How to Manage Long-Term Work/Life Stress


Recent studies have shown that 'work life balance' is the number one want of workers – even higher in priority than salary. And it's not just younger people. It applies also to ageing workers, especially those who are starting to look to a second adulthood, one in which passion takes over from pay.


What I read into this however is that people are saying they want to enjoy life and 'work/life balance' is the in-phrase that comes nearest to expressing that want. But the fact is that work/life balance is an unrealistic time management concept:

  • based on conflicting demands of employer and employee for a share of the 24/7 day. There simply isn't enough time to achieve everything.
  • suggesting people are living two lives - one at work and one away from work. But people don't 'work' for five days (or more) and 'live' for two days (or less). It's not about work/life, it's about life
  • ignoring the fact that work is just one of many roles people perform in their 24/7 week. Separation of work and personal life roles has become an almost seamless blur.

The financial downturn has made it worse. Job losses are putting new pressures on people who still have their jobs. They keep nervously looking over their shoulder. They work harder, for longer hours and feel greater stress in their extended efforts to ensure they keep their job and keep the business afloat.

The problem has evolved into one of managing sustained excessive stress of work and personal life. Not just in times of peak demand, but over the weeks and months ahead. More than just the family-friendly needs of parents and carers, it's an issue for every working person, from the junior assistant to the chief executive.

People want quality of life, in a sense a reversal of work/life balance - life/work balance, where life is the central focus and work is one (important) resource.


Rather than the 'time-poor' approach of work/life balance, people are looking to become 'life-rich'. Instead of energy-draining stress that slides into mental exhaustion, illness, burnout and depression, people want positive energy that generates creativity, resilience and intelligent productivity.


The more realistic aim is to develop a harmonious, mutually-energising mix of work and personal life interests/responsibilities. A good flow of energy-burning and energy-generating pursuits sustains and expands our potential to enjoy building a flourishing life.

While you can't deficit-budget time, it's possible to deficit-budget mental energy. A few minutes a day can sustain energy for long periods of time, so long as those minutes are spent doing something that enjoyably expresses the inner person, the authentic self, simply because it makes you feel good about yourself.

What sort of interests might these be? Each person will have unique answers. As a broad rule of thumb, energising interests:

  • are those enjoyed for their intrinsic pleasure, giving a sense of temporary escape from problems, losing track of time for a while (achieving a state of flow) and resulting in some sense of achievement
  • don't have to be physical. They can be intellectual, passive, social, manual, or spiritual. I get my buzz from singing in a choir
  • are of individual choosing, including the venue, time, level of skill, alone or with others.
  • can be done at any time of the week, day or night, that fits one's particular situation. Nor does it have to be in a club. Increasingly people are preferring what I call impulse leisure.

There are things managers can do. First and foremost though, the chief executive has to support the concept, not only formally but also emotionally in relation to his/her own personal life. Without this, a realistic change in workplace culture is pretty much dead in the water.


Assuming this test has been passed, here are some basic guiding thoughts:

  • make staff aware that management recognizes that personal passionate interests away from work can and do improve work productivity (a powerful message in itself)
  • management is supportive of staff efforts to inject more enjoyment into their lives away from work
  • the organisation is prepared to take steps to help and encourage this process
  • emphasise that the organisation rightly has no interest in knowing what people do for enjoyment away from work; it's just encouraging staff to have strong outside interests

A corporate energy management plan process needs to have strong involvement of staff from all levels of the organisation (all staff in the case of small businesses). A good method is to convene round-table discussions between (representative) groups of people from all levels of the organization. There are powerful corporate benefits, including improved communication, in group discussions on:

  • Passionate interests that each person has outside of work
  • How each person finds such interests help them in their work and personal growth
  • Identification of issues that would inhibit the formulation of a policy that encourages staff to enjoy outside interests. These discussions should be aimed at achieving group recommendations towards a strategy that sets out actions in the following priorities:
    • issues that can be most readily resolved with minimal effort/cost,
    • more difficult issues that require time, effort and cost, to be scheduled for attention in an agreed order and over a period of time up to, say, three years.

In the final analysis, people are looking within themselves for peace of mind. They are starting to see that the important things in life aren't money, wealth or status. They understand that a rich life embraces a mix of positives and negatives. But it is also about being allowed the dignity to enjoy being the person they were born to be. The institution of work is an important means of developing those talents. But successful business managers know they can benefit greatly – financially and emotionally – from recognizing and encouraging workers to enjoy developing all of their natural talents in any way possible, at work, home and play.