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Much is made these days of the importance of work-life balance and ensuring a sense of well-being at work, and for good reason. Figures released by the government’s Health and Safety Executive reveal that 12.8 million working days were lost in the UK to work-related stress, anxiety or depression in the year 2018-19, That’s 54% of all working days lost to ill-health and it represents only the tip of the iceberg of people who are feeling stressed – what about everyone who’s working often unpaid overtime just to keep up, or losing sleep and feeling dejected but not taking days off sick? When surveyed, employees complain of excessive workloads, tight deadlines and a lack of managerial support, and these are critical factors that employers really must do better with. But what can we as employees do to make sure we, too, take responsibility for our well-being? The answer? More than we think.
Take five – follow these steps to improve your workplace well-being
Focus – do one thing at a time
Multitasking goes hand in hand with working at pace – we feel the need to respond to issues as though everything was urgent, and before we know it, we’re juggling way too many balls in the air. Research conducted at Stanford University found that “multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. The researchers also found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.”
In short, we learn to become distracted by the slightest thing and it can take up to 23 minutes for us to recover our focus on what we were doing before we became distracted.
“The shorter way to do many things is to only do one thing at a time.”
Mindfulness offers us a marvellous opportunity to train ourselves out of being distracted. It’s a simple process and one we can do anywhere at any time. First, decide what characteristic you would like to focus your attention on. Next, remain mindful of your behaviour and notice whenever you display that particular characteristic. It’s important that we’re not judgemental or self-critical when we do this – the idea isn’t to beat ourselves up but to notice we’re doing it again, gently remind ourselves to let that behaviour go, and refocus on whatever we were doing before we became distracted. Over time – as little as a few months – MRI scans show that the parts of the brain associated with focus and attention grow in size and those associated with distraction shrink.
“I realised that the turmoil, the noise and the information flow would never stop, it’s just a fact of life. Mindfulness is a practical way of letting go of it and not letting it control you.”
Kenneth Egelund Schmidt, Carlsberg
Wherever possible, take regular breaks
Back in 1266, Kublai Khan asked Marco Polo to travel from Beijing to Rome to deliver a letter to Pope Clement IV, inviting him to send 100 academics to discuss religious matters with his own academics. Sounds simple enough, but it took Marco Polo three years to do the round trip back to Beijing to deliver the reply! We live in different times now; messaging is instantaneous and there’s so much pressure on us to do more and to do it faster than ever before. One consequence, of course, is an increasing sense that we’re spinning out of control.
Deliberately slowing down when we get the chance can make so much difference to our workplace well-being. Too often, the tail wags the dog – our day dictates our pace and our stress levels. By stopping, centring ourselves and choosing our mood, it’s amazing how much focus and perspective we can regain.
Human beings concentrate best for 90 – 120 minutes at a stretch; any more than that without a break and we wilt. Stop, take a break, move around. Take a wander, stretch a little and open up the vertebrae in your spine. Get some fresh air or some pleasant company – whatever you need to destress, refresh and resume with renewed vigour.
Skipping lunch is another no-no; we need that time to unwind, gain perspective, socialise with friends or colleagues, not to mention top up our nutrition levels. Our brains consume about 20% of our energy – skip lunch and you’ll likely feel a desperate urge for unhealthy calories to sustain you through the afternoon.
Regular breaks should be a feature of our day. In Sweden, teams have a tradition of stopping twice a day for fika breaks, where they socialise and chat about work over coffee and cake. Ikea say some of their best ideas and decisions come during these informal get-togethers.
Quit working so many hours
Working scheduled, paid overtime is one thing, but persistently arriving early, working late, taking work home or working weekends is a recipe for disaster. Short term, no problem, but it leaves no time for recovery. We might think we’re making headway, but we neither work well nor play well when we watch TV while answering emails, writing reports or prepping for presentations.
Last but not least, leave your phone alone for five minutes…
If you possibly can – and most of us can much more than we think we can – don’t be checking text and email messages every five minutes. That little flashing light that tells you something vital has happened (not) is the scourge of the nation’s peace of mind. Learn to check your messages at set intervals during the day – once an hour if you must, three or four times a day if your role will accommodate it. You know it makes sense! And remember … there will always be more to do … always. Park it and enjoy your evenings and weekends, you’ll feel and work a whole lot better for it.
“The cell phone has become the adult’s transitional object, replacing the toddler’s teddy bear for comfort and a sense of belonging.”
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