Over the past two years, employee wellbeing has declined. As a result of the pandemic and other global crises, it's become increasingly difficult for employees to maintain a healthy work-life balance. According to a recent American Psychological Association (APA) survey, a massive 79% of U.S. workers reported experiencing severe work-related stress in the previous month. More than 30% of those said they were also struggling with emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, lack of motivation at work, and "cognitive weariness."
If these numbers are left unchecked, employee engagement and productivity will likely plummet, leading to burnout and turnover.
HR teams must take urgent steps to prioritize and improve work-life balance at their organizations before their employees burn out – or quit. In this article, we'll share some steps you can take to foster a healthy work-life balance at your organization.
What is work-life balance?
Work-life balance is a widely used term, but it can be challenging to define. Generally, work-life balance, also known as work-life integration, refers to how people divide their time and energy between their work and their personal lives. Having a healthy work-life balance allows people to fully “disconnect” from work after hours and on weekends. When they aren’t at work, they’re able to commit their mental, emotional, and physical energy to their personal goals, commitments, friends, and family.
That said, work-life balance differs from individual to individual. For instance, some employees may see work-life balance as a work-life “blend” – where their work and life sometimes must be flexible to accommodate one another (i.e, running errands during the workday, working outside of normal working hours). Others may want to allocate “equal time” to work and non-work activities. For others, work-life balance may require drawing clear, hard lines around what qualifies as “work” and what qualifies as “life” and stringently protecting those boundaries. Regardless of how you choose to define the term, it’s important for companies to support a healthy work-life balance if they want to foster a positive, engaged, and motivated workplace.
Make work-life balance an integral component of your wellbeing strategy, whether you’re just getting started or are already iterating. When people experience a state of wellbeing at work, they are able to develop their potential, work productively and creatively, build positive relationships with others, cope with everyday stresses, and meaningfully contribute to their team and organization.
Four steps to improve work-life balance
Now that we’ve established what work-life balance is, here are four steps you can take to improve work-life balance and make it a central part of your organization’s wellbeing strategy:
1) Ensure leadership supports and models healthy work-life balance
Wellbeing starts at the top. Leading by example is key to ensuring that wellbeing and work-life balance are being “lived” and supported across all levels of the organization. For example, an initiative that encourages employees to log off after a certain hour will likely fail if managers are still online and messaging their direct reports after that time. If your current wellbeing initiatives seem to be falling short, it’s worth examining whether and to what extent leadership is demonstrating work-life balance.
There are many ways to encourage leadership to set a positive example, such as encouraging leaders to take breaks, publicly take vacations, and share when they are taking time off. That way, employees know that it's not just acceptable, but encouraged to take time off to recharge. Employees may worry they will fall behind or even be punished if they aren’t at work every day, but giving 100% is not sustainable in the long run – for this reason, managers and business leaders must model the behaviors and boundaries that are key to maintaining a state of wellbeing.
2) Build flexibility into your policies
Before changing your work-life policies, it’s essential to fully understand the needs of your employees. Building flexibility into your policies and making sure that this is communicated clearly will help your employees recognize that the organization genuinely cares about their work-life balance.
A few examples of work-life policies to consider include:
Flexible work policies
Many companies allow flexible scheduling by creating a window of time when the office is open and letting employees decide when they want to come to work and when they want to leave. As long as they work a full day within that time window, employees are free to come and go as they please. This type of policy allows employees to feel a sense of control over their time and lets them work when they are most productive.
Alternatively, some organizations offer flexible working arrangements such as work-from-home (WFH) or work-from-anywhere (WFA) policies. Flexible working arrangements allow employees to work outside of the office – an option that may be especially helpful for caregivers (i.e., those with young children, elderly relatives, spouses with disabilities, etc.).
Flexible leave policies
While it’s fairly common for organizations to offer paid time off (PTO), some organizations have started offering paid family leave as their own category. Paid family leave has been shown to lead to a significant reduction in the number of women leaving the workforce. In addition, paid family leave also builds gender diversity, which is proven to boost an organization’s bottom line.
Other organizations offer flexible time off (FTO), a policy that bundles vacation time and sick time. FTO is intended to give employees a greater amount of flexibility in taking time off from work, allowing them to enjoy their time off without the pressure of “using it or losing it.”
Another popular time off policy is unlimited time off (UTO), which gives employees an unlimited number of PTO days. One CEO noted that their UTO policy not only fostered trust but clearly communicates that a company “acknowledges that employees have demands and interests beyond work that can’t always be scheduled in advance.”
On any given day, your employees might be experiencing conflicting emotions and dealing with stressful situations, both professional and personal. As a result, their performance may dip and they may not always meet their manager’s expectations. For this reason, it’s unfair and ill-advised to expect your high-performing employees to consistently produce the best results because everyone goes through highs and lows at work. Performance is fluid, and managers and leaders can acknowledge this by exhibiting empathy and acting as mentors and pillars of support.
While it may be difficult to keep track of everything that your employees or direct reports are going through, cultivating a psychologically safe environment where team members feel safe asking questions and expressing concerns goes a long way.
As the world of work continues to change, there will inevitably be ups and downs that impact your employees’ emotions, energy, and focus. There will be times when they’re energized and engaged, and times when they need to rest and focus on themselves. When managers and senior leadership explicitly recognize people’s humanity at work, they support a culture of wellbeing where all employees are encouraged to show empathy and understanding towards themselves and others.
4) Check in on wellbeing with regular surveys
Once you’ve implemented your organization’s new work-life policies, check in with your employees to determine whether or not the policies are working. This is particularly important for organizations that are more widely dispersed and/or have hybrid working models. Overworked and burnt-out employees who work remotely can easily be overlooked.
One way to consistently check in with employees is by incorporating questions about wellbeing in your organization’s employee engagement surveys. Conducting surveys will help gauge whether the steps you’ve taken to improve work-life balance are having an impact. Reviewing the survey results will help you determine how valuable your new work-life policies are to your organization and identify the next steps for further improving wellbeing in the workplace.
Make work-life balance a priority
When companies prioritize work-life balance, their people are more productive and engaged, both inside and outside of work. Work-life balance can’t just be preached; it must be practiced. Through consistent communication, empathy, and recognizing people’s humanity at work, you can craft a culture that empowers employees to achieve professional and personal goals while also driving your organization’s long-term success.