How to help your employees achieve work-life balance Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2010

Studies show that finding a proper work-life balance is mutually beneficial to individuals, their employers and society. But, the question of how to achieve work-life balance in today’s fast paced world is not an easy one to answer.

“Many mistakenly think of work-life balance as something an employer must do for employees when, in fact, work-life balance is a two-prong approach,” says Amy Broadbent, the vice president of JRG Advisors, the management company for ChamberChoice. “One prong involves work-place initiatives and the other prong, which people often overlook, relates to what individuals do for themselves.”

Smart Business spoke to Broadbent about work-life balance and what employers and employees can do to improve it.

Why has work-life balance become an issue?

Years ago, experts predicted that advancements with technology would eliminate most household chores and alleviate work-related stress due to improved efficiencies, simplified processes and so on — ultimately providing people with more time to enjoy family and leisure activities. Well, technology has surely advanced, as has the intensity and competitiveness of the work environment. The struggle to find balance among work (career and ambition) and life (leisure, pleasure and family) has, arguably, taken on new meaning as today’s work ethic has been elevated to unprecedented heights.

Over the past two decades, we have become increasingly ambitious, and somewhere along the way, life was put on the back burner as 60- and 70-hour workweeks became the norm. According to a survey conducted by the National Life Insurance Company, four out of 10 employees state that their jobs are ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressful. Many Americans are experiencing burnout due to overwork and increased stress. This condition is seen in nearly all occupations, from blue-collar workers to upper management. The number of stress-related disability claims by American employees has doubled. Studies show that 75 to 95 percent of physician visits are related to stress and, according to the American Institute of Stress, the cost to businesses has been an estimated $200 to $300 billion a year.

Our habits are having adverse effects and it is clear that problems caused by stress have become a major concern to both employers and employees. Symptoms of stress are manifested both physiologically and psychologically. Persistent stress can result in cardiovascular disease, a weaker immune system, frequent headaches, stiff muscles and backaches. It can also result in poor coping skills, irritability, anxiety, insecurity, exhaustion and difficulty concentrating. Stress may also lead to binge eating, smoking and alcohol consumption. Recent studies show that the workplace has become the single greatest source of stress.

What can employers do to help?

In an effort to retain employees, it has become increasingly important for employers to recognize the need for work-life balance. Employees continue to be consumed with a host of family and other personal responsibilities and interests. Companies have begun to realize how important work-life balance is to the productivity and creativity of their employees. Research shows that employees who were more favorable toward their organization’s efforts to support work-life balance also indicated a much lower intent to leave the organization, greater pride in their organization, a willingness to recommend their organization as a place to work and higher overall job satisfaction.

Employers can offer a range of different work-life programs and initiatives, such as flexible working arrangements in the form of part-time opportunities, flex time and job-sharing opportunities. Some other ways to introduce balance and enhance productivity within your organization include encouraging everyone to regularly take at least 30 minutes away from the workplace for lunch; encouraging ‘real’ vacations (as opposed to staying at work and using your vacation time to get caught up on increased workloads); introducing training in relaxation methods such as yoga and meditation; providing resources (articles, books, online seminars, brown-bag lunches, etc.) geared toward stress and work-life balance; and finding ways to introduce a little fun — for example, have a monthly birthday luncheon celebration in honor of all employees celebrating a birthday in a particular month.

In today’s intensely competitive work environment, employers that support work-life balance practices and encourage employees to manage their personal energies effectively will come out on top.

What can employees do to achieve a better balance?

It is not easy to juggle the demands of career and personal life. For most people, it’s an ongoing challenge to reduce stress and maintain harmony in key areas of their life. Individuals need to take an active role in evaluating their lifestyle in order to find the balance that is best for them.

There are a variety of ideas to help employees find the balance they need. Time management plays a very important role. For example, organize household tasks efficiently — do one or two loads of laundry every day rather than saving it all for a day off, and don’t feel guilty about an unmade bed or sink full of dirty dishes. These little things can impact quality of life. Also, get enough sleep — there is nothing more stressful than trying to accomplish a multitude of tasks when you’re sleep-deprived. Employees also need to protect their private time, setting aside time for themselves each week so they can do whatever it is that helps them ‘de-stress.’

Remember that work-life balance does not mean doing everything. Examine your company’s priorities and set boundaries. Be firm in what you can and cannot do. In the end, employers can help employees who help themselves and begin to restore a harmonious work-life balance.

Amy Broadbent is the vice president of JRG Advisors, the management company for ChamberChoice. Reach her at (412) 456-7250 or amy.broadbent@jrgadvisors.net.