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Is work-life balance really possible? Or is it just a myth?

It’s something that we all struggle with. It’s hard to let go and completely shut off from work, what does shutting off say about your attitude or engagement level?

As a leader, do you subconsciously judge employees by the number of hours they put in?

If I work from home for three days straight, is something wrong with that?

I think everyone would agree that they’d like more time to spend with their family/friends, but why is this such a big issue?

Is it the fear that exists in most companies that holds us back?

Both leaders and employees themselves are responsible for finding some work-life balance.

It’s not sustainable to overwork yourself. I’ve witnessed employee burnout before and it’s not pretty. On both occasions that I’ve seen it, the employee had to take months off of work. They were physically sick because they couldn’t find that balance.

It’s also not financially beneficial. In the short-term, maybe you’ll get an employee to work a few more hours than you’re paying them for, but long-term, if they get sick and need to take months off of work, it will be horrible for you.

You’re doing yourself, and more importantly them, a real disservice.

Research Behind Work-Life Balance

Not surprisingly, the research is very clear that work-life balance is an important part of having a successful career.

If you don’t take time to recharge, and are totally focused on work, you’ll risk burnout and won’t be as effective as someone that balances their life properly.

The brain needs downtime to process what it has just learned, so it’s important for work that you take time off.

Outside of work, it’s important that you keep strong relationships with significant others and friends. Having a strong support system is one of the keys to being happier in life.

A study by Accenture1 found that work-life balance is a key determiner for more than half of men and women on whether they have a successful career.

More than half of the people surveyed by Accenture said that they’ve turned down a job offer because of the potential impact on work-life balance.

According to a recent report from Ernst and Young2, 46% of managers globally are working more than 40 hours per week, and 40% say their hours have increased over the past five years.

There’s also a huge disconnect between what employers think about work-life balance and what employees perceive.

This has major implications, and highlights the importance of open and honest communication with employees.

In a study done by WorkplaceTrends.com3, 67% of people in HR said their employees had a healthy work-life balance, but 45% of employees said they didn’t have enough time for “personal activities.”

So what’s the answer to all of this? Let employees manage their own time.

Let Employees Manage Their Time

There was a very interesting study4 done recently that wanted to see what would happen if employers let employees manage their own time.

In the experiment, half of the employees in a company’s technology department were assigned to the control group that would continue operating under the company’s usual policy, which was flexibility given at the manager’s discretion.

The other half of the technology department were told that they could work wherever and whenever they want, as long as the projects got done.

The emphasis would be on results rather than on the number of hours spent in the office.

Managers were trained to be supportive and were even sent daily reminders to remind them to think about different ways they could support their employees to have more personal time.

The results were incredible.

Not only were the employees in the experiment group meeting their goals as well as the control group, but they were happier, sleeping better, and less stressed.

As a manager, something you should think about is what impression are you giving to your team? Is working from home frowned upon? Even subtly, do people feel comfortable working from a coffee shop one afternoon?

One of my favorite TED talks is Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work by Jason Fried.

Take Control Of Your Own Life

While it’s important for companies to do what they can to help their employees have a good work-life balance, everyone should take it upon themselves to find their own balance.

In this TED talk, author and marketer Nigel Marsh says work-life balance is too important to leave up to your employer. “If you don’t design your life, someone else will design it for you, and you may just not like their idea of balance.”

You can use apps like RescueTime to help you understand how you’re spending your time so you can better optimize it.

Tips To Find Work-Life Balance

Here are a few tips that you can use to find work-life balance in your life, but the key is to be deliberate about it. Understand that it’s okay to be a bit selfish when it comes to work-life balance and your health/happiness.

  1. Be More Productive At Work

    One of the most important parts of feeling like you’re allowed to relax and enjoy your time is making sure that you’re being as productive as possible while you’re at work.

    Make sure you’re making the most of each day. Do things like:

    • Get a good night’s sleep
    • Set 2-3 goals for the day
    • Work on your most important task first thing
  2. Exercise

    Exercise is the best thing you can do for your physical and mental health. Sometimes going for a walk at the end of your day to unwind helps you come into work the next day ready for action.

    Take time to exercise and keep your energy levels high.

  3. Learn To Say No

    Remember this: every time you say yes to something or someone, you’re saying no to something else.

    Don’t be scared to say no if you want to. If you want to focus on some work that you need to get done, and you want to make sure to leave work at a normal time, you’ll have to learn how to say no.

    The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.Warren Buffett

  4. Build Downtime Into Your Schedule

    A work-life balance hack is to literally schedule downtime in your calendar as if it was an event or meeting.

    It’s important to make time for yourself, and if you schedule that into your schedule, you won’t be able to schedule anything else in it.

  5. Set More Realistic Expectations

    One potential issue why you struggle with work-life balance is that you set unrealistic expectations with your team or clients.

    It’s not fair to anyone involved to set those expectations if you know or think they’re unrealistic.

    Take the time to have an open, honest discussion with whoever (client or team) to ensure that expectations are clear and you’re not overworking.

We Need Time To Recharge

We’ve all experienced this before, we’ll go on vacation for a week or two and then come back to work refreshed, recharged, and ready to be productive.

We all need time to rest and recharge so we can be fresh at work.

In one of the craziest TED talks I’ve ever seen, Stefan Sagmeister gives his employees an entire year off of work every seven years.

While that seems extreme and is obviously unrealistic for most companies out there, it shows the importance of taking time off to recharge.

Jason Fried, cofounder of Basecamp is one of my favorite writers (ReWork is one of my favorite books of all time), and I regularly read his posts on Signal v. Noise.

He wrote one recently called “Being tired isn’t a badge of honor” that is important for this work-life balance conversation.

A lot of entrepreneurs onstage have been bragging about not sleeping, telling their audiences about their 16-hour days, and making it sound like hustle-at-all-costs is the way ahead. Rest be damned, they say — there’s an endless amount of work to do.

I think this message is one of the most harmful in all of business. Sustained exhaustion is not a rite of passage. It’s a mark of stupidity. Literally. Scientists have suggested that scores on IQ tests decline on each successive day you sleep less than you naturally would. It doesn’t take long before the difference is telling.

Mark Bertolini, the CEO of insurance company Aetna, was on CNBC’s Squawk Box to announce a new initiative that they’re now paying their employees to make sure they get enough sleep.

“If they can prove they get 20 nights of sleep for seven hours or more in a row, we will give them $25 a night, up $500 a year”

This is the future of work-life balance.

Employers incentivizing their employees to make sure they’re getting enough sleep and balancing work and life.

Also in the video where Aetna’s CEO is announcing the initiative is Arianna Huffington.

Arianna Huffington has been advocating work-life balance heavily since she fainted from exhaustion a few years ago.

While visiting college campuses with her daughter, she was busy checking emails whenever she could find time.

When she came back to work, she fainted, hit her head on her desk, broke her cheekbone, and had to get five stitches under her eye.

Ever since that happened, she’s worked hard to have a good work-life balance for herself and her employees.

How To Give Employees More Work-Life Balance

The best thing you can do for your employees is to explicitly tell them to take and enjoy their time off. Don’t be afraid to tell them over and over again, they need to be reminded.

  1. Be A Good Role Model

    I understand that you’re busy and have a ton of stuff to do, but you need to set a good example for employees.

    Also, you’re not doing yourself any favors by working extra hard. That overtime you’re putting in is not useful at all.

  2. Encourage Flexibility

    Not only should you allow employees to have flexible schedules, but you should be actively encouraging them to be flexible in how they work.

    It’s possible that your company has a flexible policy in place, but subtly, that flexibility is not very encouraged.

    Work hard to make every employee comfortable managing their own time.

  3. Measure Results, Not Time At A Desk

    Unfortunately, in a lot of companies managers still measure productivity by the number of hours someone spends at their desk, when it’s so obvious that that means nothing in terms of productivity.

    That’s why it’s so important to set clear, measurable goals with your team so that you can know what to measure. How they get there is ultimately irrelevant, as long as they do.

How Do You Give Your Team Work-Life Balance?

Any stories to share with us? Let us know in the comments!