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All about work/life balance

To find a balance between work, study, and family/friends/fun, it can help to understand the history and different challenges of modern commitments.

Young person with scales in front of them; on the left around symbols of work, including laptop and paperwork and on the right are symbols of life including photos of family and friends and a pet cat

Why is it sometimes hard to strike a work/life balance?

Sometimes our commitments can be (or seem) inflexible, and overlap each other. It’s normal to struggle with this! After all, the concepts of 'work' and 'study' are both relatively new, in the course of human history.

Much has changed since modern working began. Women are now in the workforce, people are achieving higher levels of education, we live in a globalised world, the economy changes with each generation, and technology has drastically altered the way we work and live.

Our current ‘full time’ employment structure is based on the idea that our day is divided into three sections of eight hours each. You get eight hours for sleep, eight hours for work and eight hours for leisure.

But you may be finding that it doesn’t exactly work that way…

Having balance is about understanding your personal ‘sweet spot’ about whether you are working/studying too much or too little. (Everybody makes these judgments for themselves within reason, because we’ve all got bills to pay.) Doing too much can lead to burnout and anxiety. Doing too little can lead to boredom and even depression.

Where does the idea of ‘balance’ come from?

Let’s look at a (brief) history of work to how modern employment conventions came about, especially when it comes to knowing your rights as a worker and negotiating for workplace flexibility.

Our current system of working was established in the early 1900s. The Industrial Revolution resulted in a lot of worker exploitation, and as a result, people fought long and hard for workplace rights. This is where we got the ‘eight hour day’!

Further entitlements, like annual leave, sick leave, etc., were negotiated by unions throughout the last century. Part of this negotiation was based on the fact that true balance isn’t possible – sometimes, you just need an extended break from work and to engage in leisure 24/7. That’s where we get the concept of a ‘weekend’.

The other part of this negotiation was around productivity. Employees are happier, healthier and more productive with time away from work to engage in other pursuits.

You can find balance by knowing your rights at work

As an employee, especially a young worker or someone who is new to working, it’s important to know you have rights, protections and entitlements at work.

By its nature, working puts limits on what you realistically can and can’t do. Because most people need a job in order to live, there are limits on what we can and can’t control. 

For example if your workplace has a culture that everyone does unpaid overtime, it can be hard to swim against that current. People are understandably worried about ‘making waves’. But there may also be stipulations under the Fair Work Act that mean overtime actually should be tracked and compensated.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you aren’t sure of your rights, or feel like your employer is crossing boundaries, here are some starting points.

  • Get educated. Understand whether you are covered by an Award or an Enterprise Agreement (EA) (sometimes called an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement or EBA). These documents must be easily accessible and contain details around your employment conditions, pay rates, leave entitlements, etc. 
  • Know your rights. Employees have rights, protections and entitlements that exist to stop employers taking advantage. There are serious consequences for employers who breach laws. Fair Work Australia is where you can find out more about your rights.
  • Get support. If you aren’t sure of something, or you need support to advocate for yourself, there are many services that can help. A great first step is to approach your industry union (they fight for workers’ rights).
  • Advocate and negotiate. If you are asked to do something outside of your Award or Agreement or that crosses your personal boundaries or goes against your needs or wellbeing, you have a right to say no. Use assertive language (polite but firm). Know how to escalate something (if needed). And know how to negotiate for flexible working arrangements based on your needs. The more people who do, the more this becomes accepted and accessible for everyone.

Balance for shift workers

Working shifts, especially unsociable hours, can make it harder to have the work/life balance you want. Shift work can reduce social connections and have multifaceted impacts on health and mental health (especially if it disrupts sleep cycles). Here are some things that can help:

Have a routine. Routines can help you meet your needs in a simple, no-fuss way.

Prioritise self-care. Getting this right can go a long way towards managing some of the effects of shift work.

Make the most of the good bits. Having a sleep-in while everyone else is starting work at 9am can definitely be a perk. Focus on and take advantage of not being at work during the day.

Take off the rose coloured glasses. It’s normal to think the ‘grass is greener on the other side’, but all work comes with good and bad bits. Working during normal business hours is no different. It’s important to have a balanced view.

Balancing school and work

Balancing school and work is about being flexible with your study, listening to your body and making time for social activities/hobbies/sports. Creating this balance will allow you to feel refreshed, relaxed and ready to apply yourself.

However, this isn’t always easy and takes a lot of trial and error. What works for someone else may not necessarily work for you and that’s ok! Here are some tips to get you started: 

  • Be flexible. This doesn’t mean creating a set timetable where you have to study for ‘x’ amount of hours each day. Create a timetable that allows you to identify what you need to achieve each day whilst still incorporating an element of freedom, e.g. scheduling regular breaks or studying in one-hour blocks. 
  • Study the way you want. Study in a group or alone, in silence or with music depending what you prefer. It’s important to explore and understand how you work best as this will allow you to study more efficiently. Remember, there’s no need to compare your study habits to those of others as we’re all wired differently! 
  • Remember to recharge. Finding time to relax is incredibly important. Recognise those times when you may not be at your most focused and set those as your ‘down time.’ For example, block out Friday or Saturday nights as ‘study free’ time where you get to socialise with your friends/family or engage in other activities you enjoy.
  • Find balance. Don’t ignore the things that make you happy. No one expects you to spend 40+ hours a week studying with little interaction with your friends/family. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Working or studying from home

Working and/or studying from home can make balance more complicated! You may not get the ‘mental break’ from switching off and going to a different location. Here are some things that might help:

Get organised. Being organised reduces stress, saves time and can make you more productive.

Problem-solve the bad bits. Make a list of the things you don’t like and get creative around how to solve them.

Make the most of the good bits. If you’re working from home, you may as well enjoy the perks! Lunch-time naps, and exercising instead of commuting, anyone?

Prepare for setbacks. Things are going to go wrong. Technology will fail, misunderstandings will happen. Having backup plans can help you use setbacks as a learning opportunity.

Have a routine. Our brain loves routines because they are safe and familiar and form habits. A habit requires less energy from our brain, which frees our mind up to do (and think about) other things. It can also help to have a post-work routine that allows you to put aside work and focus on your personal life again.

Take off the rose coloured glasses. It’s human nature to forget the bad stuff when you start to miss something. It’s normal and natural to miss aspects of in-office work, like having a coffee break with a work friend, or not having to do video meetings. But just remember there are negatives as well, so having a balanced view is important.

If you’re having trouble balancing school, work, and other parts of your life you’re not alone.

Talking to someone can really help.

Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email anytime, for any reason.

This content was last reviewed 12/06/2020

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