For more than 30 years—especially in the last decade—the growing number of workers complaining of rising stress has been the subject of countless newspaper articles. The most common buzz-phrase associated with this is the infamous “burnout syndrome”.
In the early 1980s, “burnout” was characterised in the media primarily as an “affliction for managers”. Then at the end of that decade a solution was proposed—again accompanied by a buzz-phrase: work-life balance.
1.1 Work-Life-Balance – A Term With Fundamental Failings
Many people only associate work-life balance with a trade-off between work and leisure. However, the term particularly indicates that work and life are to be brought into balance: when the two weighing pans of a scale are to be brought to balance, it‘s essential that the contents of the first weighing pan have nothing to do with the contents of the other pan.
To put this into plain English: according to the work-life balance concept, work has nothing to do with life. Work-life-balance can’t be used to label a condition that needs to be improved if we fundamentally assume that labour (“work”) is something which occurs outside of living (“life”).
Everyone wants to have a good time, to feel alive and to really live life. We associate the feeling of being alive with vigour, joy and happiness. So if we define a term to contrast with the life we desire, one thing is clear: we want to avoid this dichotomy because it interferes with our need to get as much as possible from this positive, inspiring life.
If work is the negative opposite of “real” life, then we can only conclude: I want to be bothered by it as little as possible so I can have as much life as possible. “Balance” can then be no more than an intermediate step, because by wanting to maximise “life”, we need to put as much as possible into the “life” weighing pan and remove as much as possible from the “work” weighing pan.
The outcomes of this approach are many and varied. While not an exhaustive list, here are some examples:
The work-life balance concept inevitably leads more or less to a spiral of dissatisfaction and frustration – a key contributor to the dramatic increase in mental illnesses due to burnout syndrome. Of course, I don‘t want to imply that it‘s exclusively due to this concept, but words strongly influence us and solidify a point of view – one that not only doesn‘t overcome the risk of burnout, but makes it even more acute.
1 Gallup Engagement Index 2013: 67% “working strictly by the rules”, 17% “inner resignation”
There‘s no question about it: we need balance. But not a balance between “work” and “life”, because work is a part of life—and an important part, too. What we need to balance, however, is our energy consumption. After all, energy is the key factor in our lives, so there‘s hardly anything more important than ensuring permanent access to this life energy.
To accomplish this, we first need to consider the source of our life energy. In a cross-cultural study, the pioneer of positive psychotherapy, Nossrat Peseschkian, identifies four main energy sources.
2.1 The Body
It’s hardly surprising that we draw energy from our bodies. The most important essentials are a healthy diet, sufficient rest (sleep) and regular exercise.
Practical Tip2: Nutrition: Replace the “comfort food”—chocolate bars, snacks and the like— with good old nuts and raisins. They contain lots of vital nutriments that will really help to strengthen your nerves in times of stress.
Practical Tip - Recuperation: Besides getting enough sleep and adhering to regular sleeping times, avoid reading, watching or listening to negative news stories at the beginning and end of your day.
Practical Tip - Exercise: Park your car a short walk away from your place of work or get off the bus two stops earlier. This can add up to 3,000 more steps a day which gives your energy and health a boost.
It‘s true that our fellow human beings can also drive us crazy. But it’s equally true that people in trusting relationships are significantly more resilient to stress and more capable of assuming burdens.
Practical Tip - Relationships: Note down get-togethers with your loved ones in your calendar system. Because more than anything else, relationships require time. If, for example, you often miss your son‘s football game, it may be because you‘re simply not managing your schedule properly.
2 All of the practical tips are from my book “Den Stress im Griff” (Coping with Stress), ISBN 978-3-86980-228-2
As others have done before and after him, Peseschkian recognised that a meaningful life is very important to health and life energy. Those who can say this of themselves are—in terms of life energy—playing in a completely different league and are significantly more capable of handling responsibility than those who can‘t.
Practical Tip - Meaning: Reflect upon your life with your goals in mind: think about what would need to happen in your life so you can look back on it with satisfaction later. In the process, it‘s less important to consider individual events than to have an idea of the values around which you want to shape your life. A useful exercise, for example, would be to write your own tribute in honour of your 100th birthday.
I’d like to add a further point with regard to Pesseschkian: our thinking. Not the type of thinking that can be measured by an IQ score, but the way we evaluate situations that confront us in everyday life. It‘s precisely these evaluations that trigger stress in us. There is a direct line from the cerebral cortex, where our thinking takes place, to the adrenal gland, which produces the lion‘s share of our stress hormones.
Practical Tip - Thinking: When conversing with your inner voice, make sure you ask questions that will instil new thoughts—thoughts that lend you more energy and bring you closer to dealing with a challenge currently confronting you. Unfortunately that‘s often not the case. One of the most effective thought patterns when dealing with difficult problems has proven to be the double question: Do I know someone whom I believe would be better able to deal with a situation similar to mine? What would I see if I were able to look directly into their mind?
This point may be somewhat surprising. Work not only costs effort, but is also a central element of one‘s personal identity. Those who perform their work in keeping with this identity, i.e. with the feeling of being in the “right” place, also receive lots of energy in return.
Practical Tip - Work: Let’s draw on the previously mentioned points, “meaning” and “thinking”. So that you and your employees don‘t experience work as an energy drain, you need clarity about what you want to achieve from your work. On the other hand, I‘d like to also instil an awareness in you that there‘s hardly anything that requires more effort and energy than fuzzy or non-existent objectives. So get used to working with goals: personal objectives in all the areas of life discussed here as well as daily, weekly and annual work objectives. Structure your work and minimise energy loss through distractions, for example, using tools like GoToMeeting that prevent you from losing yourself in technical complexity.
The concept of work-life balance is misleading; firstly, because it presumes a dichotomy between “work” and “life” that‘s unworldly and secondly, because it presents work as the antithesis of “real life”. This undermines motivation and fosters the dreaded burnout syndrome. Without a doubt, a balanced life is important. But not an unrealistic balance between “work” and “life”, rather a balance between depleted and replenished life energy. The “life-energy balance” concept demonstrates the five life areas that serve as the main energy sources: the body, relationships, meaning, thinking and work. All five are of crucial importance and should therefore be considered equally.
When Markus Frey (53) published his audio book “Mit Stress zur Spitzenleistung” (Harnessing Stress for Peak Performance) in 2007. The title alone was provocative. But he not only provoked, he presented a comprehensive concept which is gaining greater acceptance. Meanwhile, Markus Frey has become one of the most well-known experts on stress and burnout in German-speaking countries. He‘s an especially sought after keynote speaker, trainer and coach in the world of business and professional sports. In 2013 he published his book “Den Stress im Griff“ (Coping with Stress).
You can find further information regarding these and related topics on the blog http://gesund-im-stress.de.