We Australians value work-life balance above all else, according to the latest global Better Life Index stats. But we’re still playing catch-up when it comes to actually achieving it. Our workdays are among the longest in the developed world, with the average worker clocking up 42.6 hours a week. And if you run your own business or are self-employed, you’re even more likely to find yourself working an ever-expanding working week.
On the one hand that’s understandable. Your business doesn’t just take a breather because business hours are over. But on the other, there comes a point when the extra hours you’re putting in could actually be doing more harm than good – damaging your relationships, mental wellbeing, long-term health and your overall productivity.
According to a study of Australian, British and US workers published in the Lancet last year, researchers found those working more than 55 hours a week had a 33 per cent higher risk of stroke and a 13 per cent greater risk of developing coronary heart disease than those who worked 35 to 40 hours a week.
Research also shows that working long days with few to no breaks actually reduces, rather than increases, your productivity. But how can you get the balance back? This challenge is especially hard for small business owners. You’re the lynchpin of the organisation – the CEO, the main decision-maker, the chief strategist and marketing guru – all rolled into one. That’s all the more reason to optimise your work-life balance and create a healthy business routine. When you and your people are your most valuable commodity, it pays to look after them. Here’s how to get started.
1) Set a realistic schedule – and stick to it
Some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs manage to make time for non-work activities during their working weeks. How? They set a weekly schedule that maps out how their time should be spent for maximum efficiency. The key is to make your calendar structured enough so you’ll stick to it, but not so rigid there’s no flexibility to deal with the odd unforeseen crisis.
Schedules can be daunting at first. The best way to implement one is to really get to know how you work, including your most and least productive times of the day, plus the non-negotiable days of the week when you absolutely need to get home on time. These could be family dinners, going to your child’s soccer game, or heading to the gym after work. Free apps like RescueTime or ATracker are a good starting point as they help you understand exactly where your time goes and suggest ways to make you more productive. They’ll even let you know if you’re wasting precious minutes without realising it.
Tip: Try scheduling your calls and meetings together in single blocks of several hours a few times a week. This enables you to focus on different areas of the business without getting too distracted by switching between tasks.
2) Optimise your downtime
If you find you’re unproductive at a particular point in the working day, make the most of it. Use this time time to go for a run, attend a yoga class or even do some meditation.
Evan Williams, founder of Twitter, Blogger and Medium, hits the gym in the late morning or midday so it doesn’t eat into his most productive time: the early mornings. He not only gets a workout in, but he revs up his energy levels for whatever the afternoon holds.
You shouldn’t feel guilty for taking time out – it’ll recharge your brain and your body, and it could be the moment in the day when you have your best ideas.
Tip: Not big on exercise during the day? Schedule the easy, small tasks for your least productive window. Put on your favourite music, download a podcast, and get some of those simple admin tasks out of the way.
3) Try going Swedish (at least some of the time)
There’s a reason Sweden consistently ranks among the happiest countries in the world: it’s also one of the most progressive when it comes to encouraging work-life balance in its workforce.
The country is now trialling a six-hour working day, with the aim of boosting productivity and job satisfaction by giving workers more time to spend with their friends and families. Toyota in Gothenburg has been pioneering the shorter work shift for more than a decade, and has reported an increase in both productivity and profit.
Tip: While you’re probably not ready to go all-out Swedish just yet, it could be worth implementing an early-finish policy on your quietest day of the week. If you’ve got employees to consider, this not only boosts morale without having to offer more expensive incentives, but can improve the overall health of your staff.
4) Create healthy work spaces – wherever you are
There’s no point in implementing a structured working week with downtime breaks to reduce stress and anxiety if the environment you’re working in has the opposite effect.
Whether you’re a one-person operation or a team of 100, your workspace needs to be one of the most carefully-considered aspects of your business. Offices should be temperature controlled, include workstations equipped for comfort and safe working, and have lots of natural light, if possible. Researchers from Chicago’s Northwestern University found office workers exposed to natural light had better quality of life, slept longer and had less physical problems than those who worked in offices with limited exposure to daylight.
Tip: Apply the healthy workstation principle to your home office, too. Sitting hunched over a laptop on the sofa may seem like a flexible way to work, but you could be storing up back and neck problems that could see you having to take time out to fix them. Not great for productivity.
5) Turn. Off. Your. Phone.
While cloud computing and smartphones have revolutionised the way all companies operate, meaning business owners really can have the flexibility to work as an when they choose, it’s vital to know when to switch off.
You may believe checking email after hours isn’t really work, but its impact could be far greater than you think. Not only does it increase stress levels, but looking at a light-emitting device like a phone before you go to bed reduces sleep quality and can make you less attentive and alert the following day.
The impact of ‘always on’ working on overall wellbeing and quality of life has even got the folks at Google rattled. The tech giant has conducted extensive research on how checking smartphones after hours affects its employees – and encouraged staff in its Dublin office to ‘go dark’, switching off their phones at least one night a week, which resulted in reduced stress levels among many of them.
Tip: Operate a blackout policy across all your devices from at least an hour before you go to bed, and encourage your staff to do the same.
6) Lead by example
If you send your staff, suppliers and contacts emails at all hours of the day, there’s going to be only one outcome: more emails for you to answer in return.
If you employ staff, it’s even more important to walk the talk when it comes to good business health. Saying your business supports work-life balance only ever truly works if everyone is committed to it. There’s no point in telling people to go home early if they never see you taking a break. Respect your own free time, and it will inspire others to do the same.
Tip: Give yourself (and your staff) a birthday day off each year. Spending a day disconnected from calls and emails will give you much-needed headspace.
For more content in this series please visit the Officeworks page.