Maintaining balance Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008

An effective wellness program helps create a healthy balance between one’s work life and personal life. Part of the trick is to find a good way to balance what happens on the job with what is going on at home. The key is to find that balance and achieve it with minimal disruption, says Moshe S. Torem, M.D., the chief of integrative medicine at Akron General Health System.

“Both blue-collar and white-collar workers must establish boundaries or their work will pressure them all the time,” says Torem. “In corporate America today, there is a phenomenon called ‘presenteeism.’ That is when a worker is ‘present’ at the job but not 100 percent productive. This happens in different ways at different levels.”

Smart Business spoke with Torem about presenteeism and how you and your employees can find a good work-life balance.

Why should a company worry about employees off the job, and what are the boundaries between work and home?

A company wants an employee who is physically and mentally healthy and able to focus and concentrate, not one who’s distracted or tired on the job. Presenteeism can be due to depression, sleep deprivation, anxiety or the aftereffects of excessive drinking or drug use — even if the employee is not drunk on the job. Bottom line, if employees’ home lives are negatively affecting their job performances, employers need to be concerned.

However, a company must spell out its expectations and policy beforehand. Any company has the right to do random drug tests, and to discipline a worker in violation. The work-home boundary is not rigid. Technology has extended the boundaries of work. Take an IT worker who must be available to answer questions about computer systems at any hour of the day. A firm has a right to expect that worker be sober and alert, even when the worker is off the premises. The same holds for an at-home worker. The company has the right to set standards and expectations for them.

Many employees don’t want their jobs to usurp their personal spaces and consume their lives. They say what they do after work hours is their own business — and that’s true, to an extent. But if you are paid to do a job fully and what you do after work affects what you do on the job, the business does have an interest. Why pay 100 percent of salary to an impaired worker who is only 30 percent productive?

How is the life of today’s executive different than it was 30 years ago?

Presenteeism is a special case for high-level employees. There are many examples of executives forced to take a leave of absence due to burnout. It usually results from the failure to take time to relax and unwind. The pressure of the organization invades every part of the executive’s life and his or her whole identity is tied up in the business. Again, technology has erased some important boundaries. What is good from a business point of view can be hard on an executive. Laptop computers, PDAs and cell phones make it difficult for executives to find refuge from work. Without protection from technology that invades your boundaries, you face burnout and impaired productivity. Executives must preserve other identities — father, mother, coach, etc. — to maintain inner balance.

How can a company’s wellness program address these concerns?

First, human resource manuals should establish clear policies on what is expected of employees — that workers must be alert, awake, productive and clear of alcohol or drugs. There will be less confusion if this is spelled out in advance with clarity.

Many companies do not allow smoking on the job. Some don’t want workers smoking at home, either, since it raises health insurance costs. By spelling out the consequences beforehand, the company can enforce such a policy. Perhaps the smoker will have to foot the cost of higher premiums. Or, the firm might give free sports tickets to those who quit smoking. Or, pay nonsmokers’ health insurance costs. The same can be done for workers who keep their weight down. In any case, everyone wins — healthy employees work better and don’t have the presenteeism problem.

Does a healthy lifestyle start at home?

It starts with the individual at home. Executives must be in charge of their technologies. Don’t work for your cell phone; make it work for you. Screen calls. Check e-mail only at certain times. What’s going to happen in the one hour you set aside for your children? You’ll help your kids and you’ll avoid problems like burnout, mental exhaustion, insomnia and anxiety. If you are a slave to gadgets, then it is like the tail is wagging the dog.

Do workers have an obligation to self-care?

Yes, they do. Unfortunately, some stressed executives self-medicate, usually with alcohol. It goes back to boundaries. An executive with a clear division of work and home will be healthier. Make special time and space for yourself. Have that dialogue with yourself. Set boundaries. Don’t be a slave to technology. Create time and space to express the other aspects of your life.

MOSHE S. TOREM, M.D., is the chief of integrative medicine at Akron General Health System. Reach him at (330) 665-8209 or mtorem@agmc.org.