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The bumpy work-life teeter-totter

As Canadians work harder than ever, they’re risking their health – and their relationships

We can’t seem to get a smooth ride on the work-life teeter-totter. Consider this: Almost two-thirds of Canadians work more than 45 hours a week – a 50-per cent increase over 20 years ago.

The Great Recession of 2008 means we’re at our desks more than ever, with less flex time and more demands on us daily.

These findings are part of the National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada conducted by professors Linda Duxbury of Carleton University and Christopher Higgins of the University of Western Ontario. The report surveyed some 25,000 Canadians from all provinces and two territories. It’s the third such study in two decades – and the conclusions aren’t pretty.

Fully disengage from work

We should know better than to invest everything in our careers. Yet sometimes, resistance appear to be futile. Our to-do lists at the office can appear to be so formidable, so it’s hard to flick the “off-duty” switch when we leave work for the day. Maybe if we took home just one report to read ….

“Being fully disengaged from work is important for productivity and your mental health when you return”

—Dr. Scott Schieman,  Schieman, professor and expert in work-life balance.

Stop right there, says sociologist Scott Schieman, a University of Toronto professor and an expert in work-life balance. Your very health is at risk – work stress can cause gastric problems and even heart conditions, among other things – if you don’t create distinct boundaries between home and on-the-job. You may promise yourself that you’ll just glance over one document. Yet office work has an infinite capacity for expansion – and if you let it take over your down time, your family might suffer, too. “Being fully disengaged from work is important for productivity and your mental health when you return,” says Dr. Schieman. “The key issue is, How does the way we feel about being the ‘ideal worker’ square with our needs outside of work? – that is the question for finding the right work-life fit.”

He adds that despite the temptation to do otherwise, we all have to learn to just say no when it comes to after-hours professional commitments. It’s not just about leaving that file at the office. It’s about having the courage to reject a request to stay late to meet a project deadline or to turn down an invitation to join the gang for an after-work drink. Here are his tricks of the trade for achieving work-life balance.

Commit to being elsewhere

Does your daughter’s team need a soccer coach? Volunteer – and schedule practices for 5:30, so you’ll be obliged to leave the office on time. An extra advantage? Additional bonding time with your child and her friends. Or take a cooking class right after work. A change of activity will help you switch your focus. Think of the move as your way of changing your brain’s TV channel.

Use your technology wisely

It’s probably unrealistic to adopt a totally unplugged policy when you’re at home relaxing – but the key word here is relaxing. If you’re on the net, make a concerted effort to stay away from any work-related surfing. Don’t even sneak a peek at your office inbox, because that’s a dangerous slippery slope, says. Dr. Schieman. “Be aware of the ways that checking emails after hours might cause disruptions in your non-work life,” he warns.

Then there’s your cell phone. If you’re the kind of person who can’t let a text or a call go unanswered, it might be wise to have two accounts and devices – one for your professional life and one for home. That way, you can leave your work phone in your desk when you shut your office door for the day.

Relish your family and friends

The pace and stress of the average workday can sometime make us forget what’s truly important – the people we hold dear. Haven’t seen your good buddy Andrew in a couple of weeks? Why not give him a call before you leave the office and schedule a get-together to catch up? Perhaps your daughter has a science project she’s been working on. Maybe you can arrange a trip to the craft store with her to pick up all the materials she’ll need, followed by an intimate parent-and-daughter supper on the town.

Learning to disengage takes effort, says Dr. Schieman, but the rewards are worth it. Nothing less than your well-being is a stake. ◊