Media mogul Ariana Huffington has said “work-life balance is a myth” and has been fairly outspoken in her view that most of us have made dangerous concessions in our quest for personal and organizational top performance. She believes that giving up sleep to be always on and always available is the biggest mistake we make. It’s hurting our health, our ability to process information and learn, our innate innovativeness, our relationships, and, ultimately, our performance on the job. This kind of corporately condoned, manufactured stress is everywhere.
By trying to do everything in every aspect of our lives to the detriment of sleep, nutrition, exercise, relaxation, and fun downtime, we tend to show up to work already stressed and depleted. The stress of trying to “balance” jobs, family responsibilities, healthy personal habits, as well as community and philanthropic activities is frequently further affected by stressful work environments. It’s a nasty and expensive Kool-Aid that we’ve convinced ourselves to drink.
The data are pretty compelling: Harvard professor and researcher Joel Goh has estimated that workplace stress accounts for up to $190 billion in healthcare costs every year in the U.S. - that’s nearly 8 percent of all corporate healthcare spending. The Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace says that one-third of workers report high levels of stress resulting in higher healthcare costs, periods of employee disability, absenteeism, higher turnover, and lower productivity on the job. David Lee, noted expert on employee stress, sees increases in all of the following within high-stress workplaces: absenteeism, workers comp claims, litigation, grievances, accidents, errors of judgement, violence, customer complaints, and others. And, of course, all of these have big costs associated with them.
Do we just throw in the towel and do our best to minimize the impact of the stress that weighs heavily on ourselves and our employees? Or are there ways for employers to improve the situation?
As leaders, we have more impact than we know just in our daily language and behaviors. While work/life balance may be a pipe dream and a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works, leaders who make strong, healthy choices publicly are role models for their employees in integrating their work responsibilities into the totality of their daily lives. Simple actions like taking parental leave, not emailing subordinates at night and on weekends, stopping smoking, and losing weight are public examples that can be compelling for employees. Additionally, setting workplace policies that encourage healthier behavior are just as important.
These policies might include providing healthy snacks in the workplace rather than junk food vending machines, encouraging email-free weekends (and sticking to it!), fitness breaks legitimized in the work schedule, requiring all employees to take a substantial part of their vacation time off, turning off email while on vacation, providing paid parental leave for new parents and encouraging both mothers and fathers to take advantage with no adverse career impact, paid time off for volunteer activities, and more.
Of course, greater control over time and place at work also reduces the stress of conflicting schedules and responsibilities. The 2014 National Study of Employers from the Families and Work Institute provides convincing evidence that employees in more flexible workplaces are more likely to have less negative and stressful spillover from job to home, less negative spillover from home to job, better mental health, better overall physical health, low frequency of minor health and sleep problems, and a low general stress level. And that translates to healthier employees as well as healthier bottom lines.
No, Virginia, work-life balance doesn’t exist. But creating a partnership between employers and employees to create a more human context for integrating work into the fullness of life will mean less-stressed employees benefiting their employers, their families, and their communities. Ariana Huffington is definitely onto something.