Juggling work and home life has always been a struggle, particularly for women. When the pandemic hit and work shifted to home, this concept of “work-life balance” suddenly took on a whole new meaning. In this week’s blog, we discuss what work-life balance looks like today and how employers can best support employees in finding more harmony in their lives.
What is work-life balance? And is balance actually achievable?
Work-life balance means maintaining a good equilibrium between the demands of work and the demands of a personal life, which may include family, friends, hobbies, and other activities that contribute to a well-rounded existence.
But “balance” may not be the exact right word. Achieving balance implies that there is a point in time where work and life get equal attention. But in reality, demands on either side tend to ebb and flow, so perhaps work-life harmony, integration, or flex are more apt terms.
The boundaries between work and life have changed dramatically over the years.
To understand how we’ve come to a place where work and life have become harder to separate, it’s helpful to think about how work has changed over the last two centuries.
During the Industrial Revolution work largely moved outside of the home and into the factory. And while the conditions and hours weren’t great, this arrangement at least afforded workers a decent separation between their job and their home life.
Even when “office work” became prevalent in the 1950s, a defined nine-to-five workday and the inability to truly take work home helped to keep this boundary largely intact. But, with the advent of the personal computer, a network connection to the office, and now the mini-computer in our pockets (our phones), there just isn’t a time or place where work cannot conceivably get done—which is a real problem for our well-being.
The pandemic threw a new wrench into the ongoing work-life struggle.
Although essential workers continued to report to a physical workplace—often at great cost to their physical and mental health—those who could work from home during the pandemic did so. Suddenly, the lack of a commute and having to “get ready” for the office freed up time for other pursuits, like exercise, hobbies, and more family time. In fact, Pew Research found that 64% of those who didn’t work from home before the pandemic said it was easier to balance work with their personal life.1
But on the flip side, without a commute and an office we also lost those natural boundaries, leading to longer workdays and the feeling that we could never really disconnect from work. And, for caregivers, the concept of “more time in the day” never materialized due to childcare shortages, which persist even now. We need only look at rising rates of burnout and depression, and recent phenomena like the Great Resignation and “quiet quitting,” to appreciate that workers continue to struggle to find the right balance between work and life.
4 ways to improve work-life integration.
So, as many workers return to the office in some capacity, how can we keep some of the things that contributed to better work-life integration during our period of remote work and carry those attitudes and practices forward? Here are some thoughts:
1. Encourage leaders to set the right tone and get to know staff on a human level.
Modeling appropriate work-life integration starts at the top, so urge leaders to examine their actions that don’t respect the boundaries between work and non-work time. Sending emails or texts at night or on weekends are examples, as is not personally taking time off to rest and recharge. Ask leaders to create visible boundaries, like blocking time for family or exercise on their calendar, which will empower employees to do so in their own lives. Also encourage managers to acknowledge and be curious about their employees’ lives beyond the workday.
2. Examine signals around being “always on.”
In the U.S., we suffer from a “work first” culture which means “work is presumed to be the dominant force in our lives,” according to organizational psychologist, Adam Grant.2 This often translates to viewing long hours as a badge of honor or a measure of dedication to the job. Grant also notes that the perceived need to “keep monitoring our communication channels, ready to drop everything at any time” interferes with our ability to make space for leisure and rest, and can contribute to work-life imbalance and burnout. This is why it’s so important for managers and co-workers alike to set and respect boundaries around response time, non-work hours, and time off.
3. Embrace flexibility in the workday.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a new Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being that named Five Essentials to support workplaces as engines of well-being.3 One of these Essentials is Work-Life Harmony, which he argues rests in part on the degree of autonomy and flexibility offered to workers.
Allowing employees to set their own schedules can help alleviate some of the paint points of work-life integration. It enables parents to be there for school drop-off or pickup; lets caregivers attend doctor appointments; and helps employees manage a chronic condition or undergo regular medical treatments. It also allows people to work during the hours when they feel most productive. Compressed workweeks (same number of hours in a shorter time period) and four-day work weeks are more radical approaches to flexibility that are working for some organizations.
We also need to allow for more flexibility to take breaks during the workday. A team of researchers found that to build resilience at work we need to have both internal and external recovery periods. This means scheduling breaks during the workday for rejuvenating activities like walks, stretching, exercise, or meditation (internal recovery), and ensuring that employees also get enough free time at night, on weekends, and on vacation (external recovery).4
4. Lean into benefits that support women and families.
Having a family and a job is one of life’s great juggling acts—particularly for women. The pandemic brought this issue to the forefront when scores of women “opted out” due to child care and other family demands, essentially wiping out decades of progress for women in the workplace.5
Expand caregiving benefits—like back-up childcare, onsite daycare, and elder care—to enable women to opt back in. Also examine paid leave policies to ensure adequate sick, family, pregnancy loss and parental leave. Consider adding family-building benefits, like fertility, adoption or surrogacy assistance, to alleviate some of the financial stress that comes with having children.
Finally, have a transition plan in place for women returning to the workplace after having a child, which could include a phased return with reduced hours or gradually increasing responsibilities in those first few months back. All of these benefits are key to creating more work-life harmony, especially for millennials who make up the largest sector of the workforce and are in their prime childbearing years.
Of course, we’ve just scratched the surface in terms of what employers can do to inject more work-life harmony into employees’ lives. But, at its most basic, creating a work culture that fosters better integration between work and life is really just about acknowledging that people are humans first, workers second.
Laura Fuentes, executive vice president and chief human resource officer at Hilton, sums it up this way: “People are looking for a human experience at work. They don’t want a work experience. They don’t want life to fit into a good job. They want work to fit into a good life.”6
This sentiment can serve as a good guide as we continue to work on implementing new policies, benefits, and ways of working that foster better work-life integration and lead to healthier, happier, more productive and engaged employees.