The best way to minimize stress? Escape the busy trap
A quarter of Canadian women feel stressed out on a daily basis. And no wonder, when you consider what we're juggling: work, kids, household chores... Here's how busyness impacts our health, and what you can do about it.
Hilary Letwin finds it nearly impossible to silence the nagging voice once it starts, usually in the middle of the night. That's when her bottomless to-do list begins to creep into her consciousness. "I try not to let those feelings overwhelm me, because that can be quite paralyzing," says Hilary, as she struggles to meet the demands of running a household and raising a 3 1/2-year-old while working from home as a research writer.
The "busy trap" that plagues Hilary is maddeningly familiar to many Canadian women who feel as if they're being pushed to the brink as a result of jam-packed work schedules, family obligations, household chores and the self-imposed pressure to continually take on more.
Kathryn Lavallee, 33, is caught in the same trap. The sense that she's always on the run starts as soon as she opens her eyes in the morning. She's immediately checking email for any urgent work-related issues to handle. Next, it's down to the kitchen to make breakfast and pack lunches for her five- and eight-year-old sons before walking them to school. "I feel like there's always something else to do," says the single mom. "There are days when I get a little panicky."
After dropping her kids off at school, Kathryn, who lives just outside of Regina, heads back home, where she runs her own website full time. And after she picks up the boys, she starts the nightly ritual of snacks, karate or Scouts, meal preparation, cleaning and bedtime. Even then, Kathryn often finds herself typing away at her computer late into the night.
Finding ways to cope
Research on the long-term negative effects of stress is leading women like Kathryn and Hilary to realize that this busy trap is about more than momentary angst—it can seriously affect their health. While it's unlikely that many of the obligations keeping Canadian women so busy will disappear any time soon, there are effective coping mechanisms that can help minimize stress and promote a healthier life.
For Hilary, who lives in Port Moody, B.C., daytime list-making is a useful tool for managing stress. Once she wrestles tasks onto paper, the 36-year-old mom feels one step closer to getting them done. Hilary and her husband also make a conscious effort not to overcommit to social events or engagements—taking a pass on after-work functions and too many kids' activities—that could leave them scrambling to get everything else done.
Karen Duncan, work-life balance expert and associate professor at the University of Manitoba, says that, beyond a simple list, the key to escaping the busy trap is figuring out your priorities. Many people believe they can achieve a perfect balance between work and home life if they just work hard enough, she says. "It's setting people up to fail."
Instead, Duncan suggests giving careful thought to what you can and can't control. "Putting in this work in advance to identify your real priorities can give you a more realistic idea of what you can take on and achieve without feeling burned out and also help you focus on areas where change is within your control," she says. "Yes, we may be able to manage stress, but it's so much better if we can understand the cause of that stress and eliminate it if possible and, if not, adjust our expectations accordingly so we meet our priorities."
For Jody MacArthur, the juggling act of life itself seems like the cause. A 40-yearold mother of two young daughters, Jody runs a public relations and social media management business from her house near Halifax. Though working from home affords her flexibility, it also means Jody is never far from the demands of the office. Once she and her husband are finished making meals, shuttling the girls to activities and looking after household chores, Jody often ends up finishing her work after the kids are in bed. She finds herself limping toward the end of the school year and using summer holidays to recharge her worn-out batteries. But she also acknowledges that she brings on some of the tasks that keep her in high gear.
Thankfully, as a culture, we're starting to discuss the lure—and perils—of our busy ways. Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, says that society places too much value on being busy. "There is a certain amount of pride when we show how much stuff we can cram into our calendars," she says. It's hard for women to shed this mindset, given that it's increasingly easy to compare ourselves to the Pinterest crafting brigade and the Facebook humble braggers.
Schulte says that letting go of those unrealistic expectations is critical. When women—who so often carry dual workhome roles—recognize that the default in modern society is to aspire to be busy all the time, it's easier to let go. "You can't control time, but you can control your expectations, and you can control your priorities," says Schulte.
Jody hears that advice loud and clear. Lately, she's been making the effort to check her expectations and to clear her schedule so the family can enjoy more downtime. They find themselves taking spontaneous outings to the movies, something that once seemed impossible. "It feels a lot healthier than it did; it feels a lot slower. For us, that works," she says.
Erin Chrusch, 36, agrees that the busy trap is often self-inflicted. "You make choices about what you want for your family," says the Calgary wife and mother of two, aged five and seven. She catches herself when she complains about her crowded schedule, because many of the things that keep her family busy—taking the kids to dance or hockey—are privileges. But it's still a mad dash for the working parents, especially when one of the kids is sick or childcare falls through.
Striking a balance
Scott Schieman, researcher on work, stress and health and a University of Toronto sociologist, says pressures faced by families are often caused by rigid work hours and the "technology creep," which makes many employees reluctant to stop checking email. Schieman believes employees should be able to talk to their managers about schedules and have more flexibility when it's needed. And he argues that employers should be prepared to offer more of their workers arrangements that fit their lives.
In that regard, Erin is lucky. Her boss, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, understands she has obligations outside the office. "It's good to have a work environment that allows me to do what I need to do," she says. "It makes me feel like I can balance it all."
Back in Regina, Kathryn has been learning to say no when she's stretched too thin. She goes out for dinner once a week to give herself a break from cooking and to prevent busyness-induced stress. "You're away from all of that pressure," she says. "It's hugely helpful."