Covid-19 pushed work and home lives under the same roof for a lot of families and brought work-life balance to the fore. So how can Kiwis achieve satisfaction in both work and life when world news is grim? And is there even such a thing as work-life balance? Carly Gibbs reports.
Ben Rice has an accelerated commute to work these days.
The data analyst for Trustpower has traded a 40-minute drive with a 10-second stride, from his kitchen to spare bedroom.
Rice, from Pāpāmoa, has worked four out of five business days from home since the alert level 4 lockdown - a move his employer made permanent in alert level 1 after discussion with him.
"My work day is a lot less stressful," he says of his new zen place of work by the beach.
"I don't sit in traffic for 40 minutes each way, I don't have to pay for parking ($60 a week), petrol costs are down ($80 every 10 days).
"It's actually made a real financial difference, and I do feel a lot more relaxed. My travel time is 10 steps from the kitchen table to the bedroom office."
The 36-year-old is part of the 40 per cent of employed Kiwis who did at least some of their work from home during the Covid-19 level 4 and 3 lockdowns, Statistics NZ revealed last week.
At level 1, 83 per cent were working outside the home and 29 per cent at home, Stats NZ said.
The median number of hours worked from home fell to 10 per week at alert level 1, from 30 per week at alert levels 4 and 3.
However, for many office workers like Rice, remote working in a post-pandemic New Zealand will be a welcome and key change and experts say the secret to work-life balance isn't dividing the two but having them healthily merge.
Rice travels into Trustpower's Tauranga headquarters one day a week for a team meeting and catch-up. He prefers working from home, even though he thinks he's working more hours.
He puts that down to building trust from management that he's achieving and enjoying new flexibility, which can mean making up time.
At the time of writing this story, Rice's wife was overdue with their second baby and he had to watch their eldest child while she attended medical appointments.
On a whole though, he runs a tight ship.
"I'll probably come into the office at 7.30am and I'll be out anywhere between 4pm and 5pm with a lunch break with the family in between."
After living in Auckland for nine "intense" years chasing a career and house deposit, he absolutely believes work-life balance exists, especially in the Bay of Plenty.
"My wife and I, we just got burnout up there," he explains.
"You were sitting in traffic for upwards of three hours a day. When (my wife) got headhunted to come down here for a job in her hometown, it was a no-brainer for us. We felt like our work-life balance was way off whack.
"Honestly, when we were moving down, I felt the stress levels drop as soon as I got over the Bombays."
These days, he finds himself "very lucky" to be in the position he's in.
His job is secure and he has an employer he says actively advocates for work-life balance.
"I've worked in three other companies - companies with more than 100 staff - and I've never been in a company before where they have put such an onus on understanding what their employees' situation is like. The manpower and the hours that go into just trying to keep tabs on it is amazing and that (ramped) up tenfold as soon a lockdown happened."
That news isn't surprising to the director of Bay of Plenty recruitment agency The Staffroom Jill Cachemaille, who says Bay of Plenty employers are trying hard to offer flexibility and good working environments.
"They too are going through change and making an effort to adjust."
Cachemaille says the topic of work-life balance comes up "every time" someone enquires about moving to the Bay and the topic is becoming equally important for local candidates.
"Especially after Covid when people had the time to re-evaluate their lives."
That's particularly the case for time-greedy positions in white-collar occupations — where long hours may be typical.
Her advice for someone looking to change employment is to look at your current situation and be realistic about what another employer could offer you as a comparison.
"The grass isn't always greener."
One life to live
Work-life balance is based on the notion that work is a merciless beast that must be escaped. But is it?
According to Tauranga woman Debbie Ireland, the key to everyday fulfilment is for work and life to merge, and she's just released a book on the topic called Work-life Balance My Arse which debunks myths about what work-life balance should look like.
Work and life should and can integrate, the 52-year-old self-employed IT professional says.
She says small things can make big differences to everyday enjoyment and wellness.
She gives the example of taking regular breaks from your computer - a brisk walk or a coffee with a friend, which will increase one's productivity.
Added to this, more people need to ditch the guilt and obligation of always being available by answering emails after-hours and feeling pressured to do so, she says.
Ireland believes it's better to work intensively and in short bursts than be permanently logged on.
"We've got all these people working from home and for some of them, they're actually working a lot more than they ever have," she says.
"For me, I get up at sunrise and I'll work early and then go off and take my dog to the beach and I don't feel guilty about that.
"If others are at home and think 'I'm going to run and put a load of washing on', so what? It gives you a break and then you go back to work. I do think people feel guilty though because it's different to what they're used to. Take the time and know that you need to. If we're tired, overworked and stressed, the output of what we're doing means the work that we produce is lower quality."
Ireland's way of thinking stems back to 2010 when she was lying in the bath one night reading Dr Libby Weaver's Rushing Woman's Syndrome, a book about the cost of constantly rushing and the impact this can have on our health.
"She has the rushing woman's checklist in the book and I sat there and cried because I could tick off every single item.
"I was a single parent, I was working every hour I possibly could, I was running around doing everything. I didn't have time for myself.
"That's where I was at the beginning of this journey and what (my) book takes me through, is everything I've been going over the last 10 years to turn that around," she says of a life spent "juggling".
As well as being an avid self-help reader and building mindfulness and routine into her day (she runs a private Facebook group called Recharge), Ireland's advice comes from trial and error of what's worked to create a more harmonious life for herself, including giving up the idealist fantasy and "futile" search for work-life balance.
She writes in her book that instead, her alternative is "a continuous journey where you can seek to find your own internal balance and joy, integrate all the various elements of your life into a design that works for you".
"It is your choice."
The good life: who's responsible?
One person who could become the poster woman for balance is Katikati legal assistant Annette Inglis, for whom work and life are "two different worlds".
Her bio on the Anderson Law Office website describes her as a "work-life balance champion who believes in the mantra 'work smarter, not harder'".
"I don't believe working in all hours God sends," she says. "I think it's a bad habit to get into."
She is most energised and productive in the morning so uses that time to belt out her must-dos.
"When I leave work, I don't give it another thought until I come back in the door in the morning. I just sort of switch off," she says. "I don't discuss work at home."
Her ability to do so in a busy profession like law, is likely down to her personality, she says.
"I know some people are unable to leave work issues at the office and stress about them at home. I learned long ago that if I am not at work, there is little I can do to solve any issues. We all have different coping mechanisms.
"It is a mindset, and we are programmed in certain ways, so, you could no more tell a person who stresses out about things to stop stressing, than someone telling me to start worrying about things.
"It's just habits of a lifetime. I don't let things worry me, but that's not to say that I don't care, I like to keep things in perspective."
How you manage your day-to-day life with a never-ending to-do list, does indeed come down to personality type, says Tauranga psychologist Kate Ferris, who explains that coping with stress is a learned behaviour and personality, as well as environment, is implicated in effective coping.
For example, it's hard to find a balance between work and life if you're living on a financial knife-edge, she says.
"Some jobs and workplaces are inherently high-stress, demanding and inflexible. We also live in a culture that celebrates productivity, busyness, striving and spending, while also placing pressures on us to have it all and do it all, effortlessly."
Ferris says our bodies aren't designed for the persistent stressors of modern-day living.
"Our system cannot distinguish between the threat of being chased by a lion and being pressed up against a work deadline. Many of us live in a state of limbic activation," she told essence.
Chronic and excessive activation of the stress response can lead to stress-related illnesses such as colitis, migraines, and cancer; and generate coping responses like smoking, sleep-deprivation, drinking and overeating.
Working mothers suffer the most from stress.
"Pressure is internalised and leaves many working mothers feeling quite simply not enough."
From a psychologist's perspective, one practical way of combating work-life imbalance is to question "what do I actually need to be happy?" "Prioritising simple pleasures and challenging marketing messages, which insist you need that latest iPhone is a good start," she advises.
She also suggests setting boundaries between work and home.
"This might look like having a separate work phone that you turn off at 5pm, having a shower when you get home to wash off the day and prioritising eating dinner together as a whānau, rather than flicking off a few more emails."
She also endorses mindfulness and time scheduling.
"If and when things do get out of whack, we need to practice distress tolerance and resilience – 'this too shall pass'... Successful coping does not require that one overcome a situation, only that the situation be managed and come to terms with."
That's particularly the case given the uncertainty in the world thanks to Covid-19.
The pandemic has been the catalyst for change for many, says Rotorua's Annie Canning of Canning Life Coaching.
She's experiencing an increased demand for life coaching after people had the time in lockdown to ask: "Is this where I want to be in my life in five, 10 years time, from now?"
"They have started to question the quality of their relationships, review their financial situation and careers, prompting many to initiate changes."
Canning, like Debbie Ireland, doesn't believe in work-life balance. "It's all life," she says.
"And balance is required in all areas if you are going to lead a happy, healthy and fulfilling existence."
She suggests that a good starting point in taking control is to focus on eating well, exercising and having a solid sleep routine.
"Without this, all other areas of your life are compromised... This in turn enables you to make better decisions (and) better decisions make for a better life."
Covid-19 delivered uncertain circumstances, but change is one of the few certainties in life and we mustn't fight it, she says.
"If you choose to actively step into change, you experience less anxiety and resistance and it's from this space that opportunities start to present.
"Life is not about the destination, it's all about the journey, so by placing focus on the process and not the outcome, you are better able to direct your time and energy, into areas that serve you to move forward. It may sound a bit cryptic, but it really does work."
Debbie Ireland's top tips on achieving fulfilment in both work and life
Avoid digital distractions
Turn off the notifications for email and social media. See how much time you gain back. Research shows we waste about 30 per cent of our day trying to refocus after we have been distracted from these notifications. This also causes stress. Choose to look at those apps, only, at certain times. Be the one in control.
Be in the moment
Focus on what matters most for any point in time. Stop trying to have one part of your life compete with the other. Just give your all to what is most important for that period of time.
Recognise the triggers
Be aware of what happens when you get stressed. Do you pull away from people? Start going round in circles in work activities? Or get short-tempered? Notice the trigger and take action by changing your state. Go for a walk, do a few star jumps or have a glass of water.