Airmen from the 130th Airlift Wing return home to McLaughlin Air National Guard Base, Charleston, W.Va., after a deployment to Afghanistan in November 2017. (Airman Caleb Vance/Air Force)
Exceptional Release Presents: Work-life balance: What is it, and how do I get some?
By: Lt Col Michael Boswell and CMSgt Daniel Guzman
If you have been in the Air Force for any amount of time, you have likely heard the phrase “Work-life Balance.” A person can glean the meaning to be a proper balance between one’s job and their personal life. While this concept may seem intuitive, truly understanding and applying this balance is a bit of a challenge. To complicate matters, we are taught as Air Force members the golden rule of Service Before Self. On the surface, it may seem like these concepts are horrifically contradictory in nature, however they are not.
How can you put Service Before Self and still have a positive work-life balance? This is the question that will be explored in this article. Arguably, the operations tempo over the past decade and a half has not decreased, and the global threat seems to increase regularly. As such, it is becoming increasingly important that service members deliberately create and maintain the right work-life balance or resiliency road map. Having the correct work-life balance starts with knowing how to appropriately apply the self-care concept to your daily life. This article will present a conceptual blueprint as well as the seven areas of self-care that enable a solid work-life-balance in today’s military.
The Air Force has focused on resiliency for many years in various shapes and forms. Typically the concept of being resilient is manifested in a quarterly event that concludes with a barbeque or some sort of team-building event. While those events are important, the first step in the journey to becoming more resilient is understanding what makes you resilient as an individual. In short, true resiliency is your ability to take life’s hits and bounce back. Think of resiliency as a gas tank on a car. The more fuel you have in the tank, the longer you can drive. In this analogy, the car is you, work-life balance or more importantly, self-care is the fuel, and your journey is life. So, that brings us to our first big question, how do we define work-life balance?
The online Business Dictionary defines this concept as “a comfortable state of equilibrium achieved between an employee’s primary priorities of their employment position and their private lifestyle” (N.A., 2019). The website further suggests that, “most psychologists would agree that the demands of an employee’s career should not overwhelm the individual’s ability to enjoy a satisfying personal life outside of the business environment” (N.A., 2019). In short, this means that you should rarely if ever, feel off-balance due to your job. While this seems like an alien concept, it is not unattainable.
The proper implementation of work-life balance is often seen as a binary concept. Work is on one end of the spectrum and what you value most on the other. The truth is that balance is more multi-faceted and multidimensional. This balance does not mean an equal distribution of time across all spectrums. Additionally, author Raphailia Michael suggests, that taking care of oneself is not selfish. She further argues that, “it is not only about considering our needs; it is rather about knowing what we need to do in order to take care of ourselves, being subsequently, able to take care of others as well. That is, if I don’t take enough care of myself, I won’t be in the place to give to my loved ones either” (Michael, 2018).
Often it seems disingenuous that leaders speak about this balance, but they themselves either personally do not demonstrate proper balance or show a lack of respect for subordinates’ personal boundaries. Additionally, work-life balance is a nebulous concept and not universally applied. Part of the reason why it is difficult to capture a concrete and succinct understanding of this concept is because “life” means many things to different people. For a mother or father, the life in work-life balance may mean spending time with family. Proper balance for others may be fitness and still others spending time with pets or taking a walk outside. In short, the journey starts with understanding your personal definition of “life” or those of your subordinates? This question may seem easy, but it is much more complex than a superficial subsurface analysis.
This is where the concept of self-care comes into play. Self-care is defined as, “any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health” (Michael, 2018). Believe it or not, work-life balance starts with taking care of yourself first. To note, self-care is not a blank check to abdicate your personal responsibilities or not fulfill one’s duties to the mission. It simply means that you take the time to focus on how to best care for yourself first before others. This seems very selfish, alien and counterintuitive. Arguably, you cannot be the best husband, mother, uncle, pet owner, supervisor or leader if you don’t know how to take care of yourself.
Major League Baseball Player Leon Brown once said, “It all begins with you. If you do not take care of yourself, you will not be strong enough to take care of anything in life” (Brown, N.D.). The most important aspect of the aforementioned quote is being “strong enough to take care of anything in life.” The goal of this practice is to create an environment where you have enough in your reserve to take care of others. Another good analogy is putting on your breathing mask while traveling on an airplane. For consideration, right before an aircraft takes off everyone has heard the standard safety brief that includes knowing where the exit is, as well as the flight attendant buckling and unbuckling the obligatory seat belt at the front of the airplane.
One of the most important parts of the presentation is the breathing mask demonstration. Along with being taught how to pull the straps to tighten on your face, you are also directed to put your oxygen mask on first before you do so for kids or others. This concept dictates that, if you don’t put your mask on first then you risk passing out or endangering yourself before you are able to take care of someone else. Needless to say, the person who puts their mask on first has a better chance of saving others as well as themselves. The same can be said about self-care.
Now that we have defined self-care, how do I apply it to my life? As mentioned previously, there are seven categories of self-care. They are environmental, emotional, financial, mental, physiological, social and spiritual. While on the surface, a few of the categories are similar to the Air Force’s four pillars, however the practical application is different. Let us dive into the categories:
Environmental: This self-care category is looking towards the physical environment to allow you to feel more comfortable and whole. While this may seem a little reminiscent of “Feng Shui”, having a work environment that is organized and clutter-free is important to feeling peaceful for many. Start by asking yourself, what do you need environmentally? Should work have family pictures? Do you need clutter-free desk? Should you be near a window?
Emotional: It is often said that no one can truly love and respect anyone else without showing some love and respect for themselves. In essence, one has to take the time to practice self-acceptance in order to do the same for others. Doctor Juliana Breines defines self-acceptance as “Viewing yourself as a good person who is worthy of love, without needing to prove yourself or outshine others” (Breines, 2016). Negative self-talk and an overall toxic self-view make it impossible to view others through a positive lens and can eventually lead to terrible consequences i.e., emotional, verbal and in extreme cases physical abuse of loved ones, peers, etc. As I often heard in church and witnessed in my personal and professional life, hurt people go out and hurt other people. If something is having a negative impact on our emotions, it’s only a matter of time before our personal and professional relationships are impacted. Hence the reason why it is crucial to seek professional help and to appropriately mend internal discord when emotional distress strikes, you owe it to yourself and to those around you!
Financial: Jennifer Navarro-Marroquin, a licensed financial professional and founder of Claiming Prosperity, a financial education and counseling organization suggests that, financial self-care is a practice empowering oneself to create balance by building a financial plan that will help you achieve the life that you want (Rapacon, 2018). In short, the focus of money in today’s society is predicated on spending for what you want today and tomorrow will come tomorrow. A lack of financial self-care has the potential to create significant stress as one’s life happens and bills amass. The question going forward is do you have a five- or ten-year financial plan? What are you saving today? Have you looked at your credit score lately? When you retire, how much will you need to live on before you transition to your next career? These are just a few questions. Know that there are tons of resources for military members to gain assistance in this area.
Physiological or physical: Famed social theorist Abraham Maslow argues in his Hierarchy of Needs; that physiological security is hard wired into who we are all the way to the subconscious level and is the first level of his model. As noted on the article, The 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and How they Affect Your Life, notes that, the starting place for this category are basic needs like food, water, sleep and shelter (Gversion.com, 2017). Once these needs are met, then the follow-on discussion should be physical exercise, nourishment in food as well as those aspects of physical self-care that dissect with emotional. Things like taking walks, playing with an animal or learning how to salsa. What are your physical needs and are you truly getting what you require to be stable for yourself and others?
Spiritual: Contrary to popular belief, Spiritual self-care is not exclusively related to observing a set of religious customs or to attending religious services on a regular basis. For some of us it might include a morning prayer, meditation and some time to clear our minds and to reflect on our daily, weekly and long term goals. For others it might include physical activity; going for a run, bike ride, strength training or even something as simple as taking 15-20 minutes of quiet time to take inventory of what is truly important in our lives and to connect with our inner self. The documented benefits of spiritual self-care range from reduced anxiety to improved moods and faster recovery from health ailments (mentalhealthamerica.net, 2019). Bottom line, there is no right or wrong answer to practicing spiritual self-care, the key thing is to devote time daily to get after it!
Social:The 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and How they Affect Your Life, notes that, “Different people in different societies meet this need in different ways” (Gversion.com, 2017). While the need for emotional intimacy may vary from person to person, it is still a very important aspect of being a human being. That said, you must ask yourself, are you hanging out with the right people? Are they creating a healthy emotional environment for you to thrive? Are you having enough social contact with distant family and friends? Do you see your loved ones enough?
Psychological: Much like our muscles, our minds also need to be cared for and conditioned in order to preserve or improve our fitness level and to prevent our health from deteriorating. Similarly when engaging in a new muscle or cardiovascular training routine we often enlist the help of a qualified professional or look to fitness focused publications, books, videos, etc. in order to learn new techniques and to help us build on what we already know. A very similar approach can be utilized with regards to psychological self-care in order to discover innovative ways to deal with our mentally draining challenges. Self-care books, articles, confiding in a friend, family member, mentor or seeking the help of a qualified professional are some of the many steps one can take. To quote Albert Einstein “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used, when we created them” (Einstein, A.). In essence looking for fresh ways to deal with psychologically challenging situations is crucial in order to prevent self-doubt, negative thinking and mental burn out.
After reviewing the above descriptions, it is important to rack and stack your needs from most important to least. The number one self-care need is where you should start focusing your attention and is likely the place that you will spend the most time in the work-life balancing equation. It is easy to assume that the emotional may be the most important, as it will zero in on yourself, immediate family and those needs. A quick google search will reveal a significant amount of research as well as opinion articles on proper care. Again, work-life balance starts with what you deem to be important aspects of who you are as an individual and making that a priority. The aforementioned categories are starting points that will certainly get you underway towards the road to success.
In closing, during a January 2018 Airmen’s Call at Maxwell AFB, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright noted that our current military environment is tough and “it gets tougher.” With what’s happening in the world with the level of global insecurity and instability, our jobs will only get more difficult. I don’t look out a year or two or three from now and see less mission. I see more deployments to Europe. I see more deployments to Africa. I see continued deployments to the Middle East, and I also see, at some point, some deployments to the Pacific” (Brown, 2018). In short, the ability to take care of yourself first is an ultimate measure of personal and organizational resiliency. Whether running, spending time with your family, making sure you take time to go to church or simply taking a nice bath is what creates balance — knowing is half the battle. We hope this article will be useful in your efforts to find the appropriate level of work-life balance for both you and your teammates around you.
Einstein, A. (Ph.D.). Albert Einstein quote: We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking