Work life balance: A load of bunk?

Happy New Year dear readers!

To say that I have been incredibly busy during the past six months is pretty much the understatement of 2013. Since July, I have worked with folks from L.A. County Courts, cancer care workers in Bermuda, amazing trauma therapists in New Haven, visited Vancouver three times to present to ObGyns and refugee protection staff (not at the same time…)

I also met staff from the UNHCR, presented at a children’s hospital in San Diego and had incredible learning experiences with fantastic helping professionals at Mount Sinai hospital in Toronto.  My wonderful team of associates have also been busy, travelling to Indiana, Newfoundland and also offering a lot of training right here at home in Ontario. We presented on compassion fatigue, secondary and vicarious trauma, self care, conflict, change leadership, and developed a brand new training on rendering bench decisions to refugee claimants.

I also had the chance to co-develop a new workshop with my friend and colleague Leslie Anne Ross, from the Children’s Institute in Los Angeles, called “a Roadmap for Change Agents.” We are firm believers that the best way to promote healthy workplaces is to encourage the emergence of champions in each agency. This was an opportunity to share best practice ideas with folks from various child welfare departments in L.A. County, and encourage them to spread the learning about healthy workplaces.

Yes, it’s been nuts. But it has also been the most professionally rewarding year of my career. I would like to highlight some personal and professional learnings from the past year and see if some of them resonate for you:

1) Is it possible to work in high stress, high trauma fields and still have a healthy organization?  We are getting more and more requests for workshops from agencies and managers who are extremely concerned about their employees’ health and morale. As well they should be – it’s not pretty out there right now. There have been so many compressions and changes that multitude of helping professionals are hanging on by their fingernails. However, there are ways to do this work in a sustainable manner: Work in the field of compassion fatigue and secondary trauma is rapidly evolving which is very exciting. We are discovering more organizationally-based strategies that can support staff who are working in extremely challenging circumstances. Thanks to the work of visionaries such as my colleague and friend Dr Patricia Fisher, we are learning more and more about the connection between high stress, high trauma workplaces and employee health and wellness. Pat’s work has allowed me to grow in my learning, and in the New Year, I will come back with a post on what’s new in terms of organizational health. There are solutions, but organizations need to be willing to demonstrate flexibility and an open mind, and be able to truly support their staff.

2) “Wine o’clock” anyone? A lot of women are drinking too much alcohol to numb out from their busy days. Former MacLeans editor Ann Dowsett-Johnston writes about rising rates of alcohol dependency among women in her autobiographical book Drink: The intimate relationship between women and alcohol.” Many of us who are juggling hectic lives with demanding jobs and family demands are using alcohol as a way to cope. Over time, that little glass of pinot grigio you sip while preparing supper turns into two large tumblers and, eventually, you are drinking 3-4 glasses each and every night, and starting to look forward to it on your way home. A good read for anyone concerned about this issue in their lives.

3) You are what you eat. I recently rubbed shoulders with a group of union reps who were negotiating a collective agreement for their crew. For about a week, they were in the meeting room next to us, and at every break time, they would move as a pack to the smoking section outside, puff away, looking incredibly sleep-deprived and sort of grey. I even saw one of them take a shot from his inhaler before coming back in… I don’t mean to be unkind, but this was one of the unhealthiest, most tired and out of shape group I have seen in a long time. I haven’t had a chance to do a review of the obesity/smoking/alcohol/sleep deprivation rates among union reps, but anecdotal evidence suggests to me that there are some fields where being overtired, living on junk food and smokes is a badge of honour. Is that the case in your workplace?

If you are a regular reader, you will know that I firmly believe that there is a profound connection between our self care and our ability to face the many challenges of our work. In December, we had guests posts from Jess Sherman, a Kingston-based nutritionist who emphasized the crucial connection between our nutrition and cognitive abilities, mood and energy. Given the kind of intensive work that we do, doesn’t it make perfect sense to take a closer look at how we are fuelling ourselves?

4) One small change at a time. However, there is nothing more annoying than being preached at, especially when you are not interested or ready to change whatever habit is currently troubling you or affecting your health. I am not suggesting that you quit all of life’s pleasures! What could be a realistic, achievable change to your self care that you could make for 2014? It could be simply reading about it. How about adding something good to your lifestyle vs feeling deprived?

5) Work life balance? Enough already!

A participant in a recent workshop said to the group: “I have finally accepted that things are not necessarily going to get more organised and tidy. Maybe this, this current life I am living, is my LIFE, and I have stopped striving to be better, to be more organised – maybe this is just the way it is.” I thought that was brilliant. I have always preferred the French term for work-life balance anyway. In French, we call it “la conciliation travail-famille”. “Concilier” means to mediate, to manage, to make both work in relationship with each other, not necessarily achieve an equilibrium.

My favourite blogger Leo Babauta recently posted a reflection on this topic:

“Sure, we work too much, don’t have time for all the other things we want to do, are always tired, eat convenience food or comfort food rather than nutritious or nourishing food, never have time for solitude … but that’s the life we want, right?

OK, maybe it needs a bit of readjusting. Work and life and learning and relationships and health are all really the same thing, and so “balance” is perhaps the wrong word, but adjusting our lives to our aspired priorities is not a bad thing.”

Instead of beating ourselves up about the resolutions we didn’t keep for more than a few weeks, how about making 2014 the year of self-compassion? So, on that note, I wish you a healthy 2014, where I hope you will have a chance to choose a few key priorities for your well-being and work on them imperfectly. 🙂


3 Responses to Work life balance: A load of bunk?

  1. Françoise says:

    Thank you for your comments Cathy. I agree that it’s unfortunate, and unfair, that many agencies dock or terminate health benefits for part time staff. There is ample research that demonstrates that part time workers contribute more than their share in the workplace (and often work more than the hours they are paid). There is also lots of data that shows that happy, healthy employees work harder, more efficiently and are sick less often. It seems that many organizations have yet to do the math on this.

    I have also found, personally, that the more I work, the less healthy I am, the less I exercise, the more money I spend (“no time to cook? let’s order out” “you need a new pair of skates? I don’t have time to comparison shop, let’s just buy these expensive ones” “I work hard, I deserve this new whatever gizmo”). Ironically, working to make more money sometimes ends up costing us more than working part time. There is a great book on this topic called “Your Money or your Life” if you are interested in reading more about it.

    Also, there is a CBC show tonight called “the motherload” which apparently will explore this challenge many of us face:

    I wish you all the best Cathy!

  2. Cathy says:

    Thanks for this post. The idea of work life balance is something I have been aware of as a long time social worker. I currently work in a hospital based family clinic. I love the work but 5 days a week became stressful and overwhelming. I have a chronic medical condition that is impacted by stress level. I needed to find balance if I wanted to stay in the field I love and preserve my physcial and mental health. I was happy to be given an opportunity to work 3 days a week. I have been doing this for one year and feel like I have the right balance between work and homelife.
    My only complaint is that despite my health condition, by choosing part time work I had to lose my health benefits.
    Although the move was voluntary I feel that seeking necessary balance left me with an unfair choice to make.

  3. Deborah says:

    Thank you for this positive first post of 2014! I needed it after a week of unpredictable events!

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