As an occupational therapist, I help people engage in meaningful 'occupations', which refers not only to work, but all of our everyday activities. I certainly didn't have 'occupational balance' as a busy student, and once I began my career, balance felt even more inaccessible. To prevent burnout, I had to learn how to create space and peace in the most stressful aspect of my life -- work. Here are the four most important lessons I learned on the path to wellness:
1) Prioritize. Create lists daily according to higher and lower priority. High priority means they must be done today. Let the lower priority items go. Don’t rush to accomplish them all -- accept that the to-do list will never be completely done. Also, don’t set yourself up for disappointment by being unrealistic about how much you can accomplish on your high priority list.
2) Set Boundaries. If your high priority list is consistently too long, you may need to examine other alternatives, in conjunction with co-workers or supervisors. This could involve delegation, cooperation with team members, and streamlining or eliminating cumbersome processes. Overextending yourself leads to burnout. You may be able to get it all done this week, this month, or this year, but you must find a sustainable pace for the long term. Just as heavy manual labourers must look after themselves physically and pace their work to avoid debilitating injuries, we must use our mental, physical, and emotional energy wisely and invest in our long-term health.
3) Take self-care seriously. Each week or month, address an area of your life that could use some attention. These could include your sleep quality and quantity, nutrition, exercise, relationships, and taking time to pursue your non-work passions. We can bring more energy to our work when we have replenished the store through taking care of ourselves and expressing other parts of our identities.
4) Find ways to incorporate micro-breaks throughout your workday. Micro-breaks will enhance your productivity rather than detract from it. The key to effectiveness is to find a place for them in your routines, and turn them into habits. Take the time to practice diaphragmatic or belly breathing for one to two minutes while your computer is starting up. Pause to breathe briefly before answering the phone. Stand to do a forward bend while on the phone. Type or walk slightly more slowly and mindfully. Go for a short walk to get your circulation moving before or after lunch. Explore relaxation techniques, like meditation, yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation outside of work -- the more this becomes part of your everyday life, the easier it is to bring peace to work.
Our work habits reveal much about our approach to life, and fostering change on the job can mean tremendous personal growth. Invest in your health by practicing these four principles!