You’ll never regret finding the right work-life balance

Being more balanced would not only be good for our personal well-being, it would make us happier, more productive workers in the long run, writes Fatima Al Shamsi

Just last month, the Swedish city of Gothenburg announced that is it considering implementing a six-hour work day. The municipal government is hoping to show a decrease in sick days and an increase in the physical and mental health of employees who work shorter days. Given the sedentary nature of many jobs these days, I think that trying out different systems such as shorter hours, flexible hours, allowing work from outside the office, or some hybrid of these, is the way forward.

The eight-hour work day was first proposed during the Industrial Revolution, where factory employees worked extremely long hours. It was the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen who coined the slogan: “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”

Studies have demonstrated that spending more time at work does not mean higher productivity. While there might be an initial boost, after a few weeks output will decline and people are more likely to burn out. In addition, psychological studies have shown that most people actually work harder when their time is restricted.

While eight hours might not seem like such a terrible number, when you consider commuting time, overtime and how many people spend hours outside of work preparing for work, it becomes clearer how this can become draining.

In addition to the adverse health effects from sitting in front of a computer all day, working long hours has social costs – not to mention the mind-numbing and soul-crushing sensation derived from routine without rest.

In his book Bowling Alone, Harvard University professor Robert Putnam commented on the deterioration of “social capital” as people spent less time with family, friends, neighbours and community organisations. This isn’t favourable, as most sociologists agree that social networks have value.

What I used to cherish most about coming to the UAE as a child during my summer or winter holidays was the frequent gatherings of my extended family. In recent years, however, I have noticed that everyone is just too busy. Now that I am living in Abu Dhabi it seems like it needs to be a matter of national security just to convince people to come together for a few hours.

I grew up in New York and thus I have an appreciation for busy schedules and being overworked. However, being a perpetual nomad has taught me that there is nothing more precious than making time for those you love. I strongly believe that we need to start emphasising work-life balance.

A while back, an article went viral online based on the book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, which recounted the experiences of Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse. Among the regrets of elderly people were: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” and “ I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends”. It turns out that, as they aged, people – especially men– regretted the fact that they missed out on their children’s youth or their partner’s companionship. It goes to show how investment in our social life is just as crucial as hard work and dedication to our career.

Despite knowing that it is impossible to achieve a perfect balance, and that there’s nothing wrong with the occasional periods of extreme dedication – whether it be towards work projects or family time– most of us hang onto a mythical “later” when we’ll truly get to relax.

I think we need to dedicate more time to our physical health, and time for our friends and family to improve our emotional health. We also need to encourage “personal time” instead of associating rest and relaxation with laziness. Most importantly, I think we need to place emphasis on hobbies, to stay inspired and keep our creativity flowing, and involvement in community organisations in order to foster connections between members of society.

In France, which already has a 35-hour work week, one group of workers have a labour agreement that requires them to stop responding to work emails or reading work-related material after 6pm. I think that is a step in the right direction. Being more balanced would not only be good for our personal well-being, it would most likely make us happier, more productive workers in the long run.

Fatima Al Shamsi is an Emirati who recently returned from New York City after pursuing a master’s degree in Global Affairs at NYU

Published: May 15, 2014 04:00 AM

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