Exploring people potential

This month Sue Stockdale asks is work life balance an impossible dream?

It can seem that there are never enough hours in the day for everything we want to accomplish.  Most people have a never-ending list of priorities at work, which when combined with family or caring commitments, can make it seem that having any degree of work-life balance is just a dream. 

Decades ago, when we had traditional 9 – 5 working hours, there was a much greater delineation between work and home. Nowadays, there is quite a different view. For many people, a job is not the only priority in life. Work must fit in with their life and the other things they value, which means that flexibility and workplace happiness now command much higher Importance. And if an employer is not adapting to these societal changes, their efforts in attracting and retaining talent may prove difficult. 

Examine your assumptions 

A study that was carried out in 2020 by Lupu, Ruiz-Castro and Leca with nearly 80 employees at two London-based companies showed that 30% of the men and 50% of the women resisted working long hours. The remainder did so because they thought that’s what successful professionals should do. What the researchers did observe was that those who did not work long hours had very similar approaches to maintaining work-life balance. They used more “reflexivity” that is they examined their own feelings, emotions, and assumptions – before reprioritising in order to achieve greater work-life balance.  

Whilst everyone in the workforce can employ this approach, it can be more impactful if leaders convey a positive message about managing work life balance to avoid burnout. YouTube CEO, Susan Wojcicki regularly makes sure she is home by 6pm to have dinner with her five children. She did not send out a press release saying work-life balance is important – workers get that message, loud and clear, from her action. 

Another leader in a heritage conversation organisation holds her weekly 1-1 meetings with each of her team by conducting them as walking meetings. That way each person gets the benefit of exercise and being outdoors. There is also an add-on benefit about talking side-by-side as the conversation is often less confrontational and movement can generate creativity and new ideas. 

By considering how one’s actions are seen by others, a leader can convey powerful messages by what they do.  For example, consider what is the latest time that is acceptable to send an email to a member of your team?  If it’s out of hours, are they expected to respond?

Focus on outcomes not working time 

Also, if a leader can enable flexible working hours to accommodate employee’s needs then that may be a win-win for both parties. Many parents like to spend the early evening with their children, only to get out the laptop later in the evening once their children have gone to bed to catch up on emails. 

That requires a leader to trust their people and focus more on outcome and results than time served. The Covid-19 pandemic that necessitated many people to work from home showed employers that people are more productive when they are trusted to integrate home and work life in the way that suits them. 

Innovative HR policies are unlikely to solve all the issues that arise from the always-on culture that exists in many companies today. What can go a long way to contribute to change is for leaders to be more cognisant of the message that their behaviour conveys, and to challenge their own assumptions about how a high-performance workplace culture is achieved.  

Maybe a new badge of honour for a leader should be an Instagram photo of them walking their dog, or having a BBQ with their family, rather than a jacket on the back of their chair at work, and an email sent at midnight. 

Sue Stockdale is an executive coach and polar explorer

Sue Stockdale

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