Go to work, give it your all, come home exhausted. Is that the way it's supposed to be?
A recent example of an utterly toxic work culture - at the luggage brand Away - showed a CEO referring to work-life integration, which is a phrase I never want to see again. It implies work should be shoehorned into every corner of your life. This might be great for the work-addicted sociopath founder with millions in the bank - not so much for the burnt-out customer service exec making not much over minimum wage.
The whole concept of a work-life balance has shifted with recent evolutions of working culture. Some reckon the phrase shouldn't exist at all, and we should just have a life which occasionally includes work.
Many folks in the current workforce grew up expecting to ‘have it all’. Inspired to go further than those before them, more women embraced the workplace to forge a career in tandem with motherhood, and society pushed the idea that working really hard, raising a family, and having a fancy home and car were the ways to happiness. But that doesn't seem to be 100% true.
Success is now defined by quality of life
Was it all worth it? Not for those who ended up with disaffected grown-up children or big debts from ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Some found they finally had time to pursue hobbies only when they were too old to enjoy them.
This way of life leads to burnout, too - the long-term decline of enthusiasm for work that involves depletion of energy, negative thoughts and increased stress.
So inevitably we've seen a swing in the other direction, and folks like me now look for success and satisfaction in different places.
For a lot of people in this situation, work-life balance is the pursuit not of rapid career advancement and a big house - it’s about having a quality of life both in and outside the workplace. Time, energy, happiness, relationships and health are much more important than having a big garden.
What we need for a better work-life balance
Here are a few areas companies should pay more attention to, to ensure a better quality of life for their employees.
Remote and flexible working
Remote and flexible work is one of the clear winners for work-life balance. Cutting out hours of commuting, being home for the demands of everyday life, and enjoying the comfort of a home office are some of the obvious benefits. Any trusting business employing knowledge workers should find a happier, more relaxed workforce with even a trial run of one day a week.
Then again - many can’t resist checking emails on holiday, or texting colleagues on the commute. You might find yourself jotting down work notes or talking to work contacts in the evening if the work phone is nearby.
Some employers make the problem worse. They expect people to respond to work-related matters at any time of the day, especially freelancers and other remote workers. Short-term it might solve a problem quicker, but long-term, it risks dissatisfaction and burnout.
That's a very good reason to turn the work phone off.
(Our strategies in 'You don't need to take your phone on holiday with you' go a bit deeper into how to escape your tech at the right times, so you're more refreshed when you come back to work).
Creating firm boundaries
Things need to be agreed and written down. Verbal agreements and cultural expectations can be poisonous, causing unfair expectations and the creep of work way over what was initially agreed.
Even in fully remote companies, hours of employment and availability should be clearly agreed. Beyond that, staff need to have the sanctity of their time & energy outside work strictly protected.
This especially includes holidays. No organisation should expect that folks are on call when they should be forgetting about work. Managers should also make sure employees use all their holiday allowance each year, rather than sticking around at busy times.
During work, staff should be helped as much as possible to get their work done and finish on time. They should also be encouraged to take short breaks during the day (especially at lunchtime) to manage their energy, stress and attention levels.
(There's also an argument not to overdo this - be sensible, sure, but spending a bunch of time on calendar management and system admin might also be exhausting.)
Mental health and the right support
Modern leadership requires emotional intelligence. Bosses need empathy and awareness to know when their team are under pressure, feeling stressed, tired, overwhelmed, confused or generally underperforming.
In a Mental Health Foundation survey, 40% of employees felt aspects of their life were being neglected because of work, making them vulnerable to poor mental health. Not just because of timekeeping, but also going home anxious or unhappy with the day’s events.
Workers need support with issues like these, including getting enough quality relaxation and rest outside work. If there is some aspect of home life distressing them, offer help. Do they need compassionate leave or some other assistance to restore a work-life balance?
A caring company culture makes sure everyone can talk openly about these issues without fear of judgement from anyone. This encourages people to bring their ‘whole self’ to work and can boost their productivity and loyalty.
Companies shouldn't treat staff like machines and tell them to leave their home life at the door each day. Neither should they devalue the quality of their life outside work, and leaving them tired, dispirited and anxious at the end of the day.
For more and more workers today, achieving work-life balance is about having good mental, emotional and physical health. It means leaving enough time and energy for priorities such as time with partners and children.
So maybe we should aim not to have it all, but to enjoy what we do. And that's only possible if companies embed this into their culture.