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Exploring the Meaning of Work-life Wellness

4 months ago by Andrea Amato

​Previously known as work-life balance, work-life wellness is a novel term used to describe a positive approach toward our work and home lives.

​Join in on the conversation below featuring Edward Fleri-Soler, Mark Sims, Martina Farrugia, and Elizabeth Carbonaro.

When we hear the term ‘work-life wellness’, we ponder about many factors that influence the blurred lines between work and home life. We think about setting distinct boundaries between personal and career activities, in a paradox of wanting to succeed in either without compromising the time we have for other pursuits.

Also known as work-life balance, work-life wellness is a novel definition introduced by researchers to remove the pressure of having to strike a balance between different lifestyles. Instead, the term wellness is more inclusive in attending to mental and physical wellbeing. Whilst this distinction is important for researchers, the general populace may not be so easily convinced. For many, work-life wellness is a buzz phrase to help convince employees of its value, with little practice in their jobs in Malta and beyond.

Like its evolving definition, work-life wellness represents different meanings for employees. This works naturally alongside the differences in priorities across several industries, leading to misinterpretation and misuse of separating work and life responsibilities.

Nowadays, the concept is under pressure from Covid-19, which dramatically shifted the working world to move from a traditional office environment and construct a home station that can support both work and family responsibilities. Whilst the pandemic initiated widespread change into flexible arrangements and policy amendments, we are still to learn the true repercussions it has on our work-life wellness.

This report presents a short series of conversations with employees from diverse industries, to guide the meaning of work-life wellness today, the importance of setting time aside to pursue personal commitments, how work-life wellness impacts their health and time management, and practical implications for organisations. Present research follows work-life wellness and its effect on wellbeing, and this report aims to compliment such research by continuing to maintain open dialogue around an at times difficult topic to describe.

What is work-life wellness?

Whilst work-life wellness represents a newer term adopted in the academic literature and media, its purpose seeks to represent the many various factors that contribute to wellness generally. This is helpful to ascertain so that we no longer fall into the pressure to always strike a balance particularly between work and home life, rather, numerous components make up wellbeing and how we can better achieve it, during our jobs in Malta or in other pursuits.

This more generalised definition also caters for our current remote working lives. As we navigate through a rapidly changing working world, it’s worth broadening our perspectives on work-life wellness. Whilst the pandemic has shown employees feel more productive working remotely, there’s still research to suggest many individuals struggle to shut off from work when the working day remits (Gambhir, 2020).

“To me, work-life wellness is defined by various, personal, and oftentimes changing factors” Edward informed me, “At its core is maintaining mental and physical wellbeing, achieved through balancing fulfilling work and happiness—development outside of work.” Already, we know the concept to be multifaceted, but we still typically associate a clearer distinction to work-life wellness: “It has two elements: work and ‘me time’”, Mark simply stated, specifically reiterating whatever time spent is quality time had in either element.

Mark reiterated that above all else, one must be disciplined with themselves. “I prioritise tasks according to importance and deadlines; I write lists, set milestones, and ensure these are effectively communicated”, he explained, which sets a structured tone to his working life. For his personal life, he maintains a selfish decorum: “Me time is for me!”, he chanted, “I maximise my fun and family time without work interruptions.”

It has two elements: work and me time.

He then led the conversation to guide leaders: “Delegate wisely and be mindful not to overload your team.” Expectations and goals shouldn’t be set in stone, especially as we continue to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. Organisations that have dedicated HR teams to support employee wellbeing have already reaped the benefits in higher productivity and motivation (Arora & Suri, 2020). Whilst we still refer to work-life wellness to mean separation between work and home life, we’re beginning to encapsulate a term that encompasses the lives of individuals from diverse backgrounds.

Focusing between personal time & activities

Whilst the definition of work-life wellness differs to everybody, one clear commonality remains: the ability to dedicate time toward workplace tasks and personal activities; be it family duties or time to enjoy personal hobbies, is an invaluable component of wellness that retains employee motivation and morale.

Evaluating these distinctions in depth can be tricky. This is where we notice wellness is multifaceted, in that we need to explore the links between employee satisfaction and productivity, and so forth, with numerous organisational factors. For starters, work-life wellness is typically attended to through flexible arrangements. This can mean work from home jobs, but also more unique policies, such as the provision of reduced hours and consideration for furloughed workers because of the pandemic.

However, further considerations attend to gender equity, where the division of family responsibilities has led to differences between workplace opportunities according to gender, leading many researchers to tackle gender at the forefront of work-life wellness research (Sullivan, 2012). Work-life wellness really grows to support employee quality of life, and further exploring factors such as the above will generate practical organisational recommendations.

For Edward, establishing these boundaries grants importance to socialise with friends and family, and commit to future travel plans. He then conversed about personal development, “Such as sports and more recently general fitness. Whilst I hold myself accountable when skewing off these priorities, I find I need to allow some leeway to balance priorities based on my current state and feelings”. His understanding is shared with many, but goes a step further in considering mental and physical states that contribute to wellness generally.

I need to allow some leeway to balance priorities based on my current state and feelings.

Nevertheless, the idea of maintaining a balance between work and home life is still important to concretely set boundaries. “I work hard throughout the day to ensure productivity and met deadlines, so that I can try to leave work at a reasonable time in order to use my evenings to see family or attend to other commitments”, Martina stated.

Whilst this can seem idealistic, Martina doesn’t discount the invasive presence of our work mobiles: “Of course, having a smart phone means that I receive email notifications directly,” she directed, “If I receive an email late in the evening after I’ve left the office, I’ll check it but if it’s not urgent, I’ll handle it first thing in the morning.” Whilst boundaries differ depending on the individual, this is the same reason as to why organisations should implement several flexible strategies that can suit different employee needs.

If it's not urgent, I'll handle it first thing in the morning.

Prioritising time management & health

Organisations that prioritise work-life wellness look to improve employee health and wellbeing whilst assuring workplace goals are accomplished. The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly wrought havoc on individuals across the globe, increasing the prevalence of mental health conditions and job insecurity because of widespread health risks and employment redundancies.

Covid-19 stress syndrome includes contamination and socioeconomic concerns, along with xenophobia, trauma symptoms, and so forth (Taylor et al., 2020). One study conducted by Montano & Acebes (2020) found that Covid-19 specifically predicted increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Employees must find ways to overcome challenges brought with the pandemic, but several responsibilities fall onto organisations to provide support from a structural level. This is important to consider for all jobs in Malta, including remote jobs.

How can employees take the reins on their work-life wellness? “For one, having the strength to say that you cannot take on any more tasks” began Elizabeth, “It’s going to be an honest strength, so you’ve to be really conscious that you’re working effectively in your working day.”

Elizabeth reiterated honesty as an important workplace quality, and this comes from the employer’s perspective as well: “The idea of an open-door policy is always better than a closed-door policy.” Whilst it can be difficult for leaders to keep in touch with remote workers, effective communication remains an important skill for all to actively master.

Having the strength to say that you cannot take on any more tasks.

“It's important leaders understand the elements that contribute to work-life wellness,” Mark told me, “It’s in their interest to ensure employees feel challenged but in control at work, and have quality time away from the office so that work doesn’t encroach their personal time.”

It's important leaders understand the elements that contribute to work-life wellness.

For him, leaders should be approachable and ready to assist employees, “See it as an opportunity to support and develop individuals.” Elizabeth agreed with this perspective, adding that leaders are role-models and support is a behaviour that transfers to the rest of the team.

In enjoying your in-office or remote job and therefore improving your working quality of life, other team members will feel and transmit this increased morale.

“Leaders that are happy to help people, train them, are available to pass on their knowledge, allow people to grow in the same path”, explained Elizabeth. She acknowledged that Covid-19 has made this more difficult, yet equally even more important to consider.

See it as an opportunity to support and develop individuals.

Organisations must structurally implement policies that cater to employee needs and adopt flexible initiatives that focus on support, especially given uncertain circumstances introduced by the pandemic. Engagement into remote work should support digital accessibility to employees and focus wellness practices to support mental health. For employees, Mark led with one remark: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help—it’s not a sign of weakness.”

Organisations, it’s time to walk the walk

Whilst we remain uncertain on the pandemic’s lifespan, its important organisations implement short and long-term plans that determines flexible work arrangements for employees. Whether this means they continue to work from home or slowly plan to return to the office, leaders still need to be watchful about present employee needs alongside governmental recommendations.

Remember that an ever-changing working society can be destabilising to many employees, and leaders should be accommodating to these changes. Leading with empathy (i.e., a people driven mindset) is recommended to address employee concerns especially related to Covid-19 (Cuthbertson & Ashton, 2020). Consistent communication will also help employees feel more included and in control. Whatever measures to be implemented should be explored according to employee needs alongside organisational goals, with an open perspective that is inclusive to individuals from diverse backgrounds.

We know that, in any industry, work-life wellness can be challenging. For example, Martina works in marine litigation and is used to confronting obstacles that surpass work-life wellness boundaries: “A ship arrest doesn’t always respect social hours or holidays,” she claimed, “We deal with someone else’s catastrophe, and they need advice fast.” Martina monitors and handles stressful situations that usually necessitate a sense of urgency until the situation is attended to, “You cannot just snap your laptop closed once the clock hits 5pm and walk away.”

Albeit these circumstances do occur in different degrees of severity depending on the industry and career, pursuing work-life wellness is bound to reach a tipping point that is hard to oversee at times. This is where we direct our attention once more to honesty, where Mark guides our path to that of our leaders.

“Be open and honest about how you’re feeling and why,” he set out, “Be committed to wanting to fix a situation and ask your leader to share the benefit of their experience.” We all feel overwhelmed and sometimes burned out at work, and should your leader not be available, don’t fret—approach a colleague you feel comfortable speaking with for help.

We remain people with personal lives that occasionally rear their head at inconvenient times.

From what we’ve learned in these conversations, organisations need to take a proactive stance in supporting work-life wellness. “As employees we remain people with personal lives that occasionally rear their head at inconvenient times,” Martina stated, “Organisations must understand that personal lives differ in that they face different challenges and realities.”

Bringing the conversation to one that prioritises mental health, “Companies should be well manned to prevent burnout, respect the sanctity of home life and encourage employees to take breaks and recharge. We know organisations are taking the mental health of their employees seriously and provide services such as counselling, this is a great initiative.”