Counseling Today, Cover Stories

Regaining life balance

Lynne Shallcross June 15, 2009

One of Patty Von Steen’s clients, a single mom and medical professional, contacted the private practitioner to see if Von Steen would counsel her son. The mother had grown concerned about his behavior and their increasingly strained relationship.

Von Steen, a member of the American Counseling Association, quickly concluded the deteriorating situation was less about the son and more about an overworked mother. “In counseling, it was determined that the parent’s work was consuming so much of her life that her son was often left to fend for himself and, with advancing age, increasingly resented any attempt she made to parent him,” says Von Steen, who maintains a private practice in Greensboro, N.C., and is an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

The decline of the client’s relationship with her son was further complicated by the fact that it represented one of the precious few relationships she had still attempted to nurture over the years. Other relationships had fallen by the wayside because of her intense work schedule. Although decreasing her hours at the office would have been impractical, Von Steen helped the client strengthen her relationships with friends and coworkers while also increasing her involvement at church. By developing a broader social and support network, the client not only gained better balance between work and other segments of her life but also released her son from feeling responsible for her.

That single mom in North Carolina isn’t the only one putting in long days at the office. After all, our nation was built on the principle of a hard day’s work. “There was a time in the U.S. where we just saw hard work being synonymous with leading a good life,” says Patricia Whitfield, an ACA member who has taught counselor education at North Carolina A&T State University for 20 years. “But somewhere along the way, hard work has taken on a different meaning. We’re no longer oriented toward the family farm. Our career development takes place in a different arena.”

It’s true that many Americans no longer end their workday when the sun goes down. And even when they finally do arrive home, most don’t necessarily linger around the dinner table, chit-chatting with family members. Instead, they check their Blackberries, reopen their computers and get back to work. Observes Whitfield, “The opportunities are there for people to work almost without boundaries.”

As Von Steen’s client found out firsthand, work without boundaries can have detrimental effects on the other areas of life. Work-life balance, Von Steen says, is a balance of achievement and enjoyment. Achievement is not limited to work, but also includes the tasks of daily living; enjoyment is attention given to yourself, your friends and your family.

And while some might be quick to assume that work-life balance should be split fifty-fifty, Von Steen believes that’s missing the mark. “Life should be so much more and work so much less,” she says.

Bad economy, better technology

More Americans live to work than work to live, a recent CIGNA study reported (see page 4 of Counseling Today’s May 2009 issue). The majority of those polled said they gain a sense of satisfaction, purpose and structure from their jobs. But counselors say that feel-good factor isn’t the only thing pushing people to work more.

With the economy in a recession and layoffs making daily headlines, people are putting in longer hours at the office in hopes of avoiding the next round of pink slips. “One of the perceptions is that you make yourself indispensable (by working more),” says ACA member Julia Porter, an associate professor of counselor education at Mississippi State University-Meridian. But the increased pressure to perform and contribute often creates unrealistic expectations, Porter says. “That puts a tremendous demand on people to do more than they’re really physically or mentally capable of sustaining over a long period of time.”

The poor economy isn’t only leading to more hours at the office, it’s also causing poor morale. “What I’m hearing a lot of is employees not being as happy in their jobs because of downsizing, threats of downsizing and what that does to the workplace,” Von Steen says. “There’s that feeling of ’I’m not very happy, but I should be because I have a job.’”

The long-term effects of the down economy remain to be seen. But if the present is any indicator, the realities of fewer employees attempting to do the same amount of work will result in more pressure and less flexibility. “It’s certainly not the time that people will feel like they can make a lot of non-work-related choices,” Whitfield says.

“One of the solutions being used to address budget problems is hiring freezes,” Porter adds. “The same amount of work needs to be done, but there are fewer employees to do the work, so there are more demands on the employees who remain. This creates work-life balance issues. When you are asked to work 12 to 16 hours a day, even for a few weeks, other areas of your life are neglected.”

Technology presents another major obstacle to achieving work-life balance. Employers want maximum productivity, and technology makes that possible, Whitfield says. “You’re never really out of touch.”

For many people, that means they’re “on” all the time. “There’s no excuse not to be working or not to be connected,” says ACA member Suzan Zuljani Wasik. A counselor with Carolina Care and Counseling in Raleigh, N.C., Wasik put her work-life balance skills to the test even while being interviewed for this article. She was on a spring break vacation with her family but said she made certain to put her family’s needs first before scheduling a time to chat. She admitted that not checking her work e-mail while on vacation was tough the first day, but then she reminded herself that she chooses to check in — she doesn’t have to. “You have to learn to pace yourself,” she says, “and make your decisions mindfully instead of just out of habit.”

To-do list overload is another factor in a wobbly work-life balance. “The new normal is being neurotic,” Wasik says. “Everyone is so busy. They seem so preoccupied with a never-ending list of things to do yet still don’t feel like they have accomplished much at the end of the day.”

Wasik is also cofounder of Soma Consulting, which specializes in helping people and companies manage their “monkey minds” by becoming more mindful and intentional. Ancient Zen philosophy says that a human mind is like a room full of monkeys, each monkey representing the many thoughts and emotions that go through a person’s head at any given moment. “It could be as simple as ’What am I going to wear to work today?’ to ’What am I going to cook for dinner?’” Wasik says. “It’s all the mindless thoughts we have jumping up and down in our heads that rob us of the present moment.”

Wasik reminds that it’s not only work e-mail that can throw us off balance. “Social networking sites such as Facebook, for example, can bring people together, while at the same time aiding and abetting monkey mind and increasing imbalance,” she says. Her point was driven home by a story that ran in April on CNN.com. It reported on how efforts to keep in touch with friends through Facebook can occasionally spiral out of control, ending with addicts who ignore work and family obligations because they’re lost in a virtual world.

The importance of being intentional

Counselors say that while some clients want to talk about work-life balance problems from the start, it’s more common for clients to present with a variety of issues they have yet to realize may stem from a lack of balance. “Rarely do people present to my practice specifically stating their work and lives are out of balance,” Von Steen says. “However, it can quickly be uncovered when they are under a lot of pressure in the workplace because of work demands and/or conflict with a coworker or supervisor. It soon becomes obvious that work is consuming a lot of their mental and physical energy, leaving them with less energy to engage in the other parts of their lives.” When the scales are tipped more toward work, Von Steen says, problems can naturally arise at home.

For instance, problems with a spouse might stem from an employee being miserable at work, says Mike Walsh, president of the Counseling Association for Humanistic Education and Development, a division of ACA. “There are many people out there that are in positions that don’t quite suit them or their work-life balance is out of whack,” says Walsh, who has a private practice in Hilton Head/Bluffton, S.C. “It’s really difficult to realize that. Sometimes people take a step back and say, ’Wow, I hadn’t noticed that before.’”

While perfect balance might be an unrealistic goal, counselors stress the importance of helping clients reach and maintain a manageable, healthy balance. “When people are out of balance with work or family, that’s when they start getting depressed, anxious or frustrated,” Porter says. “Things can grow into bigger problems.”

An imbalanced life also puts people at greater risk of making poor choices, Walsh says. And those choices made “only for the moment” have a way of sticking, even after we have regained our balance, Walsh warns, citing examples such as poor relationship communication, unhealthy eating and a lack of exercise. “Imbalance can lead to, in my experience, a series of unhealthy choices that can become unhealthy habits,” he says.

Each of the choices we make each day is important, Wasik says. “Being in balance all of the time is not likely for most people who deal with work, life and family issues. The more realistic goal is to intentionally move toward balance through the hundreds of choices we make every day,” she says. “This is done by making mindful, meaningful and intentional choices more often. What we really need to be striving for are more moments of balance.”

And those moments and choices can’t wait, Von Steen says. “In the busyness of our lives, we often think that something or someone can wait. For example, ’I’ll quit smoking when I earn my degree. I’ll be around more once I’m tenured or a partner in the practice.’ When you look at various wheels of life or wheels of wellness, there is a reason that many of the areas are included on the wheels. Although balance across all areas is difficult to achieve on a daily basis, some degree of balance and attention to all is what keeps the wheel strong and moving.”

Giving guidance

Over the course of the past few decades, maintaining a healthy work-life balance has seemingly become more difficult. Not only has the labor market changed, moving from agrarian to industrial to information-based, but individuals in the workforce have changed as well, Whitfield points out. “There are more single parents who work and provide care for children or aging parents at home,” she says. “And there are more dual-career couples who have to meet the demands of their individual careers while addressing personal and family concerns.”

In an increasingly busy world, there are those who believe that professional counselors could — and, perhaps, should — be providing the light at the end of the tunnel for a society in need of better balance, especially given that the profession’s roots grew from a holistic rather than a pathology-based model. “It’s really an ideal fit,” Walsh says. “When you’re looking at the whole person and not just at what the problems are, then work-life balance is a critical part of that.”

Here are a few simple tips that counselors can use to help their clients achieve greater work-life balance.

Clarify values. “(Have clients) make a list of the things that they really, really like in their life, the things they are passionate about, the things they love,” Walsh says. Then ask clients to assess whether that list of valued activities and people truly matches up with their daily routine. As a next step, Walsh recommends brainstorming with clients about how they could fit more of what they love in life into what they do in life.

Make lists. In addition to listing daily activities to see where time is being spent, Von Steen recommends that her clients make lists at work so they can focus on their priorities and feel productive as they check things off. Another good list? A “bucket list,” she says. “What do I want my life to look like?”

Set rules. “If you’re a father and your children are your priority and you’re on the computer all night, how much are they really getting from you?” Von Steen asks. “Give yourself a set of rules that help honor that balance.” Whitfield agrees and recommends that clients establish a set “end time” for work, whatever time that may be. Next, she says, urge clients to think about how they’ll use that leisure time. “Be as true to that time you set as personal time as you are to your work schedule,” Whitfield says.

Don’t waste “transition time.” Von Steen encourages her clients to look at their trip between work and home as another resource in attaining balance. What music do they listen to, what books are they reading, how fast are they driving? “Learn (to use this time) to calm your mind and refocus your energy on the next thing that’s coming up — home, friends, family.”

Do one thing at a time. “Multitasking in our culture is a badge of honor,” Wasik says. “I don’t think that should be. I would like to see people say, ’I was able to complete one thing at a time, and I was fully present, and I feel satisfied.’”

Volunteer. “One of the things people struggle with is finding meaning in life,” says Von Steen, who recommends that her clients try volunteering, especially if they feel undervalued at work. Not only does volunteering offer a sense of value and meaning, it’s a great way to meet people, she says. In addition, it allows clients to explore their other interests, develop new skills and potentially transition into new careers that offer them greater satisfaction and balance.

Pay attention now. One of Wasik’s favorite mantras: Don’t postpone joy for dishes. She says people too often fall into the habit of unnecessarily postponing things that would bring them pleasure — when this or that happens, then we’ll relax and enjoy life. “The truth is that when is now,” she says. “It’s a conscious, intentional decision to pay attention.”

Ask for help. “Let go of the superhuman role,” Von Steen says. Remind clients to look at their support systems and ask for help when they 
need it.

Realize intentions. Wasik challenges her clients to ask themselves the intentions behind their actions. “When you have an intention behind something, you can own the decision,” she says. “You can accept responsibility for the imbalance in your life. And if you accept responsibility for that, you can also accept responsibility for improving it.”

Take five. Initially, some of Walsh’s clients claim they can’t find a spare moment to do something they love because they’re so busy. Walsh suggests these clients start gradually by claiming just five minutes per day to indulge themselves. “Once the clients realize how nourishing it is, then they make time,” he says. “But five minutes is a good place to start.”

Considering the economy

Counselors admit the economy has put a slightly different spin on the advice they give their clients related to work-life balance. Von Steen says the level of unhappiness and stress many people are currently feeling in their jobs might have driven them away previously; likewise, she might have once counseled her clients to ask themselves whether the job was really worth it. But Von Steen shies away from taking that hard line now.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable preaching that right now because I don’t think there may be a job around the corner,” she says. Instead, Von Steen now focuses on helping clients make the most of what they have and explore options for improving their current situation, whether by talking to a supervisor, making a lateral move within the company or finding a mentor at work to offer a positive outlook. Given the current job market, she advises clients not to leave their current employer without first having another job lined up.

Walsh concurs that it’s more difficult for clients to make a career change in this climate. Like Von Steen, he wouldn’t recommend that a client abruptly leave a job, but he says that shouldn’t stop counselors from encouraging clients to further develop their options and choices. “You’re thinking about making an informed choice about change and making positive changes in the future,” he says. “There’s nobody who wouldn’t benefit from the process of thinking that through.”

And while the economy might be doling out extra stress at the office, when it comes to work-life balance, there may be a silver lining. A special report published by Time magazine in April found that Americans are scaling back and paring down. In exchange for ramping down our consumer culture, we’re rediscovering the things and people that matter most to us. One-third of people the magazine polled reported spending more time with family and friends; almost four times as many people said their relationships with their children have improved during the economic crisis as said they have gotten worse.

Back to school

Even though they study it and eventually give others advice about it, neither counseling students nor professional counselors are immune from struggles with work-life balance. In fact, studying to become a counselor or serving as a counselor can present additional challenges.

Earning a counseling degree has always been a juggling act, but it’s getting harder, counselors say. Mississippi State University’s Porter says more nontraditional students are enrolling in all levels of higher education, including professionals returning for more training and older adults coming back to finish or get a degree. That means adding studies to an already full plate. “What we see is that they already have a life flow established,” Porter says. “It does become hard to balance things when everyone is wanting to be the priority.”

The hardest part, Porter says, is when life’s unexpected challenges spring up. She points to a recent student, a 30-something wife and mother with a part-time job and a 2-year-old. Earning a master’s in counseling would have meant more career opportunities for her and better pay, but about halfway through the program, the woman found out she was pregnant with her second child. “Already struggling with balancing work, school and family commitments, she had to make decisions about her priorities,” Porter says.

Because family was a core value, she decided to take two semesters off. It ended up being a good decision because she had complications with the pregnancy that required bed rest, and she then needed to spend extra time caring for the newborn. Upon returning to school, she scaled back her course load. “Giving herself permission to slow down her goal of receiving a graduate degree was a tough but wise choice,” Porter says. “She was able to earn her M.S. degree while balancing her work, family and educational goals.”

Walsh knows this juggling act firsthand. In addition to running his own practice and serving as executive director of Mental Health America-Beaufort/Jasper, he’s also earning his doctorate in counselor education and supervision. Sometimes, simply acknowledging and accepting the fact that you’re going to have a lot on your plate can be a healthier approach than fighting hopelessly against it — as long as you commit to the imbalance being temporary. “Student work-life balances get out of whack in some cases necessarily,” Walsh says, because there’s simply too much to do and many choices, such as when a class is scheduled or when a paper is due, have already been made by others.

Walsh recommends that students keep the end goal in mind while realizing they still have the power to make certain choices, including taking any extra time they do have and making sure it matches up with their priorities and values. “Just because you have less choices in certain areas, it doesn’t mean you can’t make choices that are going to keep you well and keep you happy in other areas,” he says.

Tricks of the trade

Though working as a counselor provides a satisfying career path, the load isn’t always a light one. In addition to juggling counseling practices, families and other personal or professional commitments, the issues that many counselors deal with on a daily basis can be both heavy and difficult to leave behind at the end of the workday.

“Learning to walk the talk of work-life balance is a constant intention for me,” says Wasik, who admits that she started researching the concept of a monkey mind precisely because she owned one — or, rather, it owned her. After having her third child, life became much more chaotic and Wasik’s work-life balance felt nonexistent. “I didn’t feel like I was doing anything well,” she says. “I felt like I was always behind. I wanted to find a way to tame my monkey mind by being more aware of everything — how I was feeling, the taste of my food, the color of my children’s eyes.”

Just because she counsels clients on achieving work-life balance doesn’t mean she has it all figured out even now, Wasik concedes. “Counselors are just as prone to monkey-mindedness as anyone. I think we need to celebrate our successes more. If we experience a few moments of work-life balance, notice it and celebrate it.”

One tip Wasik offers other counselors is to be intentional and meditate. “At the end of the day, I have scheduled myself a half hour where I deprogram — meditate, sit quietly in a room and release all that I’ve heard,” she says. “I can go home and transition into being a mom and a wife and a neighbor and friend.”

Walsh also says he practices what he preaches. Although he says finding balance varies by person, he uses a wellness wheel concept. Each night before going to bed, he writes down a list of 10 good things that happened that day. And each morning, he writes a list of five positive goals for the day. “One of the ways I stay well is to stay positive,” he says. “When I attend to the positive things in my life, good things happen to me. When I get away from that, they don’t.”

One of Walsh’s grandfather’s favorite sayings was “Make sure that you make time in your life to do what you love to do.” So each day, Walsh carves out time to do something he loves. That might be spending time with his wife, playing with his two dogs, reading mysteries or taking guitar lessons. Even if it’s only five minutes, having something he loves on the calendar each day keeps him positive and enthusiastic.

Maintaining interests outside the field of counseling is also crucial, Walsh says. He knows counselors who go horseback riding or write, while others paint or read. “The most successful counselors I know are able to nurture themselves with activities that they love to do outside the field,” he says.

Nurturing relationships, whether regularly spending time with a friend, family member or significant other or taking a few minutes for a phone call or an e-mail, is another important habit for counselors to cultivate, Walsh says. “I’ve found a key balance for me is that I can have all the challenges in the world, but if the relationships in my world are strong, I can get through those challenges.”

Porter says she understands that finding balance is a challenge, even — or, perhaps, especially — for counselors. “Whatever I’m focused on, I tend to be really focused, and that’s a personality thing,” she says. When she feels overloaded, she takes a step back and asks herself if the task at hand is genuinely adding value to her life or for her counseling students. “Sometimes I have to go, ’Well, will that committee run without me?’ The answer is always yes.”

Reaching out

Looking for clients who want to achieve better work-life balance? Here are counselor-approved tips for finding them

  1. Add work-life balance questions to your intake assessment, says Patty Von Steen, an ACA member with a private practice in Greensboro, N.C. “That is not to say that balance concerns may come up in the intake session, but there is usually some hint of lack of balance that can be explored in subsequent sessions.”
  2. Offer your services in a college, large corporation or state agency setting, says ACA member Julia Porter, an associate professor at Mississippi State University-Meridian. Each of these settings features specific populations that generally need help balancing the work-life load.
  3. Run work-life seminars in the community, suggests C-AHEAD President Mike Walsh. Oftentimes, people who attend these seminars will contact the counselor afterward. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for counselors to give back by sharing some of their expertise with the community,” Walsh says. “It’s a win-win situation for the community and also for the counselor.” And because there’s much less stigma attached to work-life issues than issues of mental health, the topic makes it easier for potential clients to make the jump into counseling. “Work-life balance is an issue that almost everyone can relate to and can own without feeling somehow ’less than,’” Walsh says. “If that’s what leads somebody into getting effective counseling services, great.”
  4. Host a booth at a local business expo and promote the work-life balance services that you offer.
  5. Get involved in employee assistance program (EAP) activities, Von Steen says. Take EAP referrals, join EAP panels and work with local companies to provide EAP services.

Lynne Shallcross is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.
Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org.