Mental wellness and the struggle for work-life balance
Talking about mental wellness and work-life balance is a luxury–it’s also a responsibility
When I first began to work on this dispatch, I had just returned from vacation. I was feeling rejuvenated, grateful for the time off, and motivated by the energy of fall in New York. Then I got clobbered by a brutal bout of insomnia. That same week, a close family friend passed. The next week, a full reorg at work was announced, and my student loans unpaused.
Mental wellness can be a precarious thing.
This dispatch will discuss mental wellness and the struggle for work-life balance, with a specific focus on western world professional services where much of the conversation has progressed in recent years. But we can’t talk about mental wellness and anything without first acknowledging the fact that there are several existential crises currently colliding at once in the world around us, adding new context to the conversation.
The mere knowledge–let alone material impact–of climate change, rising fascism, a looming recession, and the overall socioeconomic impacts of catastrophic racism and sexism at large can take a toll on the psyche. This is especially true in our culture of algorithmically-driven discourse which tends to further divide us and affect our mental wellbeing. On top of this, 58% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. For low-wage workers, the likelihood of this stressful scenario is heightened, but an increasing number of high-earning-but-debt-laden professionals are facing similar financial challenges. A third of those earning over six figures said they’re living paycheck to paycheck, and more than a quarter have no emergency fund.
These structural societal challenges in the conversation around mental wellness and work-life balance bring to mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, at the base of which lies one’s physiological needs: the basic survival requirements such as food, water, shelter, and clothing.
With so many people needing to work all hours of the day to make ends meet, to even have the time to engage in this conversation in 2023 is something of a luxury. For those able, it is also a responsibility.
Contractors and freelancers must manage their mental wellness and work-life balance if they’re to sustain their careers in the long run. When you’re your own boss, what’s good for your health is what’s good for business. Though the inverse of this typically doesn’t hold true–especially within traditional corporate structures–it’s become increasingly obvious that decision-makers must do what they can to make their workforce feel valued and resourced if they want to retain top talent, boost motivation, and innovate.
In this newsletter, we examine the work-life balance movement, its evolution, and relevant conversations and share some insights into our internal contractor survey. We also explore tips for how to better manage your own work-life balance, and insights into how leadership can responsibly wade into the mental wellness conversation and create meaningful change.
At the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, machinery and technological advancements initially brought about harsher working conditions, longer hours, and deadly accidents. Worker movements arose from the struggle, and people began advocating and striking for livable working conditions and labor laws. The corresponding labor movements of the late 19th century then brought leisure time to Americans for the first time (think of the slogan “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will” that many of us learned to chant in middle school history class).
In the 20th century, Henry Ford’s introduction of the five-day work-week and doubling of the minimum wage in his factories all but solidified the weekend as a mainstay for most Americans. Don’t give the renowned antisemite too much credit, though; he was advised that the move might spur good PR and encourage workers to spend more of their newly minted free time and money on cars.
Fast-forward to the past 50 years. As more women entered the workforce in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so too did the phrase “work-life balance” enter the media for the first time. Women entering the workforce? Win. “Work-life balance” being named? Win.
But it takes time for cultural norms and expectations to change. And in any centuries-long battle, especially one fought by the working classes, progress is bound to be nonlinear. Plus, both governments and corporations have a history of, you know, not really listening to women.
In 1992, Economist Juliet B. Schor’s book “The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure” tracked America’s 20th century backslide into longer working hours and lower quality of life. Around this time, through Schor and others, alternative working models and calls for policy changes were voiced. Eventually, paid Family Medical Leave was signed into law, and advances in paid sick leave were made.
With the advent of the internet in the early 2000s and the rise of tech start-ups into the 2010s and present day, the American Dream was injected with a new PR campaign to lure more of society’s youth into endless work days under the guise of fun office culture (ping pong tables and pizza parties, anyone?), further complicating mental wellness. The poster children? Seemingly overnight tech billionaires and always-on influencers. Our country’s deeply ingrained Protestant work ethic got rebranded as “hustle culture” with self-help books filling the shelves, productivity hacks taking over news feeds, and the general population being downright Cheryl Sandberg’d into submission.
Paired with social media and other dopamine addictions that lock the brain into a vicious cycle of non-present exhaustion, this widespread hustle culture soon led to the awareness of its negative repercussions. Leaders like Arianna Huffington and Brené Brown began advocating against exhaustion as a status symbol, and topics like burnout, stress, and mental health started appearing more often in the news.
The pandemic then contributed to a drastically sizable shift in work culture with the precipitous rise of remote work and a global revaluation of wellness priorities and needs. Flexible work arrangements became more commonplace, and conversations around mental health gained tremendous traction.
Organizations with rigid company cultures that do not embrace work-life balance have suffered, and will continue to suffer, via the consequences of attracting fewer top talent.
Professional services employers today would be wise to promote flexibility through remote work and asynchronous work style, as well as encourage time off, and offer mental wellness initiatives. The hard-and-fast 9-5 Monday-through-Friday work week is antiquated. Trying to force it back into place signals a lack of trust from leadership as well as an out-of-touch perspective that values quantity over quality.
All that said, the biggest barrier to a good work-life balance is actually personal perfectionism. In the modern professional services landscape, instead of being forced to work longer hours, we’re often choosing to. While the onus often falls on the individual to first make changes, that burden can actually be an empowering opportunity, as one Gather contractor noted.
“The president of a company I once worked for used to say “Everyone is responsible for their own work/life balance.” And, at first, I thought that was pretty cold and callused. Shouldn’t a progressive company care enough about its employees to offer options for balance? Then I realized that by not necessarily dictating how employees should find balance, but granting them leeway to figure it out on their own, the company was actually being quite progressive. It created an environment where employees had agency to adopt a structure that was best for them and also served business goals. So, while everyone is responsible for their own work/life balance, I believe companies should give them the chance to figure out what that means to them.”
– Matthew Danelo, Social Strategist
So, what does work-life balance mean for you? There are some tried and true tips that seem to work for many.
Know your needs
At a physiological level, we all need to sleep, eat well, and move a little throughout the day. Basic self-care helps protect your cognitive function and can bolster your performance. But we also need to practice checking in with ourselves regularly to understand our myriad individual needs, whether physical, mental, or emotional. By acknowledging and prioritizing your needs, you can understand the necessary conditions personal to you for achieving a more fulfilling work life and personal life.
“Put yourself and your needs first. Work will always be there.”
– Gather Contractor
“Get good sleep, drink water, don’t take your work too seriously, don’t work nights or weekends.”
– Gather Contractor
Once you understand your own individual needs, you can use boundaries to ensure they’re met. Setting boundaries around when, where, and how you work is the quickest way to improve your work-life balance. Define your work hours and your personal time. Consider removing your work email from your phone or simply silencing notifications on nights and weekends (at the very least, do this on vacation). Practice taking a beat before you respond to a Slack or email throughout the day. Identify an approach that enables you to do your best work without being overwhelmed or interrupted.
It’s cliche, but true: Boundaries. You have to set boundaries, especially as an independent professional. It’s very easy to just say, “Oh, I’m so close to finishing this article. I know it’s 5 PM, but if I just put a couple more hours in, we’ll wrap it up tonight.”
– Matt Kosinksi, Writer
Practice saying no
When asked which factors most influence mental wellness at work, “Workload amount” was the #1 response from individual contractors here at the Gather network.
The fastest way to begin practicing boundaries in the professional services setting is to physically leave the office or close the computer at a certain time–and even this is challenging for many. But what’s more challenging–and arguably more effective–is learning to say “no” to new work when you feel close to capacity. If being direct feels uncomfortable for you, approach it as a gradual process: for instance, “With my current workload, I could turn to this in X-amount-of-time” is a softer way of saying no. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to do everything, and you don’t have to do everything immediately. And you definitely don’t have to do it alone – for the perfectionists out there who feel they need to take it all on, I’ll remind you that delegating and outsourcing can often be the best decision for everyone.
Taking breaks helps you reduce stress and improve productivity. Go for a short walk to clear your head and encourage healthy blood flow. Carve out even just 10 minutes a day to meditate, close your eyes, or stretch. Or make it social – grab coffee with a coworker or phone a friend for a quick hello. Short bursts of social interaction can boost mood and creativity.
The break of all breaks, vacations are essential for rejuvenation. Burnout is real, and large swaths of unstructured free time (whether that’s an all-out vacation or a simple staycation) can allow us to recharge, gain perspective, and inhabit a more balanced frame of mind. Plus, this is your life we’re talking about! Hike the mountain, see the sparkling lights of a new city, or simply lay by a pool with a margarita. Enjoying life and spending one’s time autonomously are important parts of feeling fulfilled as a human.
Ask for help
We’re currently seeing a groundswell in understanding of and support of mental wellness. However, work environment, cultural upbringing, and society at large can still make it challenging to enact personal change. Don’t be afraid to solicit help from a therapist, trained coach, or trusted mentor. These professionals often have the language and frameworks to help guide you through challenging circumstances in a healthy way, keep you accountable, and help you evolve as a person.
- In our recent survey of independent contractors, 30% of respondents said mental wellness “mostly feels like a buzz-phrase” when asked how they feel it is valued in the workplace.
- But 38% also noted that they felt “content with the progress being made,” signaling notes of optimism.
The struggle for work-life balance and mental wellness are inherently entwined. But it’s also critical in this discussion that we don’t conflate them.
Mental wellness is an internal resource that helps us flourish in the ways we think, feel and function. What it means to flourish, however, is dynamic, personal, and driven by a multivariable set of factors including but not limited to everything from culture and religion to socio-economic upbringing and belief system–unsurprisingly, many of the same factors that we can ascribe much of our individual trauma to.
See, to truly encourage mental wellness, we must also act in concert to shed the taboo around mental illness. Otherwise, any initiative risks succumbing to the traps of avoidance, toxic positivity, and corporate performativity. So, what’s the best way to shed a taboo? Talk about it.
In a therapist’s office, you might learn that naming your fears is the first step in personally addressing them. In a collective setting such as work, however, and with taboo subjects like mental health, the onus really lies with senior executives to do the naming. Granted, individuals can, historically have, and always should rely on their own leadership to move the conversation forward, but it’s ideal in this situation for organizational leaders to…well, lead.
Humans are an inherently social species, and fitting in has always been a survival instinct. We value acceptance by our communities, fear ostracization for being different, and are notoriously sensitive to groupthink behavior. Likewise, the individual worker is less likely to speak up about something that may portray them as inadequate, different, or a troublemaker.
When a safe environment exists for mental wellness to be discussed and embraced, however, everybody wins. Mental wellness and emotional intelligence are key predictors of success – for the individual, their specific team, and the overall company they work for.
Having the ability to emotionally process an experience, reduce stress, and increase resilience is a vital aspect of emotional intelligence (EI), arguably a synonym for mental wellness–and something that is a better predictor of job performance than even cognitive intelligence. EI is also linked to better performance in teams.
Given the systemic capitalist connection between productivity and reward, this is fairly unsurprising. Increasingly, however, the mental wellness of employees matters both for personal well-being as well as a company’s bottom line. Value-centric companies that emanate the strategies they preach and take care of their people will be the most successful.
So, leaders, what can YOU do to positively contribute to the conversation around mental wellness and create a safer environment?
Lead by example.
Echoing the importance of ‘naming’ our fears, when leaders can be vulnerable enough to breach the topic of mental wellness, express its importance, and even discuss their own challenges, it can help build trust and elevate performance. This doesn’t have to look like some formal all-hands call or a 1:1 deep-dive revealing personal diagnoses. Simply being vulnerable enough to say, “I’m having a tough time right now, so I’m going to step away. Can we revisit this tomorrow?” is a great place to start. This kind of vulnerability has a humanizing effect on the person sharing and receiving the message.
Listen and maintain confidentiality.
When you listen to someone’s concerns in confidence, you create an entryway for trust. You validate their experience and make them feel safe and understood. This helps reduce any feelings of isolation and loneliness that they may be fighting and increases your own empathy. This overall strengthening of trust is a cornerstone to any healthy relationship and a commonality among winning teams. The hopefully-obvious exception to the confidentiality rule is if someone expresses views of harm, be that to themselves or others.
Encourage self-care and wellness initiatives.
Advocate for and instill policy where possible, but prioritize responsibility for yourself before winning the big battles. Granting workers grace in the form of mental health days and flexible work arrangements can prove life-changing. There are also other, more-within-reach forms of support, like advocating for a meditation room or bringing in a third party to host a stress reduction workshop. A brief weekly or monthly check-in is also a great, informal way of showing sensitivity, building trust, and ensuring the health of your team.
“Work should be subordinate to the more meaningful things in life (family, friends, fun). I feel good about work when I have the flexibility to build my work schedule around those things.”
– gather contractor
In answering the question “Which factor most influences your mental wellness at work?” the response “Who I work with and for, and the health of those relationships” came in a strong second. Ultimately, we are all flawed humans who have distinct ways of handling (or mishandling) conflict and communication. Naturally, this can create friction. But we’re also each capable of learning and growing–not only in our personal relationships outside work, but also meaningfully where possible at work. Parsing this ubiquitous yet messy corner of the conversation is worth our attention. In the next dispatch, we’ll dive into dealing with difficult people, among other helpful topics for navigating and improving your daily experience at work.