How about a round of golf on a Monday morning before heading to work in the afternoon? It could be a reality with work-life integration. Workers today are constantly connected and reachable, which means they never fully check out from work. But, by re-organizing their time through work-life integration, it’s possible to avoid burnout and live a more fulfilling life.
The remote work trend forced by the COVID-19 epidemic exacerbated the blurring of lines between personal time and work time. Therefore, it’s more critical than ever to maintain boundaries between the two to find balance. This article explains what work-life integration is, why you need to incorporate it into your life, and provides tips for alleviating the stress caused by constant connectivity.
What is work-life integration? How does it differ from work-life balance? According to Brigid Schulte, journalist and author of the book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” both terms are related to achieving a life that accommodates time for work, family, self-care, and play. However, the terms differ in that work-life balance is the outcome that you are trying to achieve while work-life integration is the process you follow to achieve that outcome.
Here's an example. Let’s say you are a freelance graphic designer. Let’s also say that you are an avid golfer. You might decide to organize your week so that you have one day free to play golf, but you then make up those hours in the evening or at the weekend. The organization of your time and activities is the process of work-life integration that provides balance.
Setting your own schedule means that you can achieve better synergies in all aspects of your life, whether it be professional advancement, childcare, elderly parent care, or personal well-being. That’s a good thing because, according to a recent study by Hong et al. published in the journal “Preventive Medicine,” a sense of control is related to better mental wellness, lower psychological distress, and decreased loneliness.
Being in control of your own time gives a sense of empowerment, which improves confidence and self-esteem.
Also, work-life integration means that you don’t have to feel that the different aspects of your life are competing for your time and energy. According to what works for you, you can allocate your resources to work, childcare, aging parents, spending time with your significant other, exercise, social obligations, and hobbies.
On the other hand, being in control means you are responsible for your productivity. You have to be disciplined because there is a lot to juggle.
People tend to be hard on themselves. There is pressure to perform in all aspects of our lives—as a student, as an employee, or as a parent. So, when we have the power to choose how we spend our time, the right choices are not always clear.
Employers often exert pressure on employees to do more, which means that work encroaches onto free time or time that has been allocated to other things. The boundaries set between work and personal time are eroded.
A 2019 Priceline study found that 53% of American workers don’t use all of their vacation days, and 18% of those don’t take all of their days because they feel guilty for doing so. Additionally, almost one-third said that their employers expect them be “available” when they are on vacation.
Another study by DeFilippis et al. found that the average workday has increased by almost 50 minutes post-COVID. Remote work means that our living room is often our office. Granted, there is no commute, but there is also no differentiation between the space used for home and work activities.
Without differentiation, it’s easy to try to pack too much in and miss out on necessary things like sleep or nutrition. For example, the feeling of always having to make up work hours could mean that an individual works late into the night or skips meals and eats poorly. They might resort to substance abuse to keep themselves awake to get more tasks done.
The bottom line is that work-life integration requires self-discipline. It requires coming up with a plan and sticking to it. Work-life integration also requires that your workplace culture and your family support your efforts.
That’s a lot of requirements, so how can you make it work in practice?
As already mentioned, you can only achieve fluidity and flexibility in organizing your life if your work supports work-life integration and you have a supportive family structure.
If you are expected to be at your desk from 9 to 5 pm without fail, work-life integration is impossible. Thankfully, the traditional 9 to 5 work model is outdated, and the Gen-Z and Millennial generations who will soon make up the bulk of the workforce are demanding flexibility and control in all areas of their lives. Employers don’t have much choice but to accommodate their working preferences if they are to find talent.
Many companies are already using remote work collaboration tools and offering tuition reimbursement, childcare, and flexible telecommuting arrangements to help employees achieve their personal and professional goals.
If your work and personal situations are amenable to work-life integration, that’s a good start. The next steps are to develop the skills you need to organize your life, build boundaries, and practice discipline.
To envisage how you can reshape your work-life framework, focus less on “work time” and “personal time” and think about when the best time is to do things. For example, from 6 am to 8 am might be a good time to check email and respond to work queries before the family gets up and needs your attention. Lunchtime might be a good time to exercise.
Your schedule might change each day depending on what you have to get done. The secret is to devote time to one thing so that you can focus on that without being pulled in different directions. If that happens, you will end up doing everything poorly.
Here are the steps you can take to integrate your work and personal lives.
What does work-life balance look like for you? Do you want more time with family? Do you want improve your mental health and feel less stress from your work? Do you want to spend time on hobbies or another project? Do you want more time to exercise?
We all want the most out of life, but the key here is to be realistic and to prioritize. You only have 24 hours in a day, so don’t expect to be able to work full time, study for a graduate degree, care for family members, and train for a marathon all at the same time.
Work-life integration will not suddenly make you superman or superwoman; there will have to be trade-offs, but it might make your life more manageable and liveable. List your priorities, and then realistically decide what you can achieve in the time that you have. This is the most important step because if you over-reach, you may sabotage the whole point of work-life integration.
You may need to discuss your ideas with human resources to get their buy-in for remote work or a flexible work arrangement. If that is the case, you will need to come up with a detailed plan and strategy to present to your employer.
Your employer can’t control the demands of your personal life, but they can support work-life integration, which might make you more productive. You need to sell your proposal, so explain to your employer how they will benefit from supporting work-life integration.
Even if you do not need to consult an employer—for example, if you are an independent freelancer or an entrepreneur—you will still need a plan. Only with a plan can you set boundaries that you can follow so that you don’t overreach or become overwhelmed.
It is difficult when you are working on one thing to not feel guilty for not working on another. Also, many people feel guilty taking time for themselves. Working all the time only leads to burnout.
Consider whether you can have others do some of your tasks. Paying someone to walk the dog or getting groceries delivered can really take a load off a hectic week. That’s why it’s crucial to come up with a strategy and stick to it. Don’t let your emotions derail you. Also, cut yourself some slack. You may not always be able to achieve all that you had planned.
You might try one thing, but then have to change your original plan. It is going to take you some time to transition successfully. More to the point, circumstances in your personal and professional life are constantly changing, so be ready to experiment. Try different things.
Your routine may also change according to the seasons. For example, going for a lunch time run might be doable in the fall when temperatures are cool all day. However, in the summer when it is hot and humid, it might be better to go in the early morning.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work has become more of a norm, and the 9 to 5 work environment is antiquated. Workers in many cases have the opportunity to take back some control of their lives. Done right, work-life integration can allow you to enjoy all parts of your life by better organizing your schedule and responsibilities.
The concept of work-life integration is self-discipline, planning, and respecting boundaries so that you can incorporate all aspects of your life and be happier. Done right, a new work model might offer some perks like a round of golf with friends on Monday before work. Try work-life integration for a lower handicap on the golf course and a better drive in your professional life.