Work-life balance as a concept has been around since the mid-1980s. The idea behind it is to build awareness so people can achieve an appropriate balance between work and life so they can be happy, healthy and fulfilled. The importance of this balance is often paired with messages about how people should spend time doing things they enjoy as much as possible.
The biggest issue with work-life balance is the fact that, for the majority of people, work is a necessity. Sure, there’s a very small segment of the population who are independently wealthy and they will remain that way whether they work for a pay cheque or not. But for the rest of us, we have to pay bills and mouths to feed, and that means we need to work.
Work is part of life
Needing to work doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have time to commit to family, friends and other activities that make life fulfilling and enjoyable. But what that looks like is different for everyone. To label it work-life balance creates a dichotomy that pits work against life. And though work isn’t life, it’s definitely part of life.
In recent years, there’s been a shift in thinking from “work-life balance” to work-life blend or integration because work isn’t relegated to specific hours anymore. These new words aren’t any better than balance when it comes to our mindset about work, though.
Of course, how we work has drastically changed and continues to evolve as we depend more on technology that’s making our world smaller. And the pace of these changes isn’t going to slow. The connectedness we’re experiencing now allows us to work practically anywhere and anytime as long as there’s a working internet connection. The problem with this level of access to work is figuring out when and how much you can switch off from work.
All work and no play?
In CIPD’s Spring Employee Outlook report, 77 per cent of respondents indicated employees should have the right to disconnect from technology. Only 5 per cent disagreed. Additionally, as the lines between our work and personal life blur, people are struggling to disconnect from work. Fifteen per cent of survey respondents said they can rarely switch off and 42 per cent said they can only sometimes switch off.
The research shows a wide gap between sectors when it comes to employees feeling like they can switch off. In private organisations, 47 per cent say they can always switch off, compared to public (35 per cent) and volunteer (29 per cent).
This means organisations need to be proactive in setting and communicating expectations to help people get the time they need to recharge. Here are some tips to get started.
1. Talk about downtime and set expectations.
Every organisation needs to figure out how it wants to encourage people to fit work into their life. There are many ways, such as giving freedom to come and go as needed, negotiating flex work arrangements, providing the option to telecommute and establishing leave policies that ensure everyone gets the time they need to refresh and recharge.
After the policies are in place, it’s important to communicate expectations clearly and remind them regularly about their options.
2. Leaders should set the example.
Once your organisation decides on expectations, it’s important to follow them from the top on down without sending mixed messages. Managers and other leaders who don’t take vacation, work all hours of the day and night, and don’t take breaks generally communicate – without words – that work is the number one priority. Their actions set unspoken expectations that don’t reflect the culture your organisation wants to have.
People around leaders and supervisors may hear the corporate message that it’s okay to have downtime and do whatever is required to meet personal needs, but seeing actions that contradict the message can negatively impact whether people take advantage of these programs.
3. Build a healthy workplace.
Fostering an environment that puts a priority on the health and wellness of people involves watching for signs that people are over-extended or overworked. It means making sure people take a certain minimum amount of time off of work. Building a healthy workplace starts with caring that people are well in mind and body and providing resources and support to keep them well.
Many organisations are implementing wellness programs in addition to standard benefits to encourage people to live healthy lifestyles. When these programs are enhanced with vacation policies and simple observations by managers, it can further reduce absenteeism as well as increase engagement and productivity.
Work should be the right fit for life
When possible – and when it makes business sense – flexibility in work arrangements gives people freedom to enjoy their work more and be productive in an environment that allows them to produce their best work. If you take the time to set people up for success, giving employees flexibility in when and where they do their work can be a great benefit to the organisation. Global Workplace Analytics analyzed more than 4,000 studies on the topic of remote work and found the advantages surpassed the disadvantages by a two-to-one ratio. Increased productivity, engagement, retention, and cost-savings have been longstanding advantages referenced by employees and employers alike.
Work is being redefined as people’s expectations change. And the organizations that embrace this new normal will experience great results through people who are more engaged and productive.
James Frampton is Regional Vice President of EMEA at Saba Software. His team works with HR and business leaders every day to design and implement results-focused talent management programmes to help bring out the best in people and teams.