The last two years have played merry hell with work-life balance. Research published by workplace software firm Atlassian found that today’s employees are working longer average days and working more frequently on the weekends. Meanwhile, the closure of schools and other support systems have forced parents and caregivers into exhausting multitasking. For example, a report published in the New York Times last year found that parents spent an additional one to two hours a day looking after their children, with women - especially single mothers - hit particularly hard.
The statistics tell a worrying story. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) earlier this year, a massive 79% of US workers reported severe work-related stress. More than 30% of those say they are also struggling with emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, lack of motivation at work, and "cognitive weariness."
In short, employees’ efforts to maintain a healthy work-life balance have been seriously undermined. Worse, if this problem is not resolved, ongoing workplace stress could damage employee engagement, hinder productivity and increase turnover - not to mention having a lasting impact on employee health. The onus is on HR teams to take urgent steps to improve this situation before their employees burn out - or simply quit, joining the ranks of the “Great Resignation.”
The good news is that helping workers to improve their work-life balance needn’t be expensive or complex. In this article, we’ll outline simple measures that leaders and People teams can take to redress the damage of the last few years and help employees get their mojo back.
What Is Work-Life Balance?
For such a widely used term, work-life balance can be surprisingly tricky to define. Generally speaking, work-life balance refers to the amount of time and energy we dedicate to our work and our personal lives. A healthy work-life balance, therefore, is one in which both sectors of our lives are rewarding, our work stress levels are under control, and our time is spent in ways that enrich and enliven us.
However, the term may also be misleading. Ioana Lupu, an Associate Professor at ESSEC Business School and a leading researcher in organisational behaviour, told us that the idea of work-life balance implies that there is a perfect balance that everyone should aspire to. However, her research into attitudes towards work-life balance in knowledge workers reveals a very different picture. She reveals: “some people thrive in imbalance, and enjoy a fast-paced work life that occupies most of their time during the week.”
Not only do different people have radically different ideas of what a healthy balance is, but the same person may change their ideas about work-life balance dramatically over the course of their lives. “For instance, before having a family, many people might be happy to work long hours and to dedicate most of their time to building their expertise,” says Lupu. “Later on, as kids arrive, their careers may be given second place, only to accelerate again when the children are a bit more autonomous.”
Dr. Tracy Brower, author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life, also agrees that the term work-life balance is problematic, “as it suggests we must trade off and can’t have one without the other.” Rather than thinking of work and life as competing with each other for our attention, Brower encourages us to focus on work-life fulfilment instead: “Work is part of a full life and it’s a place where we are able to contribute our talents and skills within our community. We all have an instinct to matter, so when we’re able to fully engage with our work, that’s important.”
Why Is a Healthy Work-Life Balance Important for Employers and Employees?
Whatever we choose to call it, work-life balance is vitally important. Without a healthy work-life balance, we may burn out, struggle with health issues, or start to hate our jobs. This isn’t just bad for employees - it’s a major issue for employers too.
Following the upheavals triggered by COVID-19 and an increasing awareness of corporate diversity, equity and inclusivity (or lack thereof), consumers have become far more sensitised to how companies treat their workers. For instance, almost 70% of younger consumers will boycott a company that doesn’t treat its employees well.
In addition, People teams today are struggling to recruit in a tight job market, and fighting to hang on to their workforce in the face of the “Great Resignation”. To attract and retain the best and brightest in what HR thought leader Josh Bersin has called the “era of employee experience”, companies must stand out as leaders in employee wellbeing.
If employee experience has become the new competitive arena, then attending to employee work-life balance is a critical part of human resources strategy. Helping employees maintain a healthy work-life balance has measurable advantages for businesses. These include:
1. Reduced Employee Turnover
According to a large-scale research project conducted by MIT, employees are far more likely to leave companies if they don’t feel that work-life balance is a priority. Even during the so-called “Great Resignation”, the MIT study found that “companies with a reputation for a healthy culture, including Southwest Airlines, Johnson & Johnson, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and LinkedIn, experienced lower-than-average turnover during the first six months.” In fact, a toxic culture was over 10 times more likely to contribute to employee attrition than issues with compensation.
2. Reduced Absenteeism Due to Stress
Even if employees don’t quit, work-life imbalance can cause severe stress, which in turn can cause increased absenteeism, burnout and employee no-shows. Globally, an average of 1 million employees a day miss work because of stress, the American Institute of Stress reports. And the costs of employee stress can be high - one estimate puts the cost of stress for U.S. industry at a whopping $300 billion per year. And what causes work-place stress? You guessed it - two-thirds of stressed employees say their stress was caused by poor work-life balance or an overwhelming workload.
3. Improved Employee Engagement
Recent research by Gallup found that a “caring manager” was one of the key drivers of employee engagement. A manager and a company culture that make it clear that employees’ lives outside of work are also important, and that treat employees as valued individuals, will tend to see more engaged, happier and more productive workers.
4. Improved Performance and Creativity
Employees who feel that their employers prioritise their work-life balance work more than 20% harder, according to a study of 50,000 global workers conducted by the Corporate Executive Board (via Inc.com).
5. Improved Employer Brand
A large-scale survey by FlexJobs found that the majority of employees (56%) switched jobs in search of a role or field with a better work-life balance. In fact, working in a company which supported their work-life balance was more important to respondents than a pay rise or opportunities for professional development.
6. Happier Employees
Finally, the World Happiness Report found that work-life balance was the strongest contributor to employee happiness. Overwork, on the other hand, causes mental distress and potential long-term harm to employees' physical health.
How Can HR Teams Help Employees Find a Good Work-Life Balance?
Given the importance of work-life balance to employee productivity, wellbeing, performance, recruitment and job satisfaction, it should be high on the list of strategic priorities for any People team. But simply creating wellness initiatives or offering unlimited holidays may fall short of the overall goal. Instead of throwing money at the problem, HR teams could try the following steps for a healthier, happier workforce:
Step 1: Secure buy-in from business leadership.
HR’s first priority should be to make the business case for promoting employee work-life balance, and to secure a commitment from leadership that they will set the tone. After all, to quote Caro Griffin, founder of Opsy and the former Director of Operations for Skillcrush, “No policy is effective without buy-in from leadership.” If you want to create a culture in which work-life balance is treated as a priority, then it can’t only be a question of lip service. Employees need to see their managers and business leaders modelling healthy work-life boundaries.
“Executives and managers have to set the tone by turning off Slack at the end of the day,” says Griffin, “not responding to messages after hours, and publicly taking vacations and days off. They have to demonstrate the behaviour they expect from their direct reports.
“If you're working outside of business hours, [they should] make sure to go ‘offline’ in any messaging app and schedule messages to arrive the next day.
“A lot of teams have an #outofoffice channel where people can share fun photos and stories from their weekends and there's nothing like the CEO sharing photos from her vacation to demonstrate to send the message that it's okay to sign off. It's one thing to say that it's okay to have a healthy work-life balance, but showing it means so much more.”
Step 2: Communicate clear work-life policies.
Employees need to know what the expectations are or they may fall back on assumptions or old habits from previous workplaces. HR teams can help by revamping the employee handbook to directly address work-life balance.
Particular areas to focus on include:
- Communication policies, such as insisting that all staff put their work phones on “Do not disturb” mode after a certain time, or setting up all email accounts to send internal emails during working hours only
- Meeting policies, such as placing time limits on meetings, setting a “no meeting day” to allow employees to focus on deep work, or establishing 15 minute breaks between every meeting
- Policies on communication channels, such as encouraging employees to prioritise asynchronous communication (like video messages, instant messenger or voicemails) over less flexible communication options (like phone calls or video conference calls). Or restricting all communications to a single channel like Slack, so that employees don’t feel bombarded from all sides.
- Holiday policies, to encourage employees to make full use of their paid time off, such as offering unlimited holidays and/or paid “mental health days”, or setting minimum quarterly holiday requirements
- Flexible working policies, so that workers can design their work hours around their unique needs and the demands of their personal lives
Step 3: Consider employee recognition.
Many companies want to promote their employees’ wellbeing, but unwittingly create an unhealthy working culture by recognising and rewarding overwork. Ioana Lupu’s research found this to be a particular issue for knowledge workers. “For many [knowledge workers],” she says, “there is a direct relationship between the time worked and the revenues they bring to their firms though the number of billable hours – the more hours they work, the more they can bill.
“So, the performance evaluation systems of these firms are geared towards incentivising long hours and discouraging slack time and quiet time. As a result, many of the workers have internalised this logic, and may even feel anxious and frustrated during slower work periods when they are not able to invoice as many billable hours as in intense work periods.”
Roy Morejon, the co-founder and president of marketing agency Enventys Partners, agrees with Lupu. His solution is that: “HR and leaders should also prioritise recognising balance, because only giving recognition to those who go above and beyond is a surefire way to create a culture where that’s the height of value, and where employees de-prioritise life to get rewarded at work. Give ‘acknowledging self-care’ the weight we used to give working late.”
Step 4: Train your managers.
Managers must be aware of how to talk to their teams about work-life balance and how to inspire employees to feel more fulfilled at work. Lupu’s research suggests that: “HR teams should find ways to incentivise managers to care more for the wellbeing of their teams. This also implies penalising managers who have unsustainable work patterns and pressure their teams to work in the same way, and rewarding people-centric behaviour/managers.”
Manager-employee one-to-ones can provide the ideal environment for managers to check in with their teams, identify any areas of undue stress or overwhelm, and to help coach their direct reports to find their way back to balance. Managers may also benefit from training that demonstrates how to encourage employees to set goals that are challenging (but not intimidating) and how to spot signs of stress and burnout.
People teams can also partner with team leads to identify potential issues with employee workloads before they occur. In today’s flatter, matrixed, hybrid and remote organisations, employee workloads can creep up without managers even noticing. For instance, an employee could easily end up with tasks assigned by a line manager, a product manager, and a functional manager.
To combat workload overload, Morejon suggests that: ”HR and leadership [should] consistently review workloads for every employee, and seek employee feedback to gain insight into whether they feel comfortable. Too heavy a workload can kill productivity and wellbeing, and too light a workload can cause disengagement and boredom. It’s important to reassess and ensure employees have a say.” Additionally, a project management tool like Asana or Monday.com can make any red flags easier to spot.
Step 5: Monitor results with employee surveys.
To be sure that your employees are happy with their work-life balance, you’ll need to ask them. This is particularly important for global or hybrid teams. Overworked and/or burnt out employees may easily go unnoticed when working from home.
A detailed employee survey is a great way to identify flagging morale or increased workplace stress. For instance, in 2020 Lattice released a crisis response survey template, to help our customers check in with their employees as they adjusted to working life during the pandemic. Once the results were in, we saw a clear pattern emerging. While employees mostly felt that their employers were handling the upheaval triggered by COVID-19 well, their own wellbeing was clearly suffering. Employees felt that they were not getting enough support to adjust their schedules for caregiving needs, or not encouraged to take breaks during the workday.
With this kind of information at hand, People teams are in a far better position to take direct action to improve employee support.
Creating a culture that supports employees’ sense of work-life balance is crucial to long-term business success. Companies that prioritise their employees’ wellbeing, stress management, and lives outside of work will benefit from a happier, healthier, more loyal, and more productive workforce.
People teams can provide transformative value by creating and communicating clear policies that support work-life boundaries. This can start by offering managers appropriate training, and by ensuring that workers with a healthy work-life balance are recognised and rewarded as good behavioural models. In a world where market upheavals, pandemic lockdowns, and the sudden leap to remote working have left workers reeling, companies that show they care about their employees will find themselves with the pick of the talent pool. Talk about a win-win.