You love your job, you like the people you work with, you have a great family but you seem to finish every day thinking ‘There just aren’t enough hours to get everything I need to do done‘. Sadly you would not be alone in these thoughts.

In the words of Doug McAvoy, General Secretary of the NUT, ‘Excessive teacher workload… has stolen teachers’ time and sapped creativity.’ Strong sentiments maybe, but a view no doubt shared by many of today’s professionals – more than a third of all absence in the workplace is due to worklife imbalance and yet a lot can be done to address the issue.

Working to Excess

Two of the top causes of teacher stress identified by the NUT are inter-related, namely excessive hours and workload. Add to this the ‘last minute changes to routine’, as one teacher described it, with ‘many of the problems stemming from conflicts of interest between school and home’, and you have the recipe for a very disruptive and unfulfilling life.

Further feedback from teachers suggests that the main problems facing them fall into four categories – the behaviour of pupils and fellow staff, a lack of respect and consultation, inadequate resources and external demands on time.

Everyone recognises that inefficient use of time is a major source of stress for teachers but it isn’t just the effect it has on their professional work-load. Every time you are asked to do out-of-hours activities, it’s not just your work diary that needs to be re-scheduled but also your personal life, often impacting upon the plans made by family and friends.

It’s this final area – the battle between work and the home – that is the one element you and I can change. It’s not working long hours in itself that is necessarily the problem after all, most of us occasionally put in the extra time when we have to meet an urgent deadline. However, imbalance occurs when such long hours become the norm and taking time out to address home needs just doesn’t happen.

And we don’t have to look far to see the full impact, especially those of us who are women trying to man-age several different roles, whether it’s mother, breadwinner, wife or occasional nurse. With 85% of care still falling to the woman (as does the washing, ironing, birthday cards…), over one in five of us also have to care for both our elders and children. Build in the fact that childcare is with us on average for 16 years and eldercare takes around 22 years, and we have a serious amount of juggling to do!

A balanced life – is it a dream or reality?

So, is it just a pipedream to expect more from our lives? If not, how can we turn this situation around? We need to stop for a while to allow our-selves the opportunity to reflect on our work and life priorities. While this article can’t influence your volume of work or the conditions you find yourself in, you can address how you manage your time and create a more healthy balance between work and home.

I can’t do anything on my own – can I?

Let’s be clear of one thing – worklife balance is not confined to high-flying global corporations. While it’s true that these companies make huge savings in absenteeism, staff leaving and other related costs, the individual can go some way to improving their own work/home equilibrium.

But before embarking on a worklife balance programme, we need to not just identify the symptoms – stress, ill health, even an overbearing sense of guilt has been cited – but recognise the full range of issues facing today’s teachers in their ‘average’ day.

In the work environment, balance is all about productivity, prioritising, communicating and improving assertiveness. Many of these areas are driven by each individual’s circumstances, their school’s goals and expectations.

Balance in your own life, by contrast, is more to do with finding time for yourself, developing relationships, building your own self-worth, self-belief and confidence. While these areas often involve others, you have the skills to influence them more pro-actively than the work issues. After all, you manage the development of 30 children every day, so how difficult can balancing the life of one 25-year old professional be?

Developing a Personal Action Plan

How can we go about making a difference? Let’s begin with an understanding of what worklife balance is and what it isn’t. We must recognise that worklife balance is not just one point in your life, but more of a journey. A way of life that can be built upon, to ensure that your responsibilities, as well as your needs, are met. A pupil, from their first tentative lesson, builds on their education over many years through constant revision and assessments.

In the same way, we must learn to use incremental steps to achieve worklife balance, regularly re-assessing our progress and introducing new targets as we go forward.

Ten Things to do NOW!

Because it’s a journey where you make changes across different aspects of your life, these elements often combine to provide even greater over-all benefits. To start you off, here are a few simple steps you can take TODAY that can change your outlook and begin addressing some of the imbalance in your life. They are all quick to implement, don’t require vast changes to your lifestyle and yet offer the rapid, incremental improvements that make it all feel worthwhile.

Once you have tried one or two of them, you will notice how you are taking back some control of the important things in life.

Juggling – a 21st Century Skill

While developing our Dancing Round the Handbags courses, we quickly recognised that professional women had one common problem facing them – trying to juggle multiple roles in a society where the demands of work and life are increasing.

In teaching, as in all professions, it cannot be denied that a woman’s needs, skills and desires often drop to the bottom of the pile, get forgotten or go unnoticed. This situation is borne out when we consider that almost two-thirds of new businesses are started by women who are finding it difficult to work in a ‘traditional’ environment.

What next?

We have looked at where the problems with work life balance typically arise and you now know the areas that you can change or influence. You have some ideas on how to tackle issues facing you now and into the future. But this is only the start of your worklife balance journey and you can achieve much more over the coming months and years – if you want to learn more about our Dancing Round the Handbags course, call us on 01672 519385.

Are you a human being or a human doing?

Top tips for WLB & Stress

  • Think of your day as 24 hours. Decide how much time you are going to spend sleeping, eating, being with family, working, leisure and time for ‘me’. This isn’t always easy, but try just 10 minutes for yourself at first, and build up.
  • If you take work home, set times when you will deal with this and be strict about it. Don’t get distracted and then allow the work to drag on all night/weekend. Make sure you have a ‘stop time’ so that you can relax.
  • Once you’ve built up on 10 minutes ‘for me’, try to spend 30 minutes just doing nothing. If you can, let your mind drift.
  • Clear your desk every evening and be less hassled when you get in the next day.
  • Keep up to date with technological short cuts. Ask your IT department to advise.
  • Delegate more – be honest, is there anything you can pass to the school office, or the support assistants?
  • Ban sticky notes from your desk. You’ll be distracted and react to them, rather than completing anything.
  • Refuse to argue over small things. It’s a waste of time to bicker and causes more stress in the end.
  • Above all – strike a balance: work out when you have to give 100% and when just 70% will be OK.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, July 2004.

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