National Work Life Week

Emma Slaven
Emma Slaven , senior adviser and mental health lead

Emma started working for Acas in 2013 and has worked in a diverse range of roles within the organisation. She specialises in mental health and wellbeing and has worked closely with a large number of private and public sector organisations to help them introduce and implement wellbeing strategies.

For many of us the pandemic has changed the way we work, particularly for those working from home. At the start of the lockdown restrictions, many people had to very quickly transition to working from home. This also required having to quickly adapt to how the experience differed from working in an office.

Managing work-life balance

Some people have really enjoyed the flexibility that working from home can bring. For example, it can be easier to balance childcare, have control over your environment and to build in time for wellbeing activities such as going for a walk at lunchtime.

However, a downside of being able to work from home is that the boundaries between our work life and home life can become blurred. It can be difficult to switch off (both physically and mentally) from work. It can be very tempting to work longer hours, especially as we don’t have the pressure of commuting or have to worry about child care. We can end up working longer in the evenings and possibly on the weekends because it feels convenient.

Whilst this might feel convenient, this undoubtedly is not good for our mental health and wellbeing. It’s important to have downtime from work to allow us to recover and recuperate from the challenges we’ve faced during the day. Without this time, we are risking becoming overwhelmed and reaching burnout.

Role-modelling positive behaviours

A challenge for employers is how to encourage a work-life balance and ensure staff are taking adequate breaks when they are working from home. A key thing to consider is what tone and culture is being set in terms of a work-life balance by senior leaders and line managers within the organisation.

Very often what is acceptable, in terms of workplace behaviours, is set by the management team. Are there examples of positive behaviours that are conducive to work-life balance – for example taking regular breaks – or are there examples of unhealthy work life habits, such as back to back meetings and late-night emails?

By having a management team who role-model positive behaviours that support work life balance, this gives staff permission to do the same.

Addressing important issues

If as an organisation you are becoming aware that staff are working excessive hours and not taking sufficient breaks, it’s important to consider why that is. Is it because of the organisational culture? Or is it an indicator that there are further issues within the organisation or team that require attention? For example, a resourcing issue, lack of training or workplace conflict?

Also taking account of whether this has always been the case or whether it has got worse since working from home will help you come to a conclusion about the cause. The worst thing to do is ignore it, as it is likely to get worse or even unfortunately result in sickness absence or resignations.

Organisations can take a proactive approach to supporting mental health at work and encouraging a work-life balance, for example by introducing guidance around avoiding meetings at lunchtimes and encouraging staff to go for a lunchtime walk (this includes when people are at the office and at home). Putting on lunchtime wellness sessions such as yoga and mindfulness is also a way to encourage staff to take time out of their day.

As many organisations start to consider hybrid working and how it will work for them, now is a good time for organisations to take stock of their culture in terms of work-life balance. It's important to replicate the positives, but also to take action to remove the unhealthy work habits that may have crept in since working from home.