A growing number of hard-working professionals are experiencing the negative side effects of overwork. It comes as no surprise; to be successful, to run the company the way many leaders want to, and for employees to make their rigid deadlines, a heavy time commitment is usually required. This inevitably leads to sacrificing things not related to work – the “life” part of life.
Arianna Huffington, founder and editor in chief at the Huffington Post, discovered the hard way what overworking could do to her health.
“Five years ago, I fainted from exhaustion. It was still the early days of building the Huffington Post. I’d just returned home from a college tour with my daughter, where I’d agreed not to be on my BlackBerry while we were looking around. We stayed in hotels where she would go to sleep and I’d start working. When I got back to my office, I fainted, hit my head on my desk, broke my cheekbone, and had to get five stitches around my right eye. It got me thinking about what kind of life I was leading. I was getting four to five hours of sleep a night. I had to slow down and re-evaluate the choices I was making.”
Since then, one of her goals has been to promote a healthy work/life balance for herself and others. The belief that working employees to the bone in order to have a strong bottom line is still fairly pervasive in Australian culture. Even when long hours are not forced on workers, many, especially women, are stressed to the point of burnout from working long or inflexible hours and running a household.
Business leaders are responsible in part for their employees’ wellbeing, at least in the workplace. By promoting a work/life balance and offering flexible hour options, CEOs will not only see an increase in productivity, but an increase in satisfaction from their employees.
20th century expectations in a 21st century world
Although Australia ranks at the top of the Better Life Index (a measure of the quality of life in developed nations), 14 percent of the employed spend 50-plus hours a week working, and Australia is ranked 25th for time devoted to leisure and personal care.
According to a 2012 study conducted by the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia, work/life interference has remained relatively persistent since their first study in 2007; for women, work/life outcomes have consistently become worse. Over 2,000 working Australians took the survey, and 25 percent claimed that work frequently interfered with their life. Women’s dissatisfaction with their work/life balance has increased from 15.9 percent in 2008 to 27.5 percent in 2012.
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There are two specific factors that influenced women’s opinion on their work/life balance: the flexibility of work hours and the responsibilities of home life. Mothers reported the worst work/life outcomes, and women who work part-time report the same degree of chronic time pressure as men working full time. Those who took the survey agreed that the 20th-century views on traditional gender roles were still applied to the 21st-century working man and woman. Women are still shouldered with a large part of the responsibility in the home. The study found that “It is not just women’s full-time hours that contribute to work-life interference and time pressures, but the intensified work expected in each working hour.”
Because of the continuing traditional gender roles still prevalent, men have different but still severe stressors induced by a deficiency in their work/life balance. In the survey, 28 percent of men work long hours (which was considered to be 48-plus hours a week), compared to the 9.7 percent of women surveyed.
In most instances, these long hours are not worked by choice. Nearly three quarters off men would rather work less, at least by a have a day a week. Fathers were a majority of the men surveyed wishing they did not feel obligated to put in extra work.
Traditional gender roles go both ways. In many cases, with the expectation that a man be the bread-winner in the family dynamic, there is increased pressure for men to work longer hours.
Promoting a better work/life balance
Although several stressors in life are not attributed to work, helping to relieve some of the work-related ones will have dramatic and positive impacts on your employees. These kinds of changes in the office can lead to better productivity.
Aetna, a health insurance giant in the US, offers meditation, yoga and acupuncture benefits to their employees. CEO Mark Bertolini had Duke University conduct a study on the cost benefits of these offerings – there was a 7 percent drop in healthcare costs for the company in 2012, and each day saw an increase in productivity by 69 minutes.
Opportunities like yoga classes, meditation time and seminars are a great way to give your employees stress-management options. Another stress cause, email overload, can also be managed. Encouraging “email vacations” reduces stress and allows employees to focus more. Avoid the “high-octane, stay-on-top-of-whatever-is-happening-via-e-mail mentality” in your company. Volkswagen deactivates employees’ mobile email accounts after work hours – maybe this is an option for your business as well.
Giving employees more flexibility with their work hours could provide benefits to the company as well. Employees will be grateful for the option to work on a schedule that better suits their life. If someone’s job can be done from home, offer the opportunity. A majority of people who work paid hours from home are more productive.
If you’re unsure how to approach instituting work/life balances in your own organisation, consider getting outside input. Consulting firms like Managing Work Life Balance International will assist with evaluating current work/life efforts and assist with implementing new strategies.
Employees who are encouraged to better their life through stress management will potentially be more loyal to the brand. Do not allow your own work/life balance to topple to one side because of stress either. The best way to encourage employees to participate in new programs is to reap the benefits yourself.
Looking back, Huffington realises she could have made a few different decisions. "I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place with at least some better version of a personal life," she said. Let her hard-learned lessons allow you not to make the same ones - give yourself a break, and see how much better you feel about your work/life balance because of it.