At the risk of stating the obvious: most of us spend a lot of time at work. How we feel about work goes a long way toward determining our mental health. As business leaders, the work experience we create for our employees has a significant influence on their engagement, productivity, and overall happiness. Satisfaction at work most often translates into satisfaction in life.
Conversely, stress and dissatisfaction at work inevitably spill over into the rest of our lives. All too often, what gets diagnosed as a problem of work-life balance is just a symptom of something lacking in the work experience itself. A balance between work and life means little if we do not find our work fulfilling.
As I have written before, the idea of work-life balance is a well-intentioned but flawed attempt to help us lead happier lives. It suggests a zero-sum game and contributes to stress and anxiety by presenting us with an impossible balancing act. How we integrate work into the rest of our lives changes from day to day, week to week. The important thing is to be engaged and fulfilled by whatever activity we are in, regardless of what box we assign it to.
Work, life, and mental health
A recent work health survey by Mental Health America finds plenty of spillover effects between stress and dissatisfaction on the job and overall mental health:
- More than half of respondents engage in unhealthy behavior (including substance abuse) to cope with workplace stress.
- Two-thirds of people say their sleep is negatively affected by workplace issues.
- Over 75% of people report being afraid of being punished for taking a day off to attend to their mental health.
- Overtime and excessive hours increase the likelihood of depression.
- The mental and physical health cost of workplace burnout runs as high as $190 billion per year.
De-stressing the workplace
The Mental Health America survey is part of a more extensive report, “Mind The Workplace,” that identifies several ways business leaders can create a workplace environment that fosters good mental health.
A supportive work environment is critical. Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of respondents do not feel they can consistently count on their supervisor to support them during tough times. Moreover, 43% do not feel that their company has realistic workload expectations. Unrealistic expectations and lack of support are a recipe for burnout and disengagement.
When employees do feel the hand of upper management, it frequently comes in the form of being micro-managed. Almost half of the respondents say they are hindered by trivial activities or by overly bureaucratic company policies.
Reward and recognition also figure prominently in the report. A majority of people in the survey believe that skilled employees are not given proper recognition. Employees are ready to meet the challenges of today’s demanding business world—as long as they feel they are given the appropriate support, freedom, and recognition.
Perks that improve mental health
Finally, the MHA report finds that business leaders can dramatically improve the health of the workplace by offering a handful of non-financial perks that contribute to a supportive work environment.
An open door and a relaxed work environment are strongly correlated with healthy workplace culture. Employees do not want to be micro-managed—but they do want to know that management is accessible when needed. They want open communication and feedback.
Opportunities for professional growth can be a powerful driver of job satisfaction and engagement. Employees welcome new challenges and new responsibilities when they are given the necessary training and support. If employees do not feel the company is investing in their professional and personal development, they will disengage and look elsewhere.
Flexible work arrangements give individual employees the freedom to solve the work-life equation on their terms. Work-life balance becomes an issue only when we feel we are forced to choose between one or the other. Giving your employees increased autonomy is a win-win solution and communicates that you believe in and trust them.
Energy and engagement are the keys
The report’s findings reflect my philosophy as an executive wellness coach. Too often in life, we create false trade-offs by framing decisions in either/or terms. We do not have to choose between work and life. Work and life are not in competition. Like partners on the same team, the various pieces of our lives should complement one another.
I work with my clients to optimize energy and engagement in all aspects of their lives. When we are fulfilled in our jobs, workplace worries are less likely to spill over into our personal lives. When we are not at work, we need to give our other responsibilities and interests the same attention and care we give our professional lives.
Energy is contagious. If we learn to be present and joyful in whatever activity we are engaged in, it is energy—and not worry or stress—that will spill over from one part of our lives to another. I had a particular client who stubbornly compartmentalized work and the rest of his life—setting up a never-ending battle between the two for his time and attention. By building on healthy habits, I helped him focus on managing his energy as opposed to keeping a work-life scorecard. He was able to get beyond the scarcity thinking of a zero-sum game.
Avoid framing work and life in terms of an impossible balancing act. Choose instead to think about work-life integration and work-life engagement. Choose to see your life as more than the sum of its parts. When we allow the pieces of our lives to work in concert with one another, we become more whole, more fully aligned—and joy and energy will ensue.
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Click here to read the article on Forbes.com. Published on Forbes on May 15, 2019.