We know that too many individuals are overworked and do not have enough time or energy to spend with their families, taking care of themselves, and rejuvenating. Especially in American culture, the 40-hour work week seems to be reserved only for those who are paid hourly while anyone on salary is expected to work until the job is done. Knowing that leaders set the tone for the culture of the organization, it is the leaders who have the power to create environments that focus on creating and maintaining positive work-life balance. Yet while most leaders would say they want their employees to have a healthy work-life balance and that they know the positive effects on work and business when employees are well rested and satisfied with their work, too many leaders fail at creating a culture that supports it.
Why do leaders fail at creating a culture that supports work-life balances?
The answer lies in the model that leaders set for their employees. To illustrate I will tell you a story about myself when I was a young leader. I was working as a director of an organization and was responsible for all clinical and operational aspects of one region of a large, nationwide organization. I knew the research regarding work-life balance and made it a priority to ensure my staff did not have extra work piling up while on vacation; that they were allowed to work flexible hours to plan around their personal and family needs; and to make discussions of work-life balance and self-care a focus of many conversations. I thought I was doing an excellent job at creating a culture that was family-friendly and focused on the overall well-being of my staff.
I was wrong.
I noticed that my staff were still answering emails at 3 o’clock in the morning, working while on vacation, and overall fairly stressed out each day. One day I decided to have a deliberate conversation with one of my employees regarding why they were not establishing a clear work-life balance, despite our many conversations about the importance of it and the employee’s want to create a more clear boundary between home and work. What she told me blew me away and changed the way I lead forever.
She told me that it was my fault.
I was not setting the model and instead doing things that completely undermined and negated the preaching I was doing about establishing boundaries. I was sending emails while staff were on vacation; I was sending emails in the wee hours of the morning; and I responded very quickly when my staff emailed me or responded to me at similar times. Lucky for me, my employee was candid. She explained that because I was their leader and in a position of power, it created an urgency that they needed to respond to me quickly. It also created anxiety to know that I would send emails while they were on vacation and they did not want to return to the office with a ton of work to complete. While I stated “please don’t worry about this now” in my emails, given my positional power and influence, they did worry about it and felt forced to complete the work and respond immediately. In turn, I reinforced or rewarded their responses by being so impressed and pleased they would respond so quickly and while on vacation.
While I was talking the talk, I was not walking the walk.
And as a result, my employees suffered. From that day forward I began to do things differently. Here are a few things that I did that immediately began to turn things around and increase the alignment of my actions with my words.
#1: I stopped sending emails in the middle of the night.
Instead I learned how to send emails at specific times. I still worked when it was convenient for me, but my staff received their first email from me at least 30 minutes after arrival to work and then staggered throughout the day. I prioritized needs so they would receive top priority emails in the morning and lower priority ones later in the day.
#2: I stopped sending emails or assigning tasks while my team members were on vacation.
I was doing this so that I would not forget upon their return, not realizing that it created the pressure to complete them while staff were on vacation. Instead I created a tracking system and met with the employee on the day of their return. We used that meeting to go over anything they missed while out and discuss any tasks for which they were assigned. This allowed them to truly break from work while gone, knowing they had a focused meeting that would not only catch them up, but help prioritize.
#3: I stopped working late in the office.
I began leaving at a reasonable time to provide a model for my staff. I learned that many staff would wait until I left, feeling that if they left before the boss, they would be seen as not as hard working and feared being passed up for promotion or not being scored as high on performance evaluations. When I had work that still needed to be completed, I took it home. I also took my computer home every day as part of a routine, to ensure I was not signaling to my staff that I was taking it because I had more work to do.
Overall I started setting the example I wanted my staff to follow. While I still wasn’t the best model if my staff really knew how much I was working, I did create a work environment that truly supported my staff creating their own work-life balance.
Remember, leaders set the tone and the model for how employees will work. If you are not modeling a strong work-life balance, they will not either. Take a look at your current practices and determine what you can change to send a better message to your staff. After all, it will result in higher productivity and lower turnover, as your staff will be better rested and more content.