Actions speak louder than words and employees can mirror leaders'behaviour, even if that means letting work eat their personal time
Sometimes it can seem that there are never enough hours in the day for everything we want to accomplish. A never-ending list of priorities at work, combined with family or caring commitments can make any degree of work-life balance look like a dream.
The term work-life balance entered our vocabulary in the 1970s as the Gen X population entered the workplace. They had grown up experiencing the long hours culture of their parents, the Baby Boomer post-war generation, and the effects of this first-hand. Gen Xers wanted to have a more sustainable lifestyle and more family-friendly policies. So maternity and paternity leave, together with flexible working hours, appealed to them.
But more recently the Millennial generation (those born between 1981 and 2000) has a different view of work-life balance. For them, a job is not the only priority in life. Work must fit in with their life and what they value, which is why Millennials pay attention to what a company stands for, and how it lives its values. The fresh fruit, comfortable seating, and table-tennis tables that an employer may have provided in the past as a way of creating a more comfortable environment is not going to make the grade nowadays.
Flexibility and workplace happiness
Flexibility and workplace happiness now command higher importance to the younger generation. And if an employer is not paying attention to these societal changes, their efforts in attracting and retaining talent may prove less successful. Leaders can play a significant role in creating a healthy workplace culture by the policies they set and the way they behave. So, it’s worthwhile considering the underlying beliefs and assumptions they have about work that are guiding their behaviour.
For some leaders, work is life and they spend every waking hour there. But what a leader must be aware of is the message that their actions subtly convey to others in the business. Even if they wish to work 24/7, this is not how everyone in the company may want to behave. The important point here is about people having conscious choice without fearing that if they leave at 5.00 pm it is assumed they are less committed to their job.
Develop more self-awareness
A study carried out in 2020 by Lupu, Ruiz- Castro and Leca with nearly 80 employees at two London-based companies showed that 30 per cent of the men and 50 per cent of the women reported resisting working long hours. The remainder all worked long hours because they thought that’s what successful professionals should do. What the researchers noticed was that those who did not work long hours had very similar approaches to maintaining work-life balance. They used more ‘reflexivity’ – they examined their own feelings, emotions, and assumptions – and often took action to adjust the things that stopped them achieving work-life balance. The researchers identified five common steps that were used:
1. Pause and ask yourself questions
They challenged their own beliefs such as ‘To be effective I need to work hard’. Then they asked themselves ‘What’s currently causing me stress?’.
2. Uncover the emotion
‘Do I feel frustrated, annoyed, energised?’.
3. Re-prioritise in the moment ‘
Is working long hours today worth cutting back on family time?’
4. Consider alternative solutions
‘What can we change to adapt to the new priorities?’.
5. Implement changes
Such as asking to change a deadline or saying no to new opportunities that were offered.
Whilst everyone in the workforce can employ this approach, there are many things that leaders can do proactively to ensure they convey a positive message about managing work-life balance and avoid burnout.
Measurement makes a difference
Changing behaviour requires commitment and top executive coach Marshall Goldsmith uses the practice of daily questions to keep himself on track. He notes down a list of active questions and scores them on a scale of one to 10 every day. Examples are:
Did I do my best to:
- Set clear goals?
- Make progress toward goal achievement?
- Be happy?
- Find meaning?
- Build positive relationships?
- Be fully engaged?
According to Marshall, the good thing about beginning these questions with ‘Did I do my best to…’ is that it is almost impossible to blame someone else for your failure. No one can be responsible for ‘Did I do my best to…’ but us.
Therefore, this forces us to confront how we live our values every day. We either believe that something matters, or we don’t. If we believe it, we can put it on the list and do it. If we really don’t want to do it, we can face reality and stop kidding ourselves.
Counting your work blessings
Measurement of workplace happiness can also be a positive way to evaluate whether those of the Millennial generation are satisfied. Nic Marks, statistician and founder of Friday Pulse, says that “humans tend to measure what’s easy to count, not what’s most important”. We measure the weekly experience of employees around five areas: connection, fairness, empowerment, challenge and inspiration.
Given that work-life balance is generally being redefined these days as work-life integration, as the lines blur between both, if companies can read the mood of their employees, they are likely to be able to spot potential issues and deal with them more quickly.
Walk your talk
Leaders must also role model the behaviours they want to see in others. YouTube CEO, Susan Wojcicki regularly makes sure she is home by 6.00 pm to have dinner with her five children. She did not send out a press release saying work-life balance is important, workers get that message, loud and clear, from her action.
Another leader in a heritage conversation organisation holds her weekly one-on-one meetings with each of her team by conducting them as walking meetings. That way each person gets the benefit of exercise and being outdoors. There is also an add-on benefit to talking side-by-side as the conversation is often less confrontational. The added benefit is that movement can generate creativity and new ideas.
Trusting your team
By considering how one’s actions are seen by others, a business leader can convey powerful messages through what they do. For example, consider what’s the latest time that is acceptable to send an email to a member of your team. If it’s out of hours, are they expected to respond?
Also, if a leader can enable flexible working hours to accommodate employees’ needs then that may provide greater work-life integration. Many parents do like to spend the early evening with their children, only to get out the laptop again later in the evening once their children have gone to bed to catch up on emails.
That requires a leader to trust their people and focus more on outcome and results than time served. The COVID pandemic necessitated many people to work from home and showed employers that often people are more productive when they are trusted to integrate home and work life in the way that suits them.
Food for thought
Innovative HR policies are unlikely to solve all the issues that arise from the always-on culture that exists in many companies today. What can go a long way to contribute to change is for leaders to be more cognisant of the message that their behaviour conveys, and to challenge their own assumptions about how a high-performance workplace culture is achieved. Maybe a new badge of honour for a leader will be an Instagram photo of them out for a run or having a BBQ with their family, rather than a jacket on the back of their chair at work, and an email sent at midnight.
Key takeaways from Sue Stockdale’s column
COVID-19 taught us a lesson
Once a luxury, working from home became the new normal. This showed employers that often people are more productive when they are trusted to integrate home and work life in the way that suits them.
Life before work
For Millennials, work is not the only priority in life. Instead, their job must fit their life and not the other way around. Therefore, a company’s approach to work-life balance could be crucial to attracting Millennial talent.
Clear 9-5 boundaries are not a crime
Employees should feel free to switch off at 5.00 pm without fearing that they are less committed to their job if they stick to their normal working schedule.
Leaders need to pave the way
Leaders should be responsible for creating a healthy workplace culture. For some of them, work is life and they can spend every waking hour in the office. But this is not necessarily how employees feel.
Take a break and reprioritise in the moment
Ask yourself if working long hours today is worth cutting back on family time.
Confront how you live your values every day
You either believe that something matters, or you don’t. It is that simple. If you believe it, you can put it on the list and do it. Otherwise, you can face reality and stop kidding yourself.
Leaders should practise what they preach
YouTube CEO, Susan Wojcicki, is a case in point – she regularly makes sure she is home by 6.00 pm to have dinner with her five children.
Leaders should be considerate
They should ask themselves what’s the latest time that is acceptable to send an email to a member of the team. If it’s out of hours, are they expected to respond?
Sue Stockdale is an executive coach, polar explorer and author who helps leaders and business owners maximise their potential.