Also, check out Ron Friedman’s book here.
“We live in a world in which it is acceptable for work to interrupt personal time. And yet we’re not as comfortable when personal time interrupts work. Why?” (273)
Lesson 3: Integrating work and family life improves the quality of both
Work-life balance is sort of an oxymoron today. The reason we talk about work-life balance so much is precisely because the two are never in balance. And unfortunately, the scale tips heavily in favor of work.
Who can honestly say that their work has not affected their personal lives in any way? It’s just unthinkable.
Today, our work is spilling over into our lives, and in some cases becoming our lives.
Why has this happened?
One major reason is the immense change technology has brought to society; specifically, in the way we work, talk, connect and interact with each other. Nowadays, most of our interactions don’t happen face-to-face, but rather phone-to-phone or laptop-to-laptop.
In today’s work environment, we are ‘on’ all the time. We are connected to each other 24/7 through e-mail, text, calling and video chat. Even when we are not physically at work, work continues to make demands on our time.
Not to mention that we tend to think a lot about work when we are not at work. Constant demands for our attention slowly whittle away our reserves our energy, commitment and motivation.
The reality is that when we bring our work into our homes, our personal lives suffer.
So, what should we do?
Friedman says that organizations are much better off when they actively seek to blend the domains of work and life. (272-273)
What Friedman is saying here is that in the past few years, work and life have unofficially been brought together; in other words, our work has taken over our personal lives. As a result, both have become less enjoyable and fulfilling.
He says we should stop pretending like work and life are completely separate. Instead, we should recognize both spheres for what they are, and then bring them together in such a way as to better both. I’ll explain what that looks like later.
But first, what does the work-life balance involve?
A snippet from a Health Canada report explains it well:
“We all play many roles: employee, boss, subordinate, spouse, parent, child, sibling, friend and community member. Each of these roles imposes demands on us, which require time, energy and commitment to fulfill. Work-family or work-life conflict occurs when the cumulative demands of these many work and non-work life roles are incompatible in some respect, so that participation in one role is made more difficult by participation in the other role.”
This explanation makes sense to me. In our lives, we have many roles, and our work-life becomes unbalanced when we prioritize certain roles over others, i.e. work roles (e.g. employee, manager) over personal life roles (e.g. parent, spouse).
But more importantly, I think this explanation holds the key to solving the dilemma that is the work-life balance; we need to start seeing each other as more than just employees or workers: as more than just ‘boss’, ‘manager’, ‘cashier’, ‘factory worker’ or ‘nurse’. Once we start looking beyond someone’s role at work, we start to appreciate the individual for who they truly are.
And this perspective change starts with employers and managers.
What is the employer’s responsibility?
As an employer or manager, you are a leader; people look up to you, report to you, ask you for advice and guidance, and seek your approval. Whether you realize it or not, you hold a great deal of power; you have the power to influence your employees’ work experiences.
But are you aware of just how much influence you have?
According to author and management professor Edgar Schein, you have immense power; the power to determine your work culture. Work culture encompasses everything your company stands for, does, says, and promotes; it’s a big deal.
In his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, Schein argues that company culture is not created through mission statements, slogans, or a set of written values; rather, it’s a product of a leader’s interactions with their staff (210-211). Through their behaviors, company leaders establish what he calls ‘group norms’; over time, these behaviors come to define the company’s culture. These behaviors include:
- What leaders pay attention to (and what they ignore)
- Emotional outbursts
- Reactions to incidents and crises
- How leaders allocate rewards and status.
Although it may sound unbelievable, everything a company leader says, does, and pays attention to reveals what is important, meaningful and valuable to him/her and, by association, the company. Because employees naturally want to please their employer or superior, they will slowly adopt those behaviors company leader are signalling to them is important. In case you haven’t noticed, attitudes, behaviors and emotions are contagious.
Looking at the way leaders allocate rewards and status is a good way to see this principle in action. We may not be aware of it, but when we reward/punish someone for doing something (either through encouragement/criticism, promotion/demotion or through the giving of benefits/taking away of benefits), we are telling them that this is the correct/incorrect way to behave. When this happens, the desired behavior is reinforced. Over time, group norms are established, and work culture is formed.
And this is where Schein’s argument makes the most sense; what you actually do is more important than what you say, particularly what you say on your company website (i.e. core values, mission statement, etc.). For example, if your company claims to promote ‘a healthy work-life balance’, but rewards only those employees that work crazy hours, employees will understand that the way to succeed in your company is to prioritize work over their personal life. This is why how you interact with your staff is much more important than what you publicly state about it.
Employers, we know you can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?
Now that we’ve talked about the potential negative side of this, here’s the positive side: You can create a healthy work-life balance in your workplace by modelling a healthy work-life balance yourself.
The group norm dynamic works the same way; as you focus on maintaining a healthy work-life balance, others will too. Over time, you will create a new group norm: the group norm of work-life balance.
Generally, this means creating a culture in which in which non-work-related matters are acknowledged and celebrated. Practically, this can mean many things:
- Make it OK to talk about non-work-related subjects at work. I’m not suggesting we should be talking about non-work affairs when we should be working. I mean during those in-between moments: at lunch, during your break, when waiting for your conference meeting to start, etc.
Interestingly, it’s when we talk about non-work-related subjects that true friendships and connections develop. Citing a study conducted at Washington State University, Friedman explains that the way you can tell if coworkers are friends is by measuring how often they talked about non-work-related topics together (112). And research confirms that the higher the quality of our relationships at work, the happier we are and the more productive we become (103).
- Set a limit on the numbers of hours an employee can work per week
- Use the workplace as a vehicle for connecting employees to non-profits in their communities.
- Allow your employees to get involved in causes they care about
- Involve employees’ family members in work events
- Occasionally allow employees to leave work early to attend meaningful life events
I think this quote by Friedman expresses it beautifully:
“When organizations trust employees to manage their time responsibly, making it acceptable for a worker to take an hour during the day to watch his daughter’s soccer game, they create loyalty and commitment that ends up saving them money in the long term.” (273)
Investing in proper work-life balance at work demonstrates to your employees that you care about them more than just for the value they bring to you and the company. These kinds of gestures create trust between you and your employees, which will create new positive group norms that will have cascading effects in your company. Increased employee engagement, happiness and productivity are just some of the potential benefits.
Do you have any ideas to promote a healthy work-life balance at work? Let us know in the comments!