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One of the main goals of mental health care is to help our bodies find equilibrium in our regular, day-to-day lives. About a quarter of our time each week is typically spent working, which is why finding the perfect balance in work and life is crucial to maintaining our mental health. 

Life is about much more than work, yet work is a huge part of how (and where) we spend our time and energy. The ideal balance between work and the remaining three-quarters of our week is not going to be a one-size-fits-all rubrik. Everyone is different. We offer our thoughts:

Run the numbers: the pandemic calls for work-life rebalance 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had many lasting effects on society and the general concept of “work”. Technology did its duty to step up when needed, providing the necessary means for a literal overnight shift from working in-person to working from home.

Before the pandemic, a reported 20% of workers in the United States typically worked remotely, and that number exponentially increased to over 70% by the end of 2020. For patients, the number of Medicare visits alone which utilized telehealth services catapulted from about 840,000 in 2019 to nearly 53 million in 2020. Much like work-from-home trends, telehealth did not slow down in the waning of the pandemic. In the four weeks leading up to this survey in 2021, nearly one-in-four adults had a telehealth visit. Within healthcare, the trend was no different.

Nearly two-thirds of professionals in America, even before the pandemic, reported increases in the amount of stress from work. The most significant source of stress among adults in the last three years has been work-related. Burnout threatens to overwhelm the mental health ecosystem. And with the potential of a national shortage of between 14,000 and 31,000 psychiatrists by 2024, we must find ways to minimize stress in the mental health workforce and the population at large. 

Although restrictions have been lifted, many organizations have maintained their working from home model or adopted a hybrid version of part-time in office and part-time from home work schedules. WFH is the new norm; the time to reassess work-life balance for workers, patients, and professionals has never been more ripe.

Work-life balance isn’t a viable paradigm

While more and more Americans are operating in a work-from-home environment, the reality of “work” and “life” is more muddled than ever. Where does the “work” environment start and the “life” environment end? No one has clarity on how this should play out. We’re all in new territory.

When is it appropriate to run and switch out the laundry during the day? What about checking on your kid in the other room and finding that they’ve broken a potted plant in the windowsill? If you’re “working,” can you stop and do something else that isn’t work?

The rigidity of the traditional work-life balance compartmentalizes work tasks separate from regular life tasks, and vice versa. The idea is to structure your days so that your full attention can be given to one thing at a time instead of being completely distracted by the other. Science supports this: multitasking isn’t really a thing. But when the physical environment is completely overlapped, this stark separation is impossible and unhealthy.

We need a better model.

Work and life with mindfulness at the center

That’s where work-life integration comes in. Forget about keeping the two portions of our lives at opposing ends of the spectrum of our time, energy, and focus. Instead, allowing the two to coexist in harmony empowers us to nourish our mental health and prevent burnout.

Work-life integration calls for mindfulness to be the lens with which we view our time, focus, and energy. Be thoughtful of each moment, not passing judgment on the situation in front of us, but instead seeing a task for what it is rather than what it coulda/shoulda/woulda be(en.) Work-life integration melds perfectly with reintegrating mental health into our modern lifestyles because both set us on a path to incorporate self-care regularly (all of which reduce stress and anxiety and boost creativity and productivity).

Buckets versus circles

What’s really so different between work-life balance and work-life integration? 

Shifting away from compartmentalization (i.e., work-life balance) allows for an expansion of peoples’ capacities. With the “balance” idea, we tend to break our capacities into pieces to accommodate the various aspects of life (self, family, community, work). But you quickly learn that there are limits; after all, the “balance” idea means that for one area to “win” while another area must “lose.”

Think of it like this: the work-life balance model is like having four different containers all lined up next to each other, and you’re given a limited amount of water to pour into each one. However, the amount of water is less than the volume of the four containers. In other words, it is impossible to “fill” each area of life completely. Prioritizing one over the other is the only way to make it work, which completely defeats the purpose of “balance” in the first place. 

Work-life integration nixes the various buckets in favor of something akin to a Venn-diagram. The self, family, community, and work circles are all distinct, yet overlap and share resources. This allows for time and energy to be invested in multiple areas at the same time, without shorting the others. 

Buckets are finite and rigid. Circles can expand, contract, and overlap.

The difference is, instead of shifting all of your attention towards one of the main portions of life for whole chunks of each day, you can bounce between each as demands rise and fall.

Keeping the circles distinct but pliable

Self-discipline obviously plays a huge role in successful work-life integration. Being realistic with your commitments and the expectations required in each area of your life lays the groundwork. From there, it’s about holding yourself accountable to follow through with the things you have chosen to take on in work, family, community, and even personal goals.

Speaking of expectations and accountability, communication is critical in keeping the circles distinct but pliable. Clearly communicating with the other people in your life (work, family, community, etc.) as well as yourself maintains harmony. Have trouble with communicating with yourself and others? That’s why therapy exists! 😄

For example, if you wake up feeling super anxious about something happening in your family or community, take some extra time to practice self-care throughout the day instead of just pushing through and grinding out the rest of your projects at work. Later, if the need arises, let your colleagues know you will be unavailable for a few hours later in the week due to an appointment you’ve made with your therapist (telling them the details is up to you, of course). 

Work-life integration is the future 

We are all only human after all. We have limitations. Setting ourselves up for the best possible scenarios to tackle all that life throws at us on any given day is the essence of mindful work-life integration. One day at a time. 

At Simply Psych, our goal is to implement this not only in our business model for employees, but also with our clients. Mental health clinicians have their own set of circles within circles, and we are ready to help by taking on those administrative circles that take your time, energy, and attention. The time and energy clinicians spend working should be devoted to treating patients, not practice management.

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