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The more you work the more productive you are. It seems logical. If it takes X minutes to produce Y number of products then one should be able to produce twice as many products, if the time of work is doubled. Mathematically it is correct and theoretically, it should work, but in real life, it does not. Ewa Jarczewska-Gerc, Ph.D., psychologist, from SWPS University explains why these simple mathematical calculations do not translate into actual productivity results.

In the 1970s in the United States, employers and human resources specialists began to notice that employee productivity, creativity and effectiveness had been decreasing significantly. Interestingly, the decline was occurring despite the prolonged work time. Employers were faced with a paradox - the longer people worked, the less effective they were, so the employers were not happy. Moreover, after a prolonged time, the decrease in productivity and creativity was coupled with other negative phenomena. Employees began having emotional problems and they started to fall ill, mostly due to cardiovascular disease. All this led to the rise of absenteeism in the workplace. The employee turnover rate also increased. People began to quit, because the job demands had caused employee burnout and had led to a significant decrease in job satisfaction.

Today, we know that employee turnover and burnout occur when the work-life balance is not maintained.

Easy to Say, but also Doable

This was the beginning of the work-life balance theory, which is based on the assumption that productivity, creativity and effectiveness in the workplace are possible, if there is a balance between job requirements and personal life. Harmony and balance between these areas of life are necessary to maintain emotional health, which in turn allows people to function effectively not only at work, but also at home.

It may be easy to say, but more difficult to do. It requires many changes that include not only employee lifestyle changes, but also systemic changes. Companies that make changes conducive to work-life balance win. However, if businesses ignore the issue, employees and company results suffer the consequences.

Nowadays, employers have several formal tools, which provide more flexibility for employees and help them to manage work-life balance. Firstly, the employer may offer non-standard forms of employment. Many employers approve the ‘work from home’ option, for example for women who come back to work after maternity leave. Thanks to this mode of working, women do not have to leave their child for over eight hours and do not have to wonder what is happening at home. They can continue to breast feed their child and most of all they feel in control of the situation, which has a positive influence on their emotional state, especially vulnerable at this time. Another tool is flexible work time. Many people prefer to start work earlier than the usual office hours, so that they can leave earlier in the day and spend more time with their family or relax and participate in their hobby-related activities.

To encourage employees to develop and maintain work-life balance, employers may also help with child, spouse or elderly parents care. For example, some companies provide child care services on their premises, organize summer camps or educational trips for children or provide family benefits, such as illness or accident insurance that covers costs of physiotherapy or medical care of an ill family member.

Signs of Occupational Burnout

The responsibility for work-life balance lies not only with the employers. It is very important to be proactive in maintaining the right balance between professional and personal life. How do you know that you have a problem in this sphere of life?

The symptoms are very clear and, if ignored, they lead to occupational burnout and potentially even depression. Most symptoms are of emotional nature, for example constant stress, irritability, anger and frustration. Other signs might include prolonged fatigue, problems with concentration, lack of joy in doing things that have always been a source of satisfaction and motivation, aversion to work and co-workers, as well as alienation from friends and family. These emotional symptoms are accompanied by physical symptoms, such as headaches, muscle tension, back and neck pain, eating disorders (lack of appetite or overeating), and sleep disorders.

If the symptoms listed above last for a long time, your immune system suffers. You start getting ill more often and your infections last a long time. A common cold or flu seems to drag for weeks and you are not able to shake them off. Through these signals your body is letting you know that you must make changes in your lifestyle to re-establish homeostasis and harmony. However, it is not as easy as it sounds. It is hard to stop the vicious circle, but it is much better to make the effort than to wait for a calamity such as a serious illness or a divorce. Where to begin?

It is up to you to establish your work-life balance and to ensure that it is a balance, not a burden.

Stop the Vicious Circle

Take a few days off, but rather than taking on different responsibilities, such as organizing a family trip, spend this time on your own.

Use this vacation to think and find out what causes your overload. What are the pivotal points of this situation? What can be done to change the current state? Perhaps it is a lack of assertiveness that causes you to work overtime and to help everyone around you? Or maybe you do not know how to delegate effectively? You do not have to do everything yourself, especially if there are other people employed to perform certain tasks. Maybe you want to prove to everyone that you are a wonder woman or a superman, who can do it all: be successful at work, happily do grocery shopping after work, cook dinner, help the kids with the homework and on top of that be a perfect spouse.

Think about it. Have you had any dreams that you were forced to abandon due to your responsibilities? Now is the moment for change. The reason to make changes is not to abandon your duties. Quite the contrary, the change is needed to provide you with emotional and physical reserves that will allow you to fulfill your various responsibilities.

Fix the Problem

Make a plan. Once you diagnose the source of the problem, make a plan to fix it. Having a good plan accounts for 70% of success, therefore it is a good idea to spend some time on planning. You can use mental simulations for the planning process. People talk a lot about visualization as a tool that is helpful in achieving goals and building the quality of life. However, there are also a lot of myths and untrue or even harmful assumptions associated with this technique. Research conducted by Shelley Taylor, an American health psychologist, and research conducted by the author of this article have shown that visualization is effective only, when it reflects the process of change, i.e. the subsequent steps required to achieve the goal. A mere visualization of the final outcome, the result of the positive change, often has an opposite effect - it is demotivating.

For example, students who had visualized getting A’s on the exam, achieved lower grades than the control group, which included people who studied as usual (without visualization). On the other hand, students who visualized the arduous process of studying for the exam, including going to the library, reading books and articles, taking notes, memorizing information or declining an invite to a party in favor of studying, achieved much better grades than the other two groups (the one merely visualizing good grades and the control group). So plan your change. You can even draw a map and hang it on the wall opposite your bed. Every morning, when you wake up, it will remind you where you are going.

There is no Time Like the Present: Just Do It!

The longest road begins with the first step. Don’t say “I will go running”, “I will leave work earlier”, “I will refuse additional work”. Just go running today. Leave work earlier and take your kids out for ice cream, today. Tell your colleague at work that you are sorry, but you cannot help him or her with the presentation, because you are swamped. Do it today!

Often, people do not know how to say “no”, because they want to be liked by everyone. Firstly, you will never be liked by everyone. This is simply impossible. Secondly, people respect individuals who know how to assert their boundaries. Set your boundaries, without aggression, frustration or putting down the person, who is asking for your help. And assign a date to your plans – do it today, although some changes are more of a process and require more time to accomplish. It is important to stick to your plan and to stop putting things off until tomorrow, until next week or next year, because you only have a limited number of “tomorrows”.

Tricky Temptations

Maintain your momentum. Prevent relapses. The nature of change is tricky. The moment you begin to feel in control, it may give you a false idea that you have won. Often, this is the moment, when you put down your guard.

Just one more project... one more hour at work is not a big deal, after all I am in control now. This is how a smoker thinks about a cigarette when he or she has managed to refrain from smoking for a few hours. Unfortunately, it is a trap. Do not step into the vicious circle again. And if you do, step out as quickly as possible, forgive yourself and go back to your plan.


Implement “positive priorities” and ensure a positive emotional balance. Psychological research shows that high degree of happiness or good quality of life usually are the result of activities directed towards fulfilling one’s own aspirations and dreams. Just as you plan your professional goals or your daily tasks, you should consciously plan and consequently engage in activities that provide you with good energy and positive emotions.

You want to see your friend, but you cannot seem to find the time. Plan it for today, write it down in your diary and make sure not to cancel (“because you need to finish a project” or “because you need to cook supper”). You like to swim, but somehow you can never make it to the swimming pool. Set a couple of days for swimming in your diary and adjust the family calendar to fit your swimming activities.

Do something that makes you happy and will rejuvenate your enthusiasm for life and paradoxically, for work. Exhaling and having a distance to oneself will not detract you from your responsibilities. On the contrary, it will provide you with a sense of choice and will help you to feel positive, while fulfilling your duties.

Balance. Not Burden.

Research shows that overenthusiastic people, i.e. those that “love their jobs” and cannot live without work, experience burnout much sooner and more often. People who like what they do professionally, but who also appreciate having free time to do other things, have more distance to their work and although the flame of engagement in their job is smaller, it burns for a longer time.

It is up to you to establish your work-life balance and to ensure that it is a balance, not a burden.


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The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 2/17”.

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About the author

dr Ewa Jarczewska-Gerc – psychologist, SWPS University. Specializes in psychology of individual differences. Her work focuses on psychology of motivation, effectiveness, perseverance and mental simulations. Her research interests include the relation between various forms of thinking, effectiveness and perseverance.