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It’s been 20-some years since work-life balance discussions went mainstream. Back then some bosses sent salaried employees home at 5 pm sharp because research showed that work-life balance led to increased productivity.
So why is there such a renewed interest in this topic?
Some key factors may include:
- New research showing positive results from experiments like 4-day workweeks, telecommuting, and flex-time.
- The rise of creative leadership in technology startups coupled with intense competition for talent has led to experiments at the edge: like no scheduled work hours and unlimited vacation time.
- A newly discovered link between rising healthcare costs in the U.S. and workplace stress: Recent Harvard research found that workplace stress may account for more than 120,000 deaths annually and costs some $125 billion to $190 billion a year in healthcare spending.
Let’s find out what’s working and what you can do in 2019 — as an employee or employer — to improve work-life balance and enjoy life more.
What is Work-Life Balance?
Work-life balance refers to actions, decisions, and obligations that define the amount of time one spends on work and on the rest of one’s life.
As this definition suggests, some of our work-life balance is within our control (actions, decisions) and some of it is not (obligations).
This is why both employer and employee have a part to play in improving work-life balance.
Research has shown that the lack of a healthy work-life balance can result in a variety of stress factors, including:
- A compromised immune system
- Heart disease and high blood pressure
- Worsening of an existing health condition
- Neglect of personal affairs, leading to additional stress
- An increased risk for substance abuse
Can Stress Be Good For You?
Before we continue though, let’s take a quick detour into the new science of stress. Is there “good” stress and “bad” stress?
Research from the University of California at Berkely has shown that intermittent stress (limited in duration) provides a surprising array of benefits. These may include improved mental performance and the growth of new neurons.
“Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance,” says Daniela Kaufer, acting associate dean and professor of integrative biology at Berkeley.
A Mind-Bending Study
But it’s another study that has up-ended many of our assumptions about stress.
That study, conducted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, found that individuals experiencing large amounts of stress were 43% more likely to die prematurely . . . if they believed that stress was bad for them.
By contrast, individuals who didn’t believe stress was bad for them — and were experiencing similar stress levels — had no elevated risk of dying.
Dr. Kelley McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, explains more about this mind-bending phenomenon in the video below. McGonigal is the author of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good For You and How to Get Good At It.
Stress By the Numbers
- A 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association revealed significant percentages of Americans are “stressed” over the economy (35%) and health care (43%).
- In the US, 27% of Millennials said that work-related stress was affecting their productivity. Only 12% of baby boomers agreed.
- In 2018, over 600,000 people in the United Kingdom reported suffering from work-related stress, depression, and/or anxiety, with many stating that they would prefer a shorter (four-day) workweek.
- In India, 95% of Millennials say that they are stressed, primarily due to work-related factors.
- Recently, South Korea cut its limits on the number of hours someone can work each week from 68 to 52.
Video: Over a decade ago, Ryan Carson, CEO of Treehouse, established a 4-day work week at his company. “There’s no rule that you have to work 40 hours, you have to work more to be successful,” says Carson. “We’ve proven that you can take it from an experiment into something that’s doable for real companies and real people in highly competitive markets.”
The Causes of Work-Life Imbalance
Both employers and employees play role in achieving work-life balance.
When it comes to employers, policies and management practices may negatively impact the balance, as can workplace stress inducers like lack of planning or an authoritarian leadership style.
Here are a few of the common ways both employers and employees may contribute to work stress, and by extension, to work-life imbalance.
|Assigning unrealistic work loads||Volunteering for new tasks even though one's schedule is full|
|Poorly defined tasks||Disorganization (making the job more difficult than it needs to be)|
|Authoritarian style or unnecessary perfectionism||Unnecessary perfectionism or belligerent style|
|Inadequate resources assigned to a project||Not asking for what one needs|
|Unfair processes||Perception of unfairness (whether true or not)|
|Job insecurity||Perception of job insecurity (whether true or not)|
|Blaming others for leadership errors or taking credit for others' ideas and wins||Blaming leadership or others for one's own errors|
|Assigning responsibility but no authority to act||Spending time fixing others' errors when it is outside one's scope of responsibility|
|Cultivating or tolerating poor culture||Contributing to poor culture|
|Calling employees after hours or late at night when it's unnecessary||Checking email or other work communications off hours although it's unnecessary|
Now let’s drill down into some common factors that we may allow to negatively affect our own work-life balance.
The amount of time people expect to spend at work can be impacted by national and cultural norms.
Several East Asian cultures (including the Japanese and Korean) are infamous for their long work days, while certain Scandinavian countries are known for their shorter workweeks and emphasis on balancing the time employees spend at work or home.
Financial Obligations and the Economy
One of the primary purposes of work is to be able to afford the costs of living.
If wages are stagnant, then as the cost of living rises, people need to work more to maintain their lifestyle.
Recessions and purchasing power can contribute to stress as people work harder, not to advance but to remain on the “hamster wheel.”
It is easy to see how working more hours to earn the same amount of money is problematic, especially if the employee cares about spending quality time on activities that occur outside the workplace.
It wasn’t uncommon for the parents of baby boomers to spend 30 years or more working at one company. This is no longer the case. Lifetime loyalty to employees — in the form of keeping pensions and other commitments — has waned in the wake of various economic crises, and scandals like Enron and underfunded public and private pensions.
It’s a two-way street: employers are often seen as less committed to their employees, but at the same time, the employees are less committed to their employers as well.
How Different Generations View Work-Life Balance
Whether you’re a baby boomer, a millennial, or a Gen Xer, the time period you grew up in may affect your view — and your actions — on work-life balance.
- Baby Boomers: This generation prioritized economic stability, and work-life balance was not a big concern. Baby Boomers tended to stay with a single employer for long periods but had more employers that those in the generation before them.
- Gen X: The children of Baby Boomers, Gen Xers witnessed, first-hand, the effects of little work-life balance on the family. As such, we see a rise in the emphasis on creating a balance between work and play.
- Millennials: There are a lot of stereotypes about Millennials (primarily centered around how those of this generation see work as secondary to play), but the truth of the matter is that they have grown up in a time when crushing student loans are the norm and, post-recession, job insecurity. Work-life balance is still important, but job security is too. Research indicates that Millennials seek well-paying, secure jobs that support their lives outside of work. When choosing where to work, factors prior generations focused on (e.g., pay, job location, the potential for growth) are the ones Millennials focus on as well.
As the workplace composition shifts from mostly Boomers to mostly Gen Xers to mostly Millennials, we can see the shifts from “all work and no play” to a more balanced division between work and life.
Why Maintaining a Work-Life Balance is Important
A work-life balance helps us to be our best, at work and at home. It promotes health and resilience, enabling us to enjoy our lives more and to be creative and productive.
It fosters the reserve of strength and mental performance needed to:
- Care for ailing or disabled family members
- Successfully handle project crises in the workplace
- Maintain safety in high-risk occupations
- Create innovative products and new revenue streams
And it gives us time to participate in our communities, growing the bonds and networks that strengthen neighborhoods.
The Harvard study we mentioned earlier even suggests that a decrease in workplace stress could significantly reduce soaring healthcare costs in the U.S.
How to Achieve Work-Life Balance in 2019
Achieving work-life balance in 2019 is a challenge that must be tackled by both employers and employees. Indeed, recent research from Harvard Business School and other sources seems to tilt toward the employer being most responsible.
This is because they create workplace policies, culture, and management practices.
Employers reap the benefits that come from having a happy, productive, and caring workforce. Research shows that options like a 4-day work week, flex-time and telecommuting have reduced turnover rates and boosted morale, resilience, trust, and productivity.
In the following section, we present some powerful ideas we think could change the way the workplace functions.
For a long time, the workweek was seen as 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM Monday through Friday with all employees reporting to a common workplace.
There are certainly workplaces that still retain that model, and in some cases, a set work schedule is necessary.
However, there are many cases where such a rigid structure is not necessary. For example, many software development jobs offer flexible hours and remote work — as long as the employee works forty hours of work per week, they can work whenever and from wherever.
Some companies, like Unsplash, also allow employees to set their own schedules so they can work when they are most productive. CEO Mikael Cho explains that some employees at are their mental peak during night hours while others thrive in the early morning.
Benefits of flexible schedules extend to both employer and employee. For example, working parents can go take afternoons off to take their sick children to the doctor, and those who need to sign mortgage papers can do so without having to jump through hoops and hurdles at work.
Vacation: Too Much or Not Enough?
Vacation time is another area where employers can be flexible or experiment.
Some companies like Kronos offer “unlimited vacation,” trusting their employees to use it responsibly.
Not all experiments with unlimited vacation have worked out. Some leaders have found that “unlimited vacation” can easily become “no vacation.”
Unlimited vacation policies lead to people taking *less* vacation. People don’t abuse, they underuse. It’s better to be explicit about time off – removes all the anxiety around too much or too little.
— Jason Fried (@jasonfried) November 22, 2017
If your small business is considering launching unlimited vacations, know the pros and cons and measure the impact.
Don’t Ask Employees to Skip Vacation
At the minimum, ensure that each employee takes their full allotment of vacation for the year. Don’t require that they skip vacation time for emergency or last-minute projects and don’t roll over vacation time to the next year.
Weeks of unused vacation time can easily turn into months increasing employee stress burdens. You don’t want a star employee quitting because they believe it’s the only way they can get a “vacation.”
Everyone needs time away from work to rest and become rejuvenated.
Be Open and Honest
Both employees and employers need to make priorities and preferences clear.
Managers should be clear with their staff what their expectations are (e.g., time spent in the office, time spent working remotely or telecommuting, travel periods, and so on) so that their employees do not have to guess as to what is expected of them.
Conversely, employees should be clear what their needs are. Employer flexibility might result in a negotiation where, say, a valued employee facing a family member’s hospitalization, could be assigned a lighter load temporarily or allowed to work from home.
The examples we give above are generalizations. The conception of what a good work-life balance differs from person to person. While there is the need for some standardization so that employees are all treated equally, we would argue that most jobs can accommodate the give-and-take needed to keep all parties content.
Prioritize Your Tasks and Understand What Matters
Everybody has the same twenty-four hours each day and a to-do list a mile long. That means that not everything will get done.
You have to prioritize.
It’s helpful to decide which of the four categories your tasks fall into:
- Urgent and important
- Important, but not urgent
- Urgent, but not important
- Neither urgent nor important
The key is to spend most of your time on things that are important, whether they’re urgent or not.
There are a lot of small, daily tasks that can easily fill up each hour of the day, which can result in important things being placed on the back burner.
Schedule What’s Important to You
Tip: you might schedule out blocks of time for cultivating and growing relationships. Scheduling time prioritizes it.
Contrast this with simply adding it to a to-do list where it will compete with trivial items like downloading new music or purchasing some house plants.
Quick story on how I stay focused every day ?? pic.twitter.com/eqB2LqqAci
— Ryan Carson (he/him) (@ryancarson) March 6, 2017
CEO Ryan Carson shares some helpful tips on focusing on what matters, daily.
It can be difficult to reign in procrastination so that tasks do not drag on all day. When you procrastinate, the task can grow in your mind until it seems more difficult and time-consuming than it really is.
However, it is not enough just to say, “Don’t procrastinate.”
Break Tasks Down Into Small Parts
Try dividing up big tasks into little ones that are easy to accomplish. Focus on one at a time. Reward yourself whenever it seems appropriate. You’ll get more done and develop momentum.
Create an Environment That Facilitates Efficiency
On the other side, managers should strive to help cultivate environments that allow for employees to be efficient. For example, meetings are important, but if there are too many, no one has a chance of getting into that state of flow where people work quickly and efficiently.
The faster work gets done, the less time managers spend worrying and the more time employees can spend on things outside of the workplace without themselves worrying.
Ask for Help
When it comes to raising children, the adage says that it takes a village. We will take it a step further and argue that to do anything well, you will need the support of a village, regardless of the form that the village takes.
Need a second pair of eyes on an article you are writing? Seek out your coworker ahead of time. Remember, the goal is to ask for help, not create emergencies to compel others to help you.
Give and Accept Support
Unless you are a one-man shop, there are probably many people around you who are ready and willing to help. When you reach out to others to support them and when you accept the support offered by others, you are doing more than being effective and optimizing your use of time — you are building relationships that help foster a positive working community.
We spend a lot of time distinguishing between work and life, but that is not to say that you cannot cultivate relationships within the workplace.
Set Your Work Hours and Stick to Them
It can be easy for tasks to grow slowly and for hours you spend at work to creep up. If this is something that happens to you, you will need to set your work hours, and, more importantly, stick to them.
Home For Dinner
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg leaves work every day at 5:30 PM to go home and eat dinner with her family.
Now, we don’t have insider information on what Sandberg’s day-to-day life looks like, but we will hazard a guess that there are things that have been left undone when she leaves the office.
Nevertheless, family dinners are important to Sandberg. So she leaves at 5:30 PM regardless of whether she has crossed off everything on her to-do list.
Video: Sheryl Sandberg shares her thinking behind her work-life balance approach.
To ease into this change, you might consider making incremental changes. The first couple of days, stop at, say 7:30 PM. Then, move that time back to 7:00 PM. Continue until you are working the schedule that allows you to meet the demands of work and life.
Know When to Stay Connected and When to Unplug
Technology is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, technology has offered us cool things like allowing a working mother to check in on her children at daycare. On the other hand, having our email on our phones means that we can be responding to messages late into the night when we should be relaxing and resting.
Take Control of Your Technology
To keep things in balance, decide ahead of time when you will be connected and when you will unplug.
For example, you might choose to be “unavailable” once you walk out of the office at 5:30 PM, but after the kids go to bed, you will be responding to emails again around 8:30 PM or 9:00 PM on the weekdays.
Take Care of Yourself
You know how the flight attendants emphasize that, in case of emergency, you should put on your oxygen mask before you help anyone else?
That is the idea here. If you do not take care of yourself, you cannot perform as well as you otherwise would.
Eat a Healthy Diet
Eat well. If you are so busy that you dine out all the time, begin by including a serving of fruit or vegetable. One. Then, gradually increase the number of fruits and vegetables you eat, while decreasing the amount of fried food you consume.
Move more. You do not have to spend two hours a day getting sweaty. Start with just a walk around your office complex, or download the app showing you how to get a seven-minute workout in.
Don’t smoke. Drink only moderately.
None of these items are groundbreaking — they are common sense suggestions that you can incorporate slowly, one at a time.
Feel Better, Make Better Decisions
By taking care of yourself, you will feel better and be better equipped to make good decisions.
Good decision making means better work-life balance since you are more likely to choose the important task over the easier, but trivial task to get done. (Remember, the important tasks always get done — it is just that less important tasks push back the completion of the important tasks).
You might be groaning inwardly since this item sounds like we are adding an item to your to-do list. However, we cannot recommend learning enough.
By reading books and articles, viewing lectures, and so on, you will gain exposure to new ideas that can help you figure out your priorities and find the balance that works for you.
Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself
Some stress is inevitable. It’s part of life. However, that doesn’t mean that you cannot minimize the amount of stress you feel.
If you are doing the best that you can, do not beat yourself up for what you have not done –focus on what you have done.
We realize this is easier said than done. So if you are stressed, take some time to figure out how to de-stress. Consider talking to a therapist. Learn to meditate. Take a yoga class. Go to the gym and punch out the giant bean bags.
Work-Life Balance Quotes
We want to leave you with some inspiration. Here are a few thought-provoking quotes that may nudge you to take that first action toward improved balance. Remember: even a very small change can yield significant benefits.
“We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently, whether they are at their desk or in their kitchen. Yours truly has never worked out of an office, and never will.”
— Richard Branson, Founder and CEO of Virgin
“To have someone who never makes a mistake, never finds her personal life in disarray, never worries about work-life balance? I think that would be unreal.”
— Sophie Kinsella, best-selling author
“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”
— Harriet Braiker, psychologist and author
“You don’t have to make yourself miserable to be successful. It’s natural to look back and mythologize the long nights and manic moments of genius, but success isn’t about working hard, it’s about working smart.”
― Andrew Wilkinson, Founder and Chairman of MetaLab, Co-Founder of Pixel Union, and CEO of Tiny Capital
“To successfully work with other people, you have to trust each other. A big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision.”
— Richard Branson, Founder and CEO of Virgin
Finding work-life balance can be challenging, but given the ramifications of not doing so, finding the sweet spot between work and life should be at the top of everyone’s list.
From CEOs to managers to every employee in the workforce, work-life balance is something that affects someone physically, mentally, and emotionally, and is therefore not something that can be ignored.
The rewards for achieving and improved work-life balance are many. Keep those at the forefront of your mind as you begin your journey to a better year in 2019.
Here are a few related articles you may find helpful: The Virtual Trustfall: Teambuilding for Remote Teams and Emotional intelligence.
Let’s Start a Conversation
Feel free to share your own work-life challenges, experiments, and solutions in the comments below. We’d love to hear about them.
Photo of Mikael Cho by Crew on Unsplash via Unsplash license
Commuting photos: Cars driving in winter by Sanjeev Kugan on Unsplash, bottom subway photo by Eddi Aguirre on Unsplash, Photo of subway at upper right by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash