7 Ways to Encourage Employee Work-Life Balance

by Mike O'Neill

Do you remember what ran through your mind when the pandemic first started? If you're like many, you probably found some relief from the covid chaos in fantasies of what ditching the 9-5 hustle would look like. Newfound concerns about health aside, you probably envisioned things being easier for yourself and your employees in your professional lives.

However, that newfound sense of freedom quickly faded. The jokes about employees not wearing pants to their zoom meetings gave way to rants about bosses monitoring activity with invasive software. Let's not forget an ongoing flow of memes empathizing with the seemingly universal experience of panic induced by the sound of an incoming call on Microsoft Teams.

However, some company owners made a genuine effort to promote greater ease in the lives of their employees. They tried to make the most out of switching to remote work. Many found that despite expending ample energy on research, many of their remote workers were still struggling with burnout. In many cases, even more often than when people still had to come into the office.

If this is you, you aren't alone, and it doesn't mean you're difficult to work for. Remote work, at its core, takes the already elusive nature of work-life balance and further blurs the boundaries. Without implementing relevant strategies, even the best bosses may find themselves with a burnt-out, frustration-filled team.

I hear about situations like this all of the time.

In the past, talking about work-life balance often resulted in jokes about entitlement, making up the meat of most jokes about millennials. That's no longer the case, and anyone with HR experience can tell you that burnout is very real.

It contributes to all of these and more:

- Higher levels of stress and anxiety

- Greater staff turnover rates

- Reduced performance

- Lower morale and job satisfaction rates

So, how do you create a company culture that fosters work-life balance, even when many are working remotely and an alert tone away?

Below, I've compiled 7 tips to get you started.

It All Starts With You and Your Example

Encouraging work-life balance means different things to different people. No matter how an employee defines it, it all starts with you. In a leadership role, your actions speak louder than words. You have to model work-life balance yourself by respecting the boundaries you set for your time. If you aren't genuinely letting go of the reins during time off, it doesn't count.

Here's what I mean:

  • Continuing to respond to non-emergency emails or popping in and out of "little" meetings when you're supposed to be off can send mixed messages to employees. It may appear as though you don't see real value in taking time to rest.
  • If it appears as though you don't truly value your downtime, employees may subconsciously sense that they're being judged when they choose to place value on theirs. This may lead to an employee growing to resent their position.

When you show through your tangible actions that you value personal boundaries, it enables employees to feel safe in exploring what work-life balance looks like for them. Often, employees struggle with defining what that encompasses. Up until this point, finding a boss willing to acknowledge the importance of self-care was a rare occurrence for most people. Thanks to company owners like you, this is starting to shift.

Honor The Parameters You Set

This goes hand in hand with leading by example. If you set parameters to define when an employee is required to be available, do your best to stay true to that. Unless it's an emergency, tracking down your employees outside of their previously discussed "office hours" is a slippery slope. Infringing on that agreement can easily evolve into a situation where an employee feels pressured to make themselves available in a way that jeopardizes their ability to truly relax.

Here's an example:

  • Suppose your employee doesn't answer an email on their day off. You have their personal phone number, and you decide to call them after a few hours of waiting for a response. It's just a quick question, and at the moment, it doesn't seem like a big deal. The employee is out hiking in a low-service area. After hitting the road and heading home, they panic, seeing that you called hours ago.
  • Unaware of why you called, they spend the rest of the drive home feeling anxious. This ends their day off on a sour note. It's the 5th time you've called outside of agreed-upon hours this month. You don't overtly say anything to indicate this, but the employee now feels that you've demonstrated an expectation for them to be consistently available. They become reluctant to participate in the self-care activities that they enjoy, fearing making a bad impression by missing your calls.

When you refrain from intruding on an employee's personal time, it demonstrates that you view them as a whole person rather than as a cog in your company's workflow. Holding space for people to truly disconnect from their work duties is a critical component of any plan designed to improve work-life balance practices.

Consider Allowing Flexible Work Schedules

Most of the time, there's no need to have all of your staff synched up to a strict schedule. With a remote work setup, no cleaning crews are waiting on your team to leave. There are no floors to vacuum or doors that have to be locked up by a specific time. This is a significant bonus that naturally arises with remote work. If you aren't taking advantage of it, you're missing out on a major opportunity to reduce stress for your employees.

For example:

  • Your employee has a task to complete. You've already gone over the instructions in a video meeting, and they've completed similar tasks in the past without issues. This employee has roommates that are often shuffling throughout the home during the day. They're naturally night owls, and it's easier for them to focus late at night while others are sleeping.
  • They work on the task from 10 PM - 2 AM. They did not exceed the amount of time allocated to the task. In fact, they actually got it done in less time than anticipated without compromises to quality. The finished project turned out better than if they had tried to complete the task during "traditional" office hours.

With that said, establishing planned times for communication throughout the week is important. Without some sort of check-in arrangement, you're missing a crucial component of developing and setting boundaries. When we pair that structure in communication with flexibility surrounding when an employee can work on their tasks, a sort of alchemy occurs, enabling greater ease for employees throughout the work week.

Change How You Handle Time Off

Nobody likes having to make excuses.. Your employees may just want to take a vacation with days they've earned but feel guilty and delay doing so as a result. Offering a paid time off bank instead of separate sick leave and vacation days can reduce the pressure on an employee to explain why they're not coming in. It reaffirms the message that PTO is for the employee to use however they feel appropriate. In addition, It's also less work from an administrative standpoint.

Here are a couple of additional shifts to consider:

  • Limiting PTO carry-over increases the likelihood that employees will use their PTO when they need it. Without a cap in place, employees often fall into the trap of saving up that time. They push themselves too hard when they should be using it to tend to their needs. This can be a slippery slope, and people often have strong opinions about carry-over limits despite their potential to promote work-life balance.
  • Offering additional, unpaid time off helps foster feelings of security while simultaneously reducing shame and embarrassment about asking for it. Established policies for unpaid time off demonstrate an awareness that sometimes unexpected events need tending to. A little empathy goes a long way. While you may not always be able to accommodate abrupt requests, knowing that a boss is willing to do what they can with the available coverage can still help to mitigate stress.

Making basic shifts in the way that you handle time off might seem like a small thing, but as demonstrated with the above examples, it can make a world of difference to employees.

Add Some "Fun" Back into The Routine

Often, work-sponsored events come with a certain level of awkwardness. This doesn't have to be the case. Typically, it's the result of trying too hard when planning. When trying to get an event "just right," it's easy to lose sight of the things that make your company culture unique. Consider the things that your employees genuinely enjoy, and loosen up the structure.

Here's what I mean:

  • When handled well, company-sponsored events create space to relax hierarchical constructs. It shows your employees that you, too, are human. They should hold space for people to show up authentically and comfortably.
  • Planning events with a rigid structure may prevent the event from fulfilling its purpose. It stops being a fun bonding experience and instead becomes just another corporate networking event.

Remote work provides fewer opportunities to show your team that you truly understand them. Taking the time to plan genuinely aligned events boosts morale and nourishes a cohesive work environment. Connections get a chance to flourish, creating more room for genuine teamwork to take root.

Be Open to Job Share Opportunities

Amid the "great resignation," it's clear to see just how fed up the workforce is with the traditionally rigid scheduling that often encompasses full-time roles. Employees want greater autonomy over how they spend their time. Enter "job sharing": a potential stepping stone for those who want more flexibility but who aren't ready to dive headfirst into entrepreneurship or contracting.

Here are some key things to consider:

  • Job sharing typically involves dividing the responsibilities of a full-time role between two employees. It's a great way to establish work-life balance positions where part-time positions are not generally available.
  • Having two employees working 20 hours a week rather than requiring one employee to work 40 hours could allow you to retain an employee that may otherwise resign. This scenario also creates space for another skilled candidate, also desiring fewer hours, to join your team.

While not every role is conducive to job sharing, it can be a fantastic solution in cases where responsibilities can realistically be divided. If you find one of your valued employees thinking about resigning due to poor work-life balance, job sharing could be an ideal solution.

Remember That There is no Foolproof Formula.

Encouraging work-life balance requires commitment, but it's worth it. Investing in your employees' well-being boasts all sorts of benefits for you and for them. Plus, it'll make your business more attractive to top talent. With that said, each company is unique, no matter how similar the scope of work is. Another manufacturing business may have an entirely different workplace culture than yours, even if it's located just a few minutes down the road.

Remember that optimal work-life balance often looks different from individual to individual. What works for a competitor's employees may not work for yours. So, rather than making sweeping changes all at once, get to know your employees and what makes them tick. Once you understand what's important to them, you can start thinking about ways to meet them where they are with their unique circumstances.

Focus on the changes that have the most capacity for positive impact. Implement those things first, and observe how your team responds. You can adjust and implement new strategies at a pace that works for you.

Want to take a deeper dive into encouraging employee work-life balance?

We have all sorts of resources that can help.

Take a deeper dive with this free podcast episode:

Episode 36: How Best to Prevent burnout in the Workplace with Davida Ginter (bench-builders.com)

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