How To Rebuild Your Work/Life Balance Post-Pandemic
Since March 2020, businesses and leaders have experienced such an unprecedented period of upheaval and change that the media wore out the word ‘unprecedented’. Harvard Business Review summed it up perfectly: “Covid-19 managed to upend the few things that felt relatively predictable, like where we spent our working hours, how we collaborated with colleagues, and whether or not we bothered to put on real pants each day.”
It is not just the number of working hours and the scale of the problems that is exhausting leaders and upending any sense of work/life balance. It is the volume of change and uncertainty that they are processing. The human brain isn’t a great fan of uncertainty. If we aren’t sure what’s around the corner or what will unfold next, our brains translate this as a risky situation and go on high alert. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight or flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system drives the ‘freeze’ response. We all recognise the many physical changes that happen in tandem with these neurological responses; heart racing and adrenaline pumping designed to help us fight hard or run fast. In the modern day, these responses help us automatically react to many everyday dangers. They make us feel wary when walking in a dark street and slam on the brakes when the car in front stops suddenly.
However, this response is less helpful when dealing with the complex threats of the modern world such as emotional turmoil, economic uncertainty and the impact of a pandemic. If we find ourselves in an uncertain position for long periods of time, we begin to feel exhausted and burnt out, as experienced by many people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
What can be done to counter this issue?
While everything being thrown up in the air sends our brains into meltdown, focusing on things that stay the same can help us deal with change. It may seem contradictory, but finding things which remain constant helps us handle change and even helps us to change in tandem with our surroundings.
We can think of these constants as anchors in stormy waters. Anchors still allow a ship to rise and fall with the ever-shifting waves but prevent a boat from becoming completely unmoored, getting way off course or crashing on the rocks if seas get very stormy. And if a boat needs to move location completely it doesn’t cut the anchor loose. It picks it up and places it down in whatever new place it finds itself to provide security in its new surroundings.
Anchors provide similar benefits in our lives and work. They keep us grounded, providing a sense of consistency and routine. They can help us feel secure when it feels like everything is in turmoil and they help us navigate turbulence by providing touchstones to remind us of who we are and what is important to us.
What do anchors look like?
We may have many personal anchors including everyday rituals and routines like exercise, reading, cooking or speaking to friends and family. Less tangible anchors that are vital in shaping our sense of identity and how we live include our values, behaviours, ethics and our spiritual or religious beliefs.
Individuals and companies also have professional anchors. As individuals these range from our salary, job title and responsibilities through to our desk, office or friends at work. In companies, aspects like processes, culture, values, buildings, codes of conduct and even floor plans all anchor a company operating in a particular way.
The great ‘work from home’ experiment for office workers in 2020 and 2021 is a powerful example of what can happen when too many anchors are severed at once during periods of upheaval. Against a backdrop of huge social and cultural anxiety, many leaders also found themselves with every aspect of their work routine upended. While there were many positives in terms of increased flexibility and the removal of wasted commute time, this total change of routine also came with downsides. There was no time to oneself during a commute, no face-to-face contact, no dedicated workspace, and no chat with colleagues. Without these anchors, normally relied upon to separate work from home and to reduce stress levels, many people found themselves struggling.
Over time some people learned to build in new rhythms and routines to help manage their mental and physical health like carving out a replacement commute time in the morning where they took a short walk to get some air or listen to music before returning to the house to begin work. Or changing out of the clothes they had been working in all day and putting on more casual clothes in the house when their working day ended. Regular contact with people we know is also a critical anchor for many. Those Zoom quizzes and virtual coffees in the early days of lockdown may have been annoying, but they were a natural human attempt to reconnect and anchor back with people we know and were particularly important for those home workers who lost connections with colleagues and friends in the workplace.
Auditing your anchors
To identify your own anchors it is best to begin during a period of calm as once the maelstrom hits it can be harder to see what is working well. At its simplest, this means taking an audit and noting down what currently serves you well. What anchors are fundamental to you, your well-being and your identity? You can think about them in three layers:
My day: e.g. rituals, routines, habits, surroundings.
My life: e.g. values, ethics, goals, priorities, relationships, skills.
My work: e.g. title, team, responsibilities, rewards, location.
Reflect upon how many of your anchors have changed or been lost since the start of the pandemic. Have you let go of some that are vital to your balance and foundations? Do you need to build any back in or replace lost ones with something new? The tool below will help you explore anchors across different categories to capture the small daily habits plus the less tangible but crucially important ones like ethics and values. Also, reflect if any anchors can be cut loose. Holding on to habits or rituals that no longer serve you can hold you back from evolving and keep you tied into old habits.
When change occurs or you are thinking of implementing change, refer to or update this list. Explore what serves you well and should remain consistent and enduring versus what you are happy to evolve. Do some anchors need to be ejected and let go of completely while some new ones are built-in? Are you changing too many at once or holding on to some that it is time to let go of?
Endure: Anchors that must always remain.
Evolve: Anchors that need to change or shift emphasis.
Eject: Anchors to be cut free, that are holding you back.
About the author: Sara Tate is an Executive Coach and co-author of the new book The Rebuilders: Going From Setback to Comeback in Business and Beyond, co-written with Anna Vogt and published by Kogan Page on 3rd June 2022, priced at £12.99.