22 Aug 2019
Finding balance when work is life
Success doesn’t come without making tough choices. The backstories of successful entrepreneurs are filled with tales of 24-hour days, skipped holidays, missed weekends and shoestring budgets.
Our new research, a survey of 102 UK business leaders, found that the majority (64%) believe sacrificing work-life balance is essential for success. And a similar number (68%) feel many firms exaggerate the merits of work-life balance – even as flexible hours and agile working become more common.
Getting the best by understanding the brain
It may work for some, but embracing an ‘always-on’ culture that blurs work and personal lives – something 68% of our survey respondents admitted doing – can have a heavy psychological toll if not managed correctly, says Dr Helena Boschi, author of Why We Do What We Do: Understanding our brain to get the best out of ourselves and others.
For Boschi, a psychologist who focuses on applied neuroscience in the workplace, it’s critical to let the brain rest, and to develop tools to cope with stress.
“Our brains haven’t caught up with the technology we’re now using,” she says. “We’re only designed to deal with short-term stress, not for the type of continual pressure we now find ourselves under. If we spend a lot of time being stressed, there’s a very high chance of getting dementia.”
Explore our Balance Survey findings in more detail:
Research published in 2016 found chronic stress and anxiety can damage areas of the brain involved in thinking and memory, which could cause depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
A major culprit for heightened stress, according to Boschi, is being surgically attached to our smartphones.
“Because we never put our phones down, our flight-or-fight response is constantly being stimulated, which is very damaging for our brains,” she says. “We’re killing our brains simply by looking at our phones all the time. Even the mere presence of a phone on a table impairs your cognitive judgment.” Despite this, only 29% of business leaders surveyed combat work-related stress by switching their phone off.
Always on, but with time to rest
Constantly tapping on social media triggers increased production of the brain chemical dopamine, which is also associated with risk-taking (a quality associated with entrepreneurs). “Every time you pick up your phone, answer email or look at Instagram, you’re flooding your brain with dopamine,” says Boschi. “Too much dopamine creates an addictive brain and makes us constantly dissatisfied. This relentlessness puts us under enormous pressure.
“We need environments that enable us to create good, quick decisions.”
“Our brains haven’t caught up with technology that we are now using.”
Our research found business leaders work an average of 48 hours a week, compared with a UK average of 37.4 hours for full-time employees, a situation that can result in overworked executives who aren’t functioning as well as they could be.
“Let’s say you’re in a meeting and uncomfortable with where it’s heading. Your pupils may dilate, your heartbeat quickens, and energy and glucose is driven to your hands. You can’t start punching the person next to you, or run out of the room. So we develop fidgets or ‘jiggly’ legs – all signs of your sympathetic nervous system being activated.”
Targeting the right parts of the brain
Beyond turning off technology, what can business owners do to support their own mental health, as well as that of their employees?
Good sleep habits: Sleep aids creative thinking – our survey found business leaders sleep, on average, a healthy seven hours per night. “As we sleep towards eight hours, our rapid eye movement (REM) sleep increases,” points out Boschi. “This is where our most critical sleep for innovation comes from and why we get our most creative dreams in the morning.”
Director James Cameron credited dreams with inspiring the film Avatar, while golfer Jack Nicklaus said a dream helped him find fairway success following a slump. “If you want to feel at your most robust and creative, you need your full sleep cycle,” says Boschi.
For a good night’s sleep, avoid alcohol, which is “guaranteed to destroy your REM sleep,” she adds. “If you’ve been a heavy drinker, it can sometimes take up to two years to reset the REM sleep that’s critical for brain health.”
Boschi also cites the benefits of 20-minute power naps. “Napping reboots the brain,” she says. “If you want a good power nap, drink a coffee, go to sleep and by the time the caffeinehas kicked in, you’re awake. A good time to do this is straight after lunch. It’s why siestas are so effective; research in Greece found that working men who took a siesta had a 64% lower risk of death from heart disease than those who didn’t.”
Time with friends and family, and exercise: Most business owners (69%) tackle work-related stress by spending time with friends and family. Exercise and going to the gym is another tactic used by 60% of leaders. Boschi points out that cardiovascular exercise can enlarge the hippocampus, the brain region where memories are formed.
Learn something new: According to Boschi, “learning something new every day” can help to prevent stress. It boosts brainpower by developing the hippocampus, but also creates synapses that release chemicals that promote well-being.
Need an easy fix? Eating dark chocolate is believed to increase the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin thanks to high levels of the amino acid L-tryptophan.
It’s these simple tricks which can help to offset the demands that come with building a successful business, according to Boschi. Perhaps some level of balance isn’t out of reach after all?
Christian Koch is a journalist and editor who writes for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Independent, Director, Q, Stylist, The Face, N by Norwegian and easyJet Traveller.