A recent HBR article titled “A Manager’s Job is Making Sure Employees Have a Life Outside Work” caught my attention. For some managers, it seems like their job is to ensure employees do NOT have a life outside of work.  For example, I once was interviewing a bank president in Asia about the developmental needs of his new senior leader.  With a straight face, he said that the new guy was really into running and marathons but there wouldn’t be time for that in this job.  He suggested that I coach him around working longer hours and give up his passion for running and fitness.  (At risk of disobeying my client, I ignored that part of his input.)  While that’s an extreme example from Asia (where work-life balance is extremely broken), it serves as a wake up call for all of us who may have unspoken desires about coworker or team member work-life balance.

While, the HBR article has a provocative title and is on the right track, there are two important limitations: 1)  focusing on work-life balance as the right thing to do rather than business necessity; and 2) giving ideas that are too abstract for managers to promote work-life balance.

The ROI of Work-Life Balance

There are a number of research studies showing how work productivity and accuracy decreases as the number of hours worked per week increases.  We know that working more than 50 hours in a week results in less overall productivity than just stopping at 50 hours (see research article).  The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has compiled a website full of examples showing how mistakes and accidents increase as a result of long work hours. While many of these articles focus on reportable mistakes in manufacturing, health care, and transportation (because these industries have robust record-keeping requirements which make research easier), the results are clearly generalizable to other fields.  Take business services and consulting, I have seen firsthand how errors in coding, analyses, and reporting increase when the team is pushing too hard.  This increases the need for rework, lowers the project’s billable hour realization, and the firm’s financials take a hit.

Encouraging work-life balance and integration encourages a more collaborative and creative workplace.  We recently learned from Google that psychological safety and trust were primary predictors of team effectiveness.  There is a clear and logical connection between leaders’ support of work-life balance and feelings of safety, collaboration, and performance on project teams.

Unfortunately, most supporters of work-life balance focus less on the objective ROI and more on subjective evidence such as employee turnover, absenteeism, and employee engagement.  These are extremely important criteria, but the linkages between work-life balance are more difficult to explain to business leaders and first level managers.

Practical Tips

The HBR article provides some ideas on how to think about improving employee life outside of work (e.g., “join a community of people who share your values about work”).  These suggestions do not go far enough in helping all employees understand how their decisions impact others.  I suggest some general and specific ways to help improve all of our work and non-work lives:

  • Remember the Golden Rule:  “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them
  • Think about how your work feeds into others, keep others informed about timeline changes and anticipated hand-offs.  For example, don’t finish your review and send it back for revision at 5pm, due the next morning.  As a manager, don’t accept deliverables from team members at 5pm which require your review overnight to be ready the next morning.
  • Challenge your own (and your organization’s view) of what needs to be done when and from where.  If a team member is sitting around waiting for input, let them take off to work out, run errands, or catch a movie.  Let them know when to expect the hand-off so that there is no delay.  This is the idea of work-life integration where work happens outside of the traditional 9-to-5 and life happens within traditional work hours.  It allows for work at off times without adding to the overall weekly count.
  • Help team members understand the end goal and allow them to find their own way there to the extent possible.  Some team members will need (and desire) more guidance than others.
  • Talk the talk.  Tell team members to invest in non-work pursuits.  Tell them to go home when they are tired or when things are slow.
  • Walk the walk.  Model work-life integration by going home at reasonable hours.  As a manager, do not reward over-work.  In fact, make is a performance problem.  Counsel team members who work long hours on how to work more efficiently and share work across team members.  Hold managers accountable for their own and their employees’ work-life integration.
  • Challenge policies that reduce workplace effectiveness and efficiency.  Leaders must use judgment rather than blindly relying on company policies to dictate how work is done.  (Legal and collective bargaining agreements are, of course, exceptions which must be followed to the letter.)
  • Avoid sending or responding to emails during non-work hours.  This behavior sends a subtle, yet powerful message to colleagues about the importance of non-work time.

The business arguments for work-life integration are clear.  The world of work is vastly different today.  Our global, mobile-enabled workplace is a blessing and curse.  It’s important for leaders themselves and for their followers to create acceptance and practice work-life integration.