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January 9, 1997

Rx for a balanced life: Give equally to needs of work, family–and self

The kids want to go to the mall. Your mother needs somebody to pick up her prescription. That report you've been working on for a week is due in three days and one person you need to talk to still hasn't returned your phone call. And there is not a single piece of clean clothing left anywhere in the house.

Sound familiar? Don't know what to do? And now the car has just started to make strange noises.

Why not sit down and read a trashy novel for an hour or feed the birds, watch a silly movie or finally listen to that CD you bought a week ago? Many people might think such actions are irresponsible, even self defeating, in the face of such demands. But, according to Linda Sturdivant, a counselor with Pitt's Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FSAP), taking a break might be exactly what is needed for a person to get back on track.

"If you don't develop leisure," Sturdivant says, "everything is out of sync, everything is very asymmetrical and personal stress increases." Speaking at an FSAP workshop on "Balancing Work and Family," Sturdivant urged her listeners to think of themselves as standing at home plate on a baseball diamond. At first base on the imaginary field are home responsibilities, such as mate, children, parents, housekeeping, shopping, meals and bill paying; on second base is career and things like deadlines, commuting, accountability, travel, bosses and budgets, while third base holds leisure activities, such as jogging, tennis, TV, dancing, hobbies and entertaining.

In a life that is balanced, according to Sturdivant, all three bases have equal importance. They might not be of equal importance every day or even every couple of days, but overall there is a balance between the three areas. Problems arise if leisure is overlooked and life simply becomes home and work. To individuals who complain that they don't have the time or energy to devote to leisure, Sturdivant points out that a person who is not balanced cannot help anyone else.

"What generally happens to create the imbalance is that we tend to take care of everything else and everybody else first," she notes. "And then, if there is a little bit of energy left and a little bit of time left, we'll take care of ourselves. But we are definitely at the bottom of the list. That's a problem." The stress that grows when a person neglects to take care of himself or herself can appear in both emotional and physical form.

Emotionally, stress may reveal itself as a constant frown, a loss of optimism, the absence of a sense of humor and a tendency to lash out at friends and co-workers. Physically, it could appear in the form of headaches or an increased number of colds.

Sturdivant says one of the first things she does when counseling individuals is to try to make them laugh. If she fails in that, she knows a person has real problems.

"If I can't make someone laugh they are in trouble," she says. "Because what that usually means is that things have gotten so serious, so burdensome that you can't see your way out. If things are that serious, you're in trouble. When you find your sense of humor leaving, that's a signal." Sleep is another signal that something is wrong. According to Sturdivant, most Americans suffer from sleep deprivation. She said people believe they only need five or six hours of sleep per night, but that is not true. Most people need eight hours.

One way a person can determine if he or she is suffering from sleep deprivation is to attend a boring meeting in a warm room. Under such circumstances, Sturdivant noted, a person who is getting enough sleep will simply fidget.

"You won't fall asleep," she says. "If you fall asleep or find yourself dozing off that's a signal you're not getting enough sleep." Getting enough sleep is important because a lack of sleep throws off a person's senses and problem-solving abilities. She added that there is no such thing as catching up with sleep on the weekends.

If a person finds he or she is skewed in the areas of home and career, Sturdivant says, that does not necessarily mean that he or she is doing anything wrong. It just means there is an imbalance that needs to be addressed.

"We don't have to do really big things to bring things in balance," she adds. "Sometimes it's just a matter of one thing. All we have to do is pick one thing." Little things a person can do to cope with stress include: going on a picnic, keeping a journal, playing with a child or a pet, avoiding negative people, getting up 15 minutes earlier to arrange the day, wearing looser fitting clothes, cooking a meal and eating it by candlelight, buying flowers, repairing something that is broken and asking for help with a job.

"Even though it feels like at the end of the day you are a doormat who can't do anything," Sturdivant says, "that leisure thing, whether it is some type of meditation, some type of exercise, reading, listening to music, talking to a friends, you need to really take the time and do that." It also is important not to expect perfection. Sturdivant says it is sometimes better to let go and accept the help of a mate, children, parents or friends, even if they don't do everything the way you want, than try to do it all yourself.

People need to understand that they can't control the behavior of others, but they can influence the behavior of a few people, such as mates and children. Instead of fretting over the vast world that cannot be controlled, Sturdivant says, it is better to first focus on what can be controlled, such as a person's own behavior, and then turn to what can be influenced and let go of the rest.

According to the FSAP handout "Balancing Work and Family: How Do I Do It All and Not Go Crazy?," a person needs to keep four things in mind when seeking balance: * To achieve a better balance in the home you need to keep the home front positive. You need to define and communicate the goals and expectations you have about the home, and then establish an action plan to insure they are carried out.

* Your career will grow when you meet the challenge of becoming a productive employee. The expectations of your job must be understood and agreed to with your supervisor. You need to develop a career action plan.

* Personal time should be allocated daily for leisure activities that provide fun, exercise and diversion from home and career. A monthly calendar will allow you to look forward to events that become a necessary balancing element.

* Home demands are greater when children are involved. Since your boss should maintain the same expectations for working parents as for single people, convenient, reliable child care is essential to achieving a reliable balance in life.

Additional material on balancing work and family, as well as individual counseling, is available from FSAP, 504 Medical Arts Building, 647-3327.

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 9

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