The battle for a healthy work-life balance is a perpetual struggle for the modern American workforce. Even with many companies implementing flexible hours and working from home options, this doesn’t automatically correlate to a better work-life balance. While working from home during the pandemic was proven to boost productivity and employee happiness in many cases, there was also the hidden cost of many employees actually working more hours than usual, including evenings and weekends. There was also the assumption that employees would be available over email and text even outside of working hours. This became so pervasive that Portugal recently banned bosses from contacting staff outside of working hours, in a “right to rest” law.
It remains a fact that even with the means to create a healthier work-life balance, the onus is on employers to make sure they are facilitating meaningful change and not just implementing surface level gestures. “Don’t default to pre-pandemic policies, and forget prior conceptions of ‘coming back to the office,’” lead associate of Organizational Performance Group Leah Hancock says. With a mission to help people work better together, she insists that the feedback has to come straight from employees. “Consider questions such as: What level of in-person interaction is required to foster connection, collaboration, and communication? What aspects of our work can be conducted as well or better remotely? What aspects of our work strongly benefit from being in person?”
Hancock insists that employers should use information that has come directly from their teams to “design your new reality” based on insights from the people who matter most. The four-day work week is one pro work-life strategy that seems to be edging towards an inevitably at this point. Numerous pilot schemes have been launched around the world (including one currently in the UK), and have proven that a four day (32 hour) work week is good for both businesses and employees. Productivity is higher, expenses are lower, recruitment and retention boom, and crucially, burnout is reduced.
But there are also independent steps employees can take to ensure they are giving themselves an adequate work-play balance. “Plan your leisure time,” Hancock says. “Looking ahead and pre-scheduling time off throughout the year means that you and your colleagues will have more time to prepare ahead of your time off, and you will have this time to look forward to.” She also suggests colleagues invest in “cross-training” so that when someone takes time off, they can “truly disconnect” because another team member can temporarily support their role. “Support one another in turning on the out of office message and engaging in deep rest,” she adds. Employees should also be proactive in “managing up”, meaning they talk with supervisors about creating a realistic schedule that will allow them to set and meet realistic targets. “Pay attention to how your time gets used, and notice what activities, anticipated or unanticipated, end up using your time and make changes based on this data.”
Crucially, Hancock insists that any new significant changes are part of a process that will need to be reviewed and adapted as appropriate. But the future is hopeful. “There are significant paradigm shifts happening throughout our world, including within the workforce,” she says. “These shifts involve everything from a reassessment of the pace of life, what is valued, who holds power and how they use it, how we advance equity, environmental conservation practices, and more.” While the process of building a more flexible, pro work-life balance workplace should come from a place of partnership, Hancock emphasizes that employees are increasingly looking to their employers to recognize that the status quo is changing. “This means that to be competitive, companies will need to proactively attend to issues such as purpose and mission; values in practice; diversity, equity, and inclusion; environmental impacts; fair pay; workplace flexibility; and the application of hierarchy and power.”
But the question remains, is this a result of the perfect storm of burnout, the Great Resignation, and Covid-19, or simply the need for an inevitable overhaul of the damaging work culture that we have normalized? “Covid is one significant factor. It unsettled the norms and demanded that we go about our lives in new and different ways,” Hancock says. “But many of these changes were brewing prior to Covid and have been amplified or pushed to the forefront as a result of the pandemic.” In other words, meaningful change is long overdue.