"I like the idea that to be effective you have to live your life, not only to work. So if you don't know anymore if you are able to maintain a work-life balance, the first question to ask yourself is whether or not you have time for life after work: for family, hobbies, and relaxation. The second question is whether you have the energy for leisure activities. And the third one is how you feel when you’re not working, whether you can detach yourself from all work-related matters, and whether you’re not plagued by anxiety and bad thoughts about unfinished business. And if the answer to these questions is yes, even if it’s not every day, but at least a few times a week, it is a sign that there is a problem with the balance and a change is needed," – says the psychologist of the Faculty of Philosophy at Vilnius University, Associate Professor Jurgita Lazauskaitė-Zabielskė.
It is an illusion, she says, that if we give ourselves entirely to work, we will be productive. Scientific research shows unequivocally that if we don't have quality rest and leisure time, we can't perform well. It is only a matter of time before a person's emotional, physical, and psychological resources are exhausted by working non-stop.
What determines the inclination to overwork?
According to the researcher, there are many reasons why people so often fall into the trap of working endlessly – it depends on socio-economic factors (the desire and need to earn more), the culture of the organisation, and the personal qualities of the employee.
According to the psychologist, the ability to balance work and life depends, of course, first and foremost on an individual, on how many opportunities they see at work and in their personal life. What is a higher priority for them – their career or their personal life, their family.
"We are also different in terms of the boundaries we set around certain areas of our lives. Some draw a very clear line around their personal life and do not allow their work to intrude. Others draw a strict line at work and are engaged fully in work activities during working hours. Still, others work and live at the same time. It can also depend on the nature of the job, as there are some jobs where it's not really possible to do personal things, but very often the way you manage the boundaries of work and life is a personal choice," says Lazauskaitė-Zabielskė.
Overworking can also be triggered by perfectionism, where people set themselves very high goals and every failure is particularly painful, or where the workload is simply too high. Sometimes employees unwittingly start working overtime because it may be part of the organisation's normal working culture.
During the pandemic, this trend became even more pronounced. Employers wanted their employees to be available and accessible at all times, even in their free time. "Working remotely often means showing your employer that your productivity hasn't suffered despite working from home. In addition, work time lost during the day due to personal commitments is shifted to the evening or weekend. That is why, even before and during the pandemic, studies by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions showed that those who work remotely tend to work longer hours," the psychologist recalls.
Attempts to establish the employee's right to disconnect
As the scientist explains, while before the pandemic it was difficult for some people to forget about work when they closed the office door and not to bring it home in their minds, during the lockdown, work came into our homes physically. Maintaining the boundaries between work and private life became even more difficult.
During the lockdown, boundaries between work and life were blurred, as people had to work and live in the same space. This required significantly more energy and resources. During the pandemic, VU psychologists carried out a study in which they monitored 60 people working remotely every day for a week. "The results showed that the more you had to switch between work and personal things during the day, the more exhausted you felt at the end of it. This effect was particularly pronounced for workers who needed to separate work and private life and rest. In addition, those employees who faced unexpected interruptions in their work and personal lives on a daily basis during the working week and had to change their daily plans, as a result, were more tired and in a worse mood not only during the working days, but also at the weekend. So the negative effects of a failed work-life balance can be seen in as little as one week," commented the VU psychologist.
Lockdown has brought into the world of work one more thing that negatively affects the work-life balance – the "always connected" culture. According to Spinter Research, 40% of employees in Lithuania worked remotely during the first lockdown. However, more than half of them disregarded working hours, i.e. their employer bothered them at lunchtime and after working hours. Some professions did not have fixed working hours during the lockdown at all (e.g. doctors, teachers). Therefore, to prevent people from getting tired of working all the time, labour policymakers are currently engaged in an intense debate, and VU psychologists have started research on the right to disconnect from the internet after working hours without facing negative consequences.
In some countries, this right is already regulated by law, which prohibits an employer from contacting an employee about work-related issues after working hours.
However, as Lazauskaitė-Zabielskė assures, organisations can deal with this issue without legal measures, as there are already companies in our country with effective agreements between managers and employees not to disturb each other by email, telephone, or other means of communication for work-related matters after working hours, during lunch breaks, and especially during holidays, in order to allow a person to have free time to restore their resources. Research conducted by VU scientists on Lithuanian employees shows that organisations with a climate of relaxation, i.e. where after working hours employees are able to forget about work, keep work issues out of their personal lives, and psychologically detach themselves from their work, have higher motivation, lower fatigue, and higher satisfaction with the organisation itself.
"But what if you've already been interrupted in your free time? In this case, it is advisable to respond to a call or an email in a way that gives you a feeling of work done and a sense of achievement. In this way, research shows that disturbance will not have a negative effect on you", advises Lazauskaitė-Zabielskė.
Not willing to return to the office
Despite the fatigue caused by the lockdown and remote work, and the life-work imbalance, workers are no longer willing to return fully to their physical workplaces, as they have adapted to the changed working conditions and have set up comfortable workplaces at home.
Of the nearly 5,000 Lithuanian employees surveyed by VU psychologists, only 3% said they wanted to return to the physical workplace. The vast majority – 82% – said they wanted to work in a hybrid way. They identified three main reasons for this decision, which are the same across Europe. Lazauskaitė-Zabielskė says that, first of all, there is a reluctance to go back to the office because of the financial and time savings (commuting to/from work, shoes, clothes, meals, etc.). Respondents also say that working remotely helps them achieve a better work-life balance (although research suggests otherwise). The third reason is that people say they often find working from home more productive, while at the same time admitting that there are tasks that are better done in the office.
"Many respondents say they want to work in a hybrid way and I think this is the way of the future. The European Commission estimates that 37% of jobs in Europe can be done remotely. And if they can be, they will be done remotely or by a hybrid model. Flexible forms of work will also be on the rise to compensate for the growing shortage of workforce," the VU researcher is convinced.
She adds that 100% remote working is not recommended either, as working from home more than 2-3 days a week has all the negative consequences of remote working: increased emotional exhaustion, loss of connection with the organisation and colleagues, lower motivation, and difficulty in receiving and giving feedback during the work process. On the other hand, before choosing a form of work, employees should also assess not only their own preferences, but also their capabilities: whether working remotely is suitable for them, whether they have all the necessary resources, and whether they can plan and organise their day, communicate effectively with colleagues, achieve long-term goals independently, and work without control.
Choosing a job based on lifestyle
While being a workaholic was trendy in Lithuania a decade ago, now the ability to combine work and leisure is becoming a very important value for almost half of Lithuanians, who say that if they lost this opportunity at work, they would think about changing jobs.
"Indeed, work is no longer seen as a necessary evil and personal life as a desirable good. Work has come to be seen as something that enriches life in many ways. A decade ago, people started to choose their jobs more in line with their lifestyles, values and basic needs. What matters is not only the extent to which a job fulfils a person's financial interests, but also the extent to which it satisfies other psychological needs of a person: growth, recognition, and self-expression. We can observe this trend in scientific research, too", says the psychologist.
She calls this breakthrough a clear sign of economic welfare. We can afford to choose a job according to our needs, and before we sign a job contract, we first ask ourselves how well the job suits me, my interests, and my habits. People who like to travel are more likely to choose a job with a lot of business travel, or those who like to interact with people are more likely to choose a job with a lot of relationship development, etc.
"In many jobs and professions, there are no longer two sides: the employer and the employee, who have to be mediated by trade unions. There is a person who chooses what work to do and when to do it. As the freedom to choose how and when we work grows, so does the personal responsibility of the employee and the need for new skills. It is becoming essential for a person to have the skills to plan their work and life so that they can stay healthy and remain in the workforce for as long as possible," she says.
When asked what other new skills we need to keep our careers sustainable, our motivation strong and our work-life balance effective, she reiterates that long- and short-term planning, tracking progress, and psychological detachment are key skills for tomorrow's employees.