From seesaws to circles: how work-life interaction can create happier, healthier employees.

If we’re asked which jobs have a direct and positive influence on other people’s health and wellbeing, most of us would plump for doctors, nurses, police, counsellors and so on. These are all great choices, but what’s less obvious is the profound effect every employer and manager have on their employees’ mental and physical health. From stress levels to sleep patterns, fitness to lifespan, what happens at work matters.

Work-life balance doesn’t hack it

But hold on a moment – whatever happened to work-life balance? Surely, if employees have sufficient time away from work, pursuing their healthful and stress-relieving lifestyles, then work can just carry on as usual?

There’s no doubt that putting sensible limits on time spent at work (or thinking about work) can be a big part of keeping healthy and happy. However, there are two key reasons why on its own, work-life balance doesn’t hack it.

Firstly, even if employees achieve a terrific work-life balance, they are still spending huge amounts of time at work. Let’s say an employee works 25 hours a week — for many of us, that sounds like a work-life balance Nirvana. However, that still means well over a thousand hours per year devoted to work, and many thousands of hours over a working lifetime. And if that immense block of time is relentlessly stressful or unhealthy… well, there’s a limit to how much can be offset by leisure activities.

Secondly, the whole imagery of work-life balance is problematic. A year ago, when work-life balance was the buzziest of buzzwords, every other blog article was headed by an image of an executive balanced on a seesaw. But visualising the two domains in opposition stops us from understanding how they interact, and that’s particularly important for health and wellbeing.

What seesaw imagery misses is that (obviously) our work and leisure activities are shared by one brain and one body. The effects of chugging breaktime Doritos don’t stop at 5pm, any more than sleep deprivation wears off by 8:30 am.

So, we can balance work and ‘life’ all we like, but in the end, they’re all just life. Whichever way you slice it, what happens at work substantially affects our overall health and happiness.

Vicious and virtuous circles

The interaction between work and home gives business leaders and managers a tremendous opportunity: they can gradually transform vicious health and wellbeing circles into virtuous ones.

As we noted, work and home activities are run by the same brain, and that means habits in one domain naturally seep into the other.

For example, work habits of poor nutrition and lack of activity tend to be carried forward at home, reinforcing these patterns further. Add in work-related stress and perhaps a less than optimal physical work environment, and it’s likely that home life will suffer. This in turn affects work performance — a vicious circle that can be hard to escape.

But by the same token, a work environment that supports mental and physical health has the potential not only to break this cycle, but to create the opposite, a virtuous circle where work contributes positively to mood and wellbeing, which improves home life — and so on.

Now, it would be extravagant to claim that great work practices are a panacea for all of life’s problems. But we would argue that a really top-notch health and wellbeing programme, one that’s data-driven and precisely targeted, can put in place habits and ways of thinking that go well beyond the eight hours spent at work, benefitting a substantial proportion of the workforce.

ART Health Solutions is a wellbeing consultancy, providing effective, science-based wellbeing recommendations. Our bespoke solutions are generated by gathering data directly from the organisation and its employees. Having proven our methods working with large, multinational corporations, we’re excited to bring our expertise to small and medium-size UK businesses.

To learn how we can benefit your company, please contact our friendly team.

Dr Paul Smith

Chief Strategy Officer, ART Health Solutions

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