When you run a fast-growing startup, it's often taken for granted that you'll be reachable at all times. CEOs' habits tend to support this assumption: In a recent Inc. survey, 56 percent of senior executives said they check work-related communications "almost constantly" when they're not in the office. Even while on vacation, 85 percent of respondents check messages at least once or twice a day. Only 3 percent said they go completely off the grid.

As the boss, you might never be able to fully unplug from your phone, email, or Slack. And though a third of respondents to Inc.'s survey said they also ask their employees to be available during non-work hours, you can't always expect around-the-clock responsiveness. So how do you build healthy boundaries into your company's culture while making sure all the work gets done?

Set expectations

The physical and psychological consequences of burnout are well documented. But problems aren't caused only by logging 80-hour weeks at the office or taking projects home.

One 2018 study found that when employees are expected to keep an eye on their inboxes outside work hours, they're more anxious, and their health suffers--as does that of their family members. In other words, even if they don't actually do any work at home or on vacation, the pressure to be "always on" can cause harm.

One solution is for employers to reduce their expectations for after-hours communication, or at least come to a clear understanding with employees regarding when they will and won't be responsive. 

Bill Keith, CEO of Best Workplaces honoree Perfect Snacks, a San Diego-based company that makes refrigerated protein bars, says that clear, written policies have helped even his company's most zealous workaholics learn to take a break. At Perfect Snacks, meetings may not be scheduled before 9 a.m. or after 4 p.m. from Monday through Thursday. On Fridays there are no meetings at all, and everyone is encouraged to go home at 2 p.m. The company's 100-plus employees also are required to set an automated out-of-office response on their email accounts when they're out sick or on vacation, with contact information for a colleague who can respond to any urgent requests on their behalf. 

"We want to make sure that when folks come in here, we're breaking any bad habits they have, and creating those boundaries for their professional and personal lives," Keith says.

Don't set the wrong precedent

Bosses should also be wary of praising employees who are online at all hours, since that can come across as celebrating overwork, says Rob Waldron, CEO of North Billerica, Massachusetts-based education technology company Curriculum Associates.

In the past, he says, "if I saw someone working really hard, I wanted to thank them. If they stayed up all night and they did all these things, I would thank them publicly." Waldron now acknowledges that that was a mistake; not only were those employees sacrificing their own health and time with their families, but the quality of their work was likely to suffer as well. "So I shifted to celebrating the people who were the most efficient," he notes. "I celebrated the great work and the balance."

Know that formal rules won't always work

While most bosses would agree that work-life balance is important, some believe that formal policies to protect that balance can be counterproductive. Scott Jordan, founder and CEO of Ketchum, Idaho-based clothing company ScotteVest, implemented a "no emails after work" rule at his company in 2016. It seemed like a good way to make sure employees had time away from work to recharge. However, Jordan found that certain employees took the rule "a little too literally," and things fell through the cracks. Now, he says, the company sets expectations for after-hours communication on an as-needed basis. 

"When we're super busy and there's weekend or evening work to be done, we just merely ask in advance, 'What do you intend to do?' and 'When are you going to be available and not available?'" Jordan says. "The expectation is that the hours that you're not going to be available, you're recharging your batteries and truly offline."

Published on: Jan 15, 2020