Finding the balance between work and personal life has been one of the principal struggles among workers in the 21st Century.
The pandemic has only made it increasingly clear that grind culture isn’t getting workers much: As wages fail to keep up with cost of living and opportunities for advancement stagnate for Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z, pulling long hours for your job and answering emails while you’re supposed to be on vacation isn’t giving workers the better quality of life they were promised. This has led to high rates of burnout, which has negative effects on both employees and organizations.
To combat burnout, many organizations have tried hosting wellness seminars or offering workshops on how to improve your work-life balance. However, while these approaches may be helpful in the short term, they often treat work-life balance as solely the problem of the individual. In reality, the employer holds a great deal of responsibility as well.
Work-life balance is achieved both by individual action and by systemic support. Without policies and culture put in place to foster good work-life balance, it becomes difficult for individuals to manage it on their own. When the expectation at work is to grind, employees will either grind themselves until they’re burnt out, or they’ll leave.
The greater narrative around work-life balance so often focuses on individual approaches. However, there are plenty of methods managers and leaders can use to build a culture of positive work-life balance within teams and organizations.
As a leader, you set culture and working standards with your team. It’s not enough to just tell your employees that they should take time off. If you encourage them to take time off, but also behave in ways that signal to them that they’re expected to always be available, they’re unlikely to see your encouragement as sincere. If you’re a manager or leader and find your employees are hesitant to take time off, you may want to examine your own work habits and find out if you’re sending them mixed signals.
You may be unwittingly contributing to a bad work-life balance if you frequently message your employees or book meetings outside of core work hours or you expect employees to answer messages or emails while on vacation. Behaviors like these violate your employees’ boundaries and make them feel like they always have to be on-call.
To foster a culture where employees feel comfortable taking time off, you need to ensure that reasonable work boundaries are drawn and the above behaviors are eliminated—or at least become rare exceptions in case of legitimate emergencies. Even if you find yourself working late some nights or weekends (it happens), schedule your emails or messages to go out during core business hours. That way you won’t forget to send important messages and you’ll still respect your team’s personal time.
Model good work-life balance
Pushing workday boundaries doesn’t just put pressure on employees—it also signals to them that management and leadership may have a bad work-life balance themselves. If your team knows you’re working late into the night, never taking vacations, or working while sick, they’ll believe that’s what you expect of them as well.
Everyone should have a healthy work-life balance regardless of role. When you let your team know you’re taking time off, they may feel more comfortable taking it themselves.
Leadership means modeling the behavior you want to see. So take that vacation, rest up when you’re unwell, and take that mental health day. It’s good for you and your team.
Offer flexible work schedules and remote work, regardless of reason
Workplace prejudices about time off and flexible work arrangements are well documented. In the US, where parental leave isn’t guaranteed, employees who request parental leave often face harsh scrutiny, and mothers tend to bear the brunt of it. On the flipside, those without children are often expected to pick up the slack for parents because their personal time is perceived as having lesser value—with childfree women taking on the bulk of the work.
These dynamics can breed animosity in your team, which is why it’s critical to ensure everyone has equal access to workplace accommodations, regardless of reason. Everyone deserves time off and flexible work schedules if needed, and they shouldn’t have to stress about convincing their managers that their personal time is worth honoring.
This goes for time off requests too. Make it clear to your employees that their vacation time is theirs to use, and that they don’t need to come up with a convincing reason as to why they want to use it. Everyone deserves a break to relax and come back to work refreshed.
Another facet of work-life balance has to do with work itself. It’s hard for employees to take time off and keep regular work hours if their workloads are unmanageable. It’s important to regularly check in with your team members to see whether or not their workloads are getting too heavy.
When checking in, make sure your questions are specific enough to get an idea of what their day looks like. Getting a sense of how much overtime people are working is a good indicator of workload imbalance. If you find your full-time employees are working nights and weekends, that’s an opportunity to revisit priorities, delegate tasks, and have open discussions on how to tackle the work while maintaining everyone’s sanity.
But simply asking “how’s your workload” may not yield an honest answer. Your team members may be overwhelmed with work, but not voice it because they want to prove they can handle it. Instead, focus your questions on behaviors that act as indicators for work-life balance. Questions like “do you find yourself working late very often?” or “what are your plans for the weekend/evening?” can give you much more useful information than general workload questions.
Finding the balance
When the pandemic struck in 2020, work-life balance changed in unprecedented ways. As the lines between personal life and work life blurred as white collar work went remote, employees found themselves burnt out and reassessing their priorities in their careers. The ensuing Great Resignation left companies scrambling to fill positions, and focusing on quality-of-life benefits to attract a powerful new pool of candidates who were skeptical of anything that sounded like the jobs that burned them out.
But the change in work-life balance had been in motion since long before the pandemic. As workplace technology improved and smartphones became ubiquitous, work became something that didn’t just live at the office; it lived in your pocket too. We became easily accessible at all times, for better or for worse.
The next time you’re burning the midnight oil and have a question for one of your team members, maybe it’s better to hit “schedule send” for 9AM and log off for the night—for their sake and yours.