Why work-life integration isn’t one-size-fits-all

By Shruti Shekar

Illustration by Samantha Nickerson •

Illustration by Samantha Nickerson •

It’s no secret that journalism can be a high-stress industry. When I began my career in 2015, I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well, to make sure that I was building a good reputation for myself, and as a result my anxiety and stress both were incredibly heightened. I spent the end of 2016 trying to figure out how to balance my personal life and my career—and it’s still a work in progress three years later.

I remember having my first anxiety attack in early 2016 and feeling completely worthless and ashamed that I wasn’t able to manage my thoughts. For a person who has never suffered with bad skin, I began to break out like crazy. I experienced stomach problems, a result of high stress levels and an unbalanced diet.

Learning to balance my work and personal life took a lot of effort. I had to learn  what works best for me and my lifestyle, and it didn’t come from following someone else’s work-life balance formula. I had to figure out a morning routine, a new relationship with the food I consume, and I even reevaluated my relationship with alcohol. It was a complete life transformation, but because it meant so much to me, I was committed to it. 

I read a lot of articles online about various self-care routines, but ultimately I had to listen to my body and figure out what was right for me. I tried weight lifting, yoga and intermittent fasting, which I still maintain to some extent today. I even tried the celery juice craze, which, in my opinion, is a full on gimmick. But I had to undergo it to feel how it would affect my body. 

I did my best to not compare myself to what others were going through and especially tried not to compare myself to Instagram models. I now work out seven days a week, drink a lot of water and have a diet that makes me feel good. I meditate every day to manage my thoughts and be more present.

In an effort to continue down this path, I spoke with Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to learn more about why there isn’t one universal formula for balancing work and personal life.

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Shruti Shekar
When did the idea of balancing work and your personal life become mainstream?

Dr. Katy Kamkar The topic of work life balance really started around the 90’s, this is when we started noticing larger companies were downsizing to smaller companies. There was an increase in work demand and also because of the high cost of living we started shifting from one income households to two incomes per household. Now it’s definitely become a hot topic and an important one. When we were able to achieve a healthy balance we also are able to achieve an overall satisfaction related to physical and mental health and our productivity will improve. But the word balance can also be misleading. Because it’s really around how can we individualize an individualized approach. Everyone is very different and every person would need to create their own recipe in terms of what works best for them.

SS What does it look like to create work-life integration?

KK Whatever works now it will be great, but later on, because stresses might change, priorities might change, then the recipe needs to change as well. So in that respect everyone needs to create their own recipe of what works best in managing a balance between work and life. We have a variety of roles and responsibilities, responsibilities with family, work, the community, with society and with children. We may even have eldercare issues and so it becomes difficult in terms of juggling everything. Sometimes people may even need to commute to work, where people live could also contribute to stress. It’s also about recognizing that we can’t do it all at once.

SS What are some examples of ways people can build a more integrated life?

KK Again, I want to mention that this is very individualized. But broadly, it can be something like creating a schedule ahead of time, something that is day to day, the week ahead or even the month. It could be delegating tasks, or seeking support, but at the same time it’s also about working on our self-care and building on our positives, building on our strengths and resources. It’s also about engaging in a proactive coping strategy as part of a healthy pathway. That self-care could be in terms of a proper sleep hygiene. What are activities that can help us sooth the brain prior to going to bed?
The word ‘balance’ can also be misleading. Because it’s really around how can we individualize an individualized approach.
— Dr. Katy Kamkar

SS If someone’s struggling with a lack of balance or even a mental illness and wants to seek support through work, are there ways they can do that? How can they make sure their workplace is accommodating?

KK Of course, we always need to take into account individual factors, as well as an organization’s factors. Depending on the organization, on the individual’s duties and demands, often times there are programs that are helpful. Being provided with flexible work conditions can also help towards facilitating work-life balance.

When we talk about healthcare costs associated with mental health problems it is around $51 billion annually in Canada. A lot of this is related to absentees, reduced productivity, short term and long term disability. So working on mental health promotion and seeking help can really help to mitigate those costs.

Sometimes it could be that attending medical treatment in addition to being able to continue at work might work well for a person. It can also be that a person might be able to do the work and might just need a little change within a certain work demand, and then they are able to continue productivity.