A balanced life

For kids, a snow day is like a gift that falls unexpectedly from the sky: a whole day to stay home and do whatever you want.

For adults? Not so much. In fact it’s often a giant inconvenience, and thanks to the wonders of telecommuting, many people are expected to continue working from home.

“Snow day, schmo day. Get to work!” groused Time magazine in a pithy little commentary last year:

Blizzard or no blizzard, it’s business as usual for today’s wired workers. Forget building a snowman with your kids. You’ve got conference calls and e-mails to attend to. And also, since the kids are home and you must work, you’ve got some extra work to do: You’ve got to find someone to watch them.

Whatever happened to slowing down for a day or two?

The statistics about American leisure time aren’t encouraging. Workers in the United States have some of the lowest vacation benefits of any industrialized nation. Whereas time off is guaranteed in countries such as France and Finland, U.S. employers aren’t even required to offer paid vacation time.

Expedia, the travel company, has been tracking vacation trends since 2000, and its data are showing an increase in the number of Americans who have vacation time but don’t use it. Some of the key statistics from its most recent study of 1,530 working-age adults in the United States are rather enlightening:

– About one-third of those who participated in the 2009 poll didn’t take all their vacation time. About one in five also reported canceling or postponing vacation plans because of work.

– One-fourth of the respondents said they continued to check their voice mail and e-mail while they were vacationing.

– Forty percent of the women in the survey said they felt guilty about taking time off; only 29 percent of the men felt this way.

– On average, employed adults in the United States leave three unused vacation days on the table each year.

All of this appears to be a symptom of a deeper issue: an increasing struggle to achieve a balance between work and home, between fostering one’s career and nurturing the self.

One of the most compelling studies on the impact of U.S. work habits and expectations was carried out in 2005 by the Families and Work Institute. Titled “Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much,” it reaches this conclusion: “For a significant group of Americans, the way we work today appears to be negatively affecting their health and effectiveness at work.”

Among the highlights from the report: Employees who reported feeling overworked were more likely to experience stress, show signs of depression and rate their health as poorer. And here’s a real clincher: Fewer than half (41 percent) of those who reported high levels of overwork said they were successful at taking good care of themselves.

What will it take to change this? It’s not clear whether there’s a universal answer. In some quarters, however, people are trying.

Dr. Patricia Lindholm, a family physician from Fergus Falls and president of the Minnesota Medical Association, has made it one of her priorities to focus on physician well-being. A task force has been formed to come up with ideas and recommendations, and back in January the MMA devoted an entire issue of its monthly magazine to physician well-being.

A survey conducted by the task force identified some of the strategies doctors use for coping: making family time a priority, taking vacations, reducing their work hours, practicing yoga or meditation, being involved in hobbies or activities outside of medicine.

Earlier this month a new national partnership was announced between the Families and Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management to redesign workplaces for the 21st century. Among the ingredients: job autonomy, supportive relationships with supervisors, a culture of respect and, above all, flexibility that allows workers time off so they can nurture other aspects of their lives.

It’s no accident, says Ellen Galinsky of the FWI, that many of us get our best ideas while we’re in the shower; it’s the one place where we can be alone with our thoughts. Human beings need space in which to think, she writes in the Families and Work Institute blog:

We need to give ourselves time for rest and recovery. Ask anyone who is really proficient at anything – from intellectual to artistic to physical pursuits. They need time for full engagement and time for rest and recovery, as well as time for plugging in and unplugging from technology. Yet, our images of working hard at school or at work revolve around running non-stop, squeezing more and more in.

Many workplaces can’t (or won’t) change overnight. That leaves it up to individuals to change what they can on their own. Where to start? Here’s an online self-assessment that asks, “Are you overscheduled?” and helps identify areas in need of improvement. Maybe you skimp on sleep because you’re too busy, or have stopped taking time for friendships, or find yourself overcommitted because you can’t bring yourself to say no.

More strategies and ideas can be found here and here. Among them: Build downtime into your schedule; drop activities that sap your time and energy; make small changes, such as leaving work earlier one evening a week.

Is there such a thing as the perfect balance between work and the rest of life? Probably not. Priorities shift; life changes. The ideal seems to lie somewhere between being able to accomplish things in the workplace while having enough time to enjoy the rest of life.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Logo: Troy Murphy, West Central Tribune

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