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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Still Searching for Work-Life Balance?

By Peter DeWitt — December 08, 2019 7 min read
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Watch any Hallmark Holiday movie and you’ll learn that this time of year is all about reflection. Well, reflection and that we do not need to live in the big city anymore because our holiday trip home to our small town helped us understand that the simple life is what we need (and coincidentally our high school sweethearts happen to be newly single).

In all seriousness, when we reflect at this time of year, we think of how we can spend more quality time with family and less time working. Unfortunately, we enter back into work after the holidays, and our work-life balance gets thrown out the window. This means our job-related stress comes right back at us.

If you feel like you work more than the average person you may be correct. CNBC highlighted a few studies in this article, where they state, “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 44 hours per week, or 8.8 hours per day.” They also cite a 2014 national Gallup poll, which puts the “average number at 47 hours per week, or 9.4 hours per day, with many saying they work 50 hours per week.”

The CNBC article goes on to report,

In demanding, competitive industries like tech and finance, professionals work in excess of 60 hours a week as a rule, and are available constantly by smartphone. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek story highlighted American factories where employees work upwards of 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week."

This increase in hours on the job contributes to our stress. In fact, The American Institute of Stress (Yes, there is such an organization) writes, “Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades.”

The American Institute for Stress also say, “Increased levels of job stress as assessed by the perception of having little control but lots of demands have been demonstrated to be associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension, and other disorders.” This is a very serious issue, and their statistics show that 46% of that stress comes from workload and 28% are because of people. The other two are work-life balance (20%) and job security (6%).

When it comes specifically to education, Gallup Education writer Shane McFeely writes, “Almost half of teachers (48%) in the U.S. say they are actively looking for a different job now or watching for opportunities,” due to the stress they feel in the job. In looking at school administrators, Friedman (2002) did a study involving 821 elementary and secondary principals to find that they have received an increased workload, which has led to an increased level of burnout among leaders. In fact, burnout has become such an issue worldwide that the World Health Organization says it is now considered a medical condition.

What does all of this show? Many of us are really stressed, which also may explain why the mindfulness movement has exploded and is now a billion dollar business.

What About How We Think About the Job?
I have been pretty open about the fact that stress and anxiety have gotten the best of me at times. After writing this blog last year on the topic of stress and anxiety I received responses from people in person and through social media who confided that they experience the same issue.

One of the ways that I dealt with all of the stress that comes with being on the road, and away from family, up to 47 weeks a year is turning to more exercise, better eating habits and a daily ritual of meditation and mindfulness. What’s interesting for me is that I’ve never banned anything from my daily regimen of eating and exercise, but as time went on I began to cut more and more out because it seemed like it was time to do so.

Truth be told though, I found that as I dealt with one issue another would pop up, and over time what I have found is that I am a workaholic. If I’m not writing blogs as I’m on the road running workshops, I’m working on new books and writing articles too. In fact, one of the issues that I found when I was practicing my daily ritual of meditation and mindfulness is that I was thinking about work all the time.

Yes, thinking...

It wasn’t enough to actively engage in work, but what I found was astonishing was the sheer amount of time I caught myself thinking about conversations from past workshops and coaching sessions, deciding an edit on something I was writing, planning for conference calls and webinars, and posting to social media. During conversations I could feel myself thinking about work.

The Korn Ferry Institute did a survey involving nearly 2,000 professionals and found that,”More than three-quarters of the respondents, 76%, say stress at work has had a negative impact on their personal relationships, and 66% say they have lost sleep due to work stress. A small but significant number, 16%, say they’ve had to quit a job due to stress.”

The interesting thing is that if you asked me if I was a workaholic I would say no. But if you asked the loved ones around me, they would offer an emphatic yes. Partly it’s due to the fact that I love what I do, but another part is that it is hard for me to shut off work.

How hard?

I flew home on the red eye Saturday morning and made a commitment not to do work. My alternative was that I’m going to go back to one of my hobbies, which is to read about art. I took Impressionists of Winter (Charles Moffett et al) out to read, because 22 inches of snow outside my window isn’t enough snow, and before I got to the second page I decided to write this blog.

Why is the Work/Life Balance Important?
Finding this work/life balance is important for all of us. Not only does it have a positive impact on our relationships because we are more focused on our loved ones than our work activities, it also prevents us from burning out. The sheer amount of time we spend thinking about work can have a negative impact on what we do because we burn out and lose some of our creativity. And at some point, it will inspire us to hate our work and become disgruntled, which will also prevent us from remembering why we got into it in the first place.

So, what do we do?

One of the actions I have been doing during my meditation and mindfulness sessions is to be in the present moment. If you’ve tried meditation and mindfulness in the past you understand that paying attention to your breathing is important. Additionally, if you have tried these practices before you understanding how hard it is to sit for a few minutes and practice breathing without thinking of anything else but being in the moment.

What I try to do now is use the word “Work.” Every time I sit for my practice and go off thinking about work, I say the word “work” in my head and try to recent back to the moment. For those of you who do not practice meditation and mindfulness, I know you probably find this part fairly corny. However, what it has guided me to think about is during all of those minutes in every hour of every day, how much I think about work, and how much I need to get that in control.

So, if you do not practice meditation and mindfulness, but do want to get a better handle on your work/life balance, begin catching yourself every time you think about something work related. Actually say to yourself. “work,” and see what happens. You might be floored by how much time you spend thinking about work, which leads you to always answering that question people ask, “How are things going for you?” with the typical answer of “I’m just really busy.” We may not be any busier than we ever have been, but we think we are busy because of how much time we spend thinking about our jobs.

In the End
We are always looking for work/life balance at this time of year, and swear we will have more of it, but never seem to find it unless it’s the holidays or some random weeks during the summer. Part of what contributes to the lack of work/life balance is the fact that we think about work so much.

Whether you practice meditation and mindfulness, or your quiet, reflective time comes from going to church or playing Solitaire, try to catch yourself every time a thought about work comes up in your mind, say the word “work,” and train yourself to going back and being in the moment. Work/life balance is something people in other countries do really well, and something we Americans are lousy at. There is no shame in putting work down, and picking up more quality time with family.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018), and Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube station.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.