Live to work or work to live? The very existence of this question signals an imbalance. The term “work-life balance” was first coined in the 1970s. A lot has changed since then in both the professional and personal realms.
Put simply, work-life balance refers to the equilibrium between the demands of your career and the demands of your personal life (i.e. family, friends, and solo time). While our increased ability to work remotely and flexibly is seen as a logical evolution in modern work (especially with the pandemic making it a need for many), it’s also a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can cater to unpredictable personal schedules, but on the other, it can result in never being fully unplugged from work.
Meaningful work-life balance offers countless benefits to managers and employees alike, including less stress, a lower risk of burnout, and a greater sense of wellbeing. There’s a reason some employees rank work-life balance as more valuable than health benefits. After all, the former is a form of preventative healthcare.
Chronic stress: An epidemic
Although chronic stress was certainly a worldwide issue pre-pandemic, it’s not surprising that since the pandemic began, people have become even more susceptible to burnout and mental health problems. A few short decades ago, the boundaries between work and personal time were clearer. Today, the technology that enables constant connection can blur those boundaries beyond recognition. This creates a palpable imbalance between work and non-work.
When balance is elusive, not only do human beings end up stressed and exhausted but, unsurprisingly, work performance suffers too. CEB found that people who are happy with their work-life balance work 21% harder and are 33% more likely to want to remain at their company.
And yet, Officevibe’s Pulse Survey found that 47% of employees feel overwhelmed at work, 23% feel not enough is done to address wellbeing, and at least 15% feel their managers simply don’t care about their wellbeing. Global data gathered by the Harvard Business Review reveals similar problems, with 89% reporting a worsening work-life balance, 85% reporting declining wellbeing and 57% reporting that the pandemic had a “large effect on” or “completely dominated” their work.
Work-life balance: The challenges
Whether for management or employees, a poor work-life balance can be fueled by any number of factors, both professional and personal. The most common contributing factors include:
Whether it’s increased work responsibilities, longer hours, or unreasonable (or even unrealistic demands) at work, these things can have a huge toll on one’s personal life. Arrangements that eat into personal time, such as weekend or evening meetings, and/or a technology overload can heap pressure on top of pressure. Add to this the growing (and often unreasonable) family demands brought on by COVID and achieving balance can seem next to impossible.
Circumstances beyond control
A mounting workload (be it “unreasonable” or not) is difficult enough to deal with without adding unpredictable personal circumstances such as illness, your kids’ school schedules, and your marriage into the mix. It can be easy to reach peak stress and feel as though any semblance of control is out of reach. But the fact is, life is messy, always has been, and your work needs to carve out space for a messy, human life that ultimately has the resources it needs to thrive.
It’s important to remember that every employee and manager has their own personal relationship to work-life balance, just as they have different relationships to one another. Someone dealing with unsupportive relationships in the work and/or home arenas will be that much more susceptible to feeling imbalanced and burnt out. This makes it all the more important to look at work-life balance at both team and individual levels.
Lack of resources
A lack of resources can wreak havoc both at work and at home. Whether a company lacks resources to compensate appropriately (this includes PTO and benefits) or there’s a lack in an aspect of your personal life, this lack can take over completely: who will watch the kids when we’re both at work? Who will cook and clean? What do I do if I get sick? How can I possibly do my job well under these circumstances?
How HR and managers can improve their own work-life balance
Here’s a loaded question: how can you have the energy to help your team or organization lead more balanced lives if the idea of your own work-life balance is laughable?
Cultivate emotional self-awareness
Employees value empathy in a manager. Yet it’s near impossible to be empathetic unless you hear your own needs. Cultivate emotional self-awareness by working to identify and understand your feelings, what triggers them, and how they affect others. Harnessing the power of self-awareness can make it a lot easier to keep track of your emotions, both at work and at home, ultimately creating a clearer path to getting your needs met.
We all have different needs and limitations, whether they pertain to our ideal schedule, off-limits time slots, scheduled exercise breaks, or anything that helps us feel healthy. Take the time to list yours, solidify them by integrating them into your calendar wherever possible, and most importantly, communicate them clearly to your team. Not only will doing this prevent you from overworking, but it sets a positive example. Your team will understand work-life balance is valued within your company—and that’s the goal.
While virtual meetings are an invaluable way of staying connected, they can be exhausting too. Consider switching it up now and again and reconnecting with a good old-fashioned phone call. Since the subtleties of company culture have now gone remote too, it’s important to be more intentional about making time to just chat with colleagues and employees. Virtual meetings turn to work talk more quickly than in-person ones. To address this, consider devoting x number of meetings per week to connecting socially. You might be surprised how much less stressed you feel after some simple human interaction.
How to improve work-life balance for your employees
Part of your job as an HR leader or manager is to help your team and organization attain a healthier balance. Once you’ve honed in on the weakest links in your own work-life ratio, you’ll be all the more well equipped to do so for others. Here’s what you can do:
Set a positive example
As far as your employees are concerned, you represent the company. Managers heavily influence how employees feel they should utilize various policies and resources available to them—like flex time, time off, or other benefits. A manager who never takes their PTO and keeps working in a continual state of burnout may find employees doing the same. The other piece worth considering here is that leaders with expectations that diverge from the needs of their team typically end up compromising work-life balance and overall engagement among their employees.
Seek out feedback
One-on-one meetings are one of your most powerful tools, so use them! One-on-ones are a great opportunity to balance out the professional and the personal and to establish trust with each employee. Ask questions that will help you assess your employee’s level of satisfaction, their sense of overall wellbeing, and whether they could use support they’re not currently receiving. Be sure to listen and treat the information you gather as valuable. It never hurts to share a glimpse of your own struggles as well—this is the stuff of genuine rapport.
Reexamine your old approach
Sometimes, reexamining the tried-and-true ways of doing things can reveal better, more efficient paths forward, and can even lessen your workload.
- Rather than count the hours an employee works, focus on the completion of particular tasks. The reality is, employees may need to put in longer hours some days and not as many on other days. As long as the work is done well, be flexible.
- Even (and especially) if your team is remote, encourage employees to take breaks, take walks, or switch up their work environment in creative ways.
- Could you afford to give your staff more time off? How can you encourage them to take more time off? Maybe you should start by scheduling your own vacation.
The benefits of good work-life balance
The very tangible benefits of work-life balance for staff and management alike include:
- Being able to effectively balance responsibilities at home and at work without guilt or stress.
- Being able to work flexibly so that earning an income and managing other commitments is not a challenge.
- Feeling like you’re part of a supportive workplace that values and trusts people to get the job done—but not by ignoring their wellbeing.
Bottom line: the best way to promote work-life balance is to start with yourself and work outward. Always remember to check-in continuously, as needs are ever-evolving. Work-life balance not only encourages better retention and higher morale, but it also carves out space for meaningful career development—something any growing company needs.