Wellbeing and Careers Hub > Mental health



Although the concept of ‘work/life balance’ has gained popularity over the years, I think it’s time to add more nuance to the idea. The phrase seems to imply that there are just two elements to our time on Earth, but we all know it’s far more complicated than that. Whether we work or not, our lives comprise a set of circumstances that, ideally, we would like to manage harmoniously. Maybe that’s idealistic, but we can give it a go, starting by identifying the issues.

We all have a basic physical need for food and shelter (hence the ‘work’), but for optimal health and happiness, we also need equilibrium between body and mind, though too often we focus on the one at the expense of the other! Identifying our physical needs is relatively easy – we get hungry, we feel cold, we experience pain – but when it comes to pinning down our psychological needs, the symptoms of neglect are not so obvious. Researchers* have come up with a framework to help classify those needs so that we may more easily assess how well we are addressing them in our quest for a harmonious life. They have come up with half a dozen headings.

  • Meaning: Not everything we do needs to be deep and meaningful but, without a motivational element to drive us, it becomes easy to drift towards nihilism.
  • Autonomy:  This is our need to experience a sense of ownership of our behaviour, to feel in control of our own choices and actions. Autonomy is a basic human need and it shows from a very early age. (Think of toddler tantrums!)
  • Affiliation: Another basic need, the instinct to care for others and feel cared for. Social activities, cherishing existing meaningful relationships with family, friends and colleagues, and building new relationships, all help to create positive emotions and enhance wellbeing.
  • Mastery: This describes our need for seeking challenges to experience feelings of achievement and competence. Although this requires effort, it create new resources, such as skills and knowledge – and they enhance our positive mood.
  • Relaxation: We need periods of low activation of the body and the mind, and they are fostered by activities that demand little physical or intellectual effort and that place few social demands on us. We all know our favourite forms of relaxation and we all would like to make time for them.
  • Detachment: This describes the need for psychological disengagement from effortful tasks, such as certain work-related activities or care-taking responsibilities. But true detachment involves not only stopping the demanding activity itself, but also not thinking about it. Switching off from these thoughts is important to be fully present in the moment. Psychological detachment forms the basis for other experiences to occur. So, you first need to disengage before you can fully engage in something else, such as relaxing.

A list such as this will be helpful to those who feel that they have been drawn off-course and one or more of the elements in their lives has come to dominate their time, through necessity, false reckoning or habitual default. In such a case it can be useful to do an audit by keeping a journal of how time is spent, thereby identifying which issues are dominating and why. The task of keeping all the elements in harmony certainly can be daunting but the process is illuminating – and the prize is well worth reaching for.

*David Newman, Louis Tay & Ed Diener.

By Rachel Ward Lilley. Rachel is a business and educational psychologist. She has worked for many years advising SMEs and her current work relates to issues of resilience, communication, personal development, team building and motivation. Over the past 12 years Rachel has extended her work into the educational field.  Find out more here.

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