or with friends or family.
  • Ask for flexibility. Flex time and telecommuting are quickly becoming established as necessities in today’s business world, and many companies are drafting work/life policies. If you ask, they might allow you to work flexible hours or from home a day a week. Research shows that employees who work flexible schedules are more productive and loyal to their employers.
  • Take five. Taking a break at work isn’t only acceptable, it’s often encouraged by many employers. Small breaks at work—or on any project—will help clear your head, and improve your ability to deal with stress and make good decisions when you jump back into the grind.
  • Tune in. Listen to your favorite music at work to foster concentration, reduce stress and anxiety, and stimulate creativity. Studies dating back more than 30 years show the bene
  • Communicate effectively. Be honest with colleagues or your boss when you feel you’re in a bind. Chances are, you’re not alone. But don’t just complain—suggest practical alternatives. Looking at a situation from someone else’s viewpoint can also reduce your stress. In a tense situation, either rethink your strategy or stand your ground, calmly and rationally. Make allowances for other opinions, and compromise. Retreat before you lose control, and allow time for all involved to cool off. You’ll be better equipped to handle the problem constructively later.
  • Give yourself a break. No one’s perfect! Allow yourself to be human and just do the best you can.

Balance At Home

  • Unplug. The same technology that makes it so easy for workers to do their jobs flexibly can also burn us out if we use them 24/7. By all means, make yourself available—especially if you’ve earned the right to “flex” your hours—but recognize the need for personal time, too.
  • Divide and conquer. Make sure responsibilities at home are evenly distributed and clearly outlined—you’ll avoid confusion and problems later.
  • “Don’t over commit. Do you feel stressed when you just glance at your calendar? If you’re overscheduled with activities, learn to say, ‘no.’ Shed the Superman/superwoman urge!
  • Get support. Chatting with friends and family can be important to your success at home—or at work—and can even improve your health. People with stronger support systems have more aggressive immune responses to illnesses than those who lack such support.
  • Stay active. Aside from its well-known physical benefits, regular exercise reduces stress, depression, and anxiety, and enables people to better cope with adversity, according to researchers. It’ll also boost your immune system and keep you out of the doctor’s office. Make time in your schedule for the gym or to take a walk during lunch—and have some fun!
  • Take advantage of your company’s EAP (Employee Assistance Program). “Many organizations offer resources through an EAP, which can save you precious time by providing guidance on issues like where to find a daycare center and care-taking for an elderly parent, as well as referrals to mental health and other services.
  • Treat your body right. Being in good shape physically increases your tolerance to stress and reduces sick days. Eat right, exercise and get adequate rest. Don’t rely on drugs, alcohol or cigarettes to cope with stress; they’ll only lead to more problems.
  • Get help if you need it. Don’t let stress stand in the way of your health and happiness. If you are persistently overwhelmed, it may be time to seek help from a mental health professional. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness—taking care of yourself is a sign of strength.
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1 National Institute of Mental Health, 5 Things You Should Know About STRESS, Publication No. OM 16-4310 
2 Mental Health America, Work-Life Balance
3 Haar, J., Russo, M., Sune, A., & Ollier-Malaterre, A. (2014). Outcomes of work-life balance on job satisfaction, life satisfaction and mental health: A study across seven cultures. Journal of Vocational Behavior 85(3):361-373.
4 Saad, L. (2014). The “40-Hour” Workweek is actually longer – by seven hours. Gallup.

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