Some theorists suggest that this blurred boundary of work and life is a result of technology alone, but I have always felt it's caused by a number of inter-connected factors. Newspapers, social media and even our schooling help promote the need to be as good as or better than the next person. Whatever the cause, work has entered our whole lives.
It is clear that problems caused by stress have become a major concern to both employers and employees. Symptoms of stress are manifested, both physiologically and psychologically, and should never be swept under the carpet. Persistent high levels of stress can result in all sorts of personal problems such as a weaker immune system, headaches, stiff muscles and/or our sexual health. It can also result in growing feelings of insecurity, exhaustion and difficulty concentrating. Stress may also lead to a greater likelihood of developing dependent and addictive behavior as we get older with the likes of smoking, overeating and other disorders.
Some employers believe that workers should reduce their own stress levels by making a better effort to care for their own health and simplify their lives. I have certainly seen cases where the chief cause of stress has been a company and the behavior of its management. More men are realizing that work is not the only source of fulfillment in their life, which can be a major help in fighting against stress. More of us are looking for greater flexibility just as much as women. However, with an ever-changing society, flexibility is becoming much more apparent and not always easy to organize.
The state of our mental health is a balancing act that may be affected by a number of inter-related factors. I believe the four key ones are as follows:
1. Genes -- some of us are born with less favorable genes when it comes to mental health.
2. Major trauma -- when we have experienced a major event such as a death in the family or loss of a job.
3. Inward pressure -- the pressure we put on ourselves to achieve goals and reach targets, which are often unattainable.
4. Stress -- others putting us under pressure to achieve or do things. This may inadvertently be our partner, family members or friends.
Many people are exposed to job stress, because the "hard worker" seems to enjoy, among other things, very high social recognition in many workplaces. It's a feeling that because someone works really long hours, they must be important and vital to the cause. Most studies I have read place a strong link between pressure in the workplace and increased amounts of stress in society. What we strive to achieve in the workplace seems to be increasingly important in the balance of our mental wellbeing.
As our lives have become busier, finding the right work-life balance for us as individuals has also become tougher. It is a moving target for a start, although usually there are underlying trends in our behavior and outlook, which cannot be ignored. Technology has made our lives so much easier, faster and more personal. We can speak to people any time of the night or day, tell a whole group what we are up to at any minute and find out facts at the click of a button. We seemingly can't live without our smart phones, tablets, e-readers, portable computers and the rest.
The downside has yet to be fully explored or understood, as we also now struggle to switch off and be out of reach when work wants something. It turns us into completely reactive animals. We no longer spend the same amount of time thinking and analyzing whether things are actually good for us, as we are too busy reacting to the constant stream of incoming noise.
A good friend of mine was having problems seeing the wood from the company trees: his relationship was going through a bad patch and he could not seem to prioritize properly. I had a drink with him after work one evening and asked him to try something. I said he should see the next weekend as the time to think and re-set his priorities to his own agenda. I'm not sure if he managed to do this the whole weekend, but I told him to switch off his iPhone and not look at any emails. I tried to get him to not look at the television but Rome wasn't built in a day. He did get a blank pad of paper and started to list the things that made up his life. When he had the list, I asked him to prioritize what would be really important to him over the next 10 years. Not all of his troubles were sorted out by Sunday evening, but I feel he made great strides and turned a corner. We laugh about it now but we both know it helped a lot.
Anyone who has worked with me knows I find getting the balance right in my life one of the toughest things. I get enthusiastic about a project and working with people and other things get left behind. I am certainly not holding myself up as a shining light in this space at all. I did meet a business author and small-time entrepreneur recently who started his own business in his late 30s just so he could have greater control over his own work-life relationship. He had several opportunities to grow the small central operation but declined each time. His view was that he enjoyed the more personal and intimate running of his small business and he felt he was driving it, not someone else. Making it larger would mean him spending more time doing the things he didn't want to do.
In terms of avoiding a mid-life meltdown, there is a lot to be said for putting work-life balance high up on your career and life agenda and I invited you to try to find a happy medium to achieve this.