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The Quest for Work-Life Balance: Battling the Need to be “Always On”

by Stefanie Mockler on

Work-life balance continues to be a hot topic across academic and popular literature. It’s worth noting that many have expressed discontent with the word “balance” recently—but that’s a matter for another day.

Regardless of the semantics, work-life balance is a compelling topic, in part, because achieving “balance” can lead to a cascade of positive effects both for individuals and organizations.

Benefits of achieving balance

At the individual level, and according to this research on work-life effectiveness, employees who feel they have more control and flexibility in arranging their work and home lives report being:

  • Less likely to burnout from their work (and in turn, more likely to be engaged and motivated to approach their work with energy)
  • More satisfied in their jobs
  • More likely to remain with the organization for at least the next year (which decreases the stress and strain they could incur after quitting their job and searching for a new, more suitable employer)

Though all of the above are certainly benefits for individual employees, they also tend to lead to promising organizational results as well, including:

  • Greater employee commitment and loyalty (which can lead to decreased recruiting and training costs that are incurred during periods of high turnover)
  • Increased ability to attract, recruit, and retain talented individuals (particularly relevant given the war on talent as unemployment rates decline in the United States)

So, the message seems simple: Support employees in their efforts to balance their careers and personal lives by affording them flexibility and then, reap the rewards. Right?

Wrong. Not blatantly so, however, oversimplification of the issue certainly dilutes the complexity of organizational life. Like many organizational phenomena (such as high levels of engagement and satisfaction, perceptions of fairness and avoidance of politicking), work-life balance can seem like an elusive ideal—something we continuously strive for, but never quite attain.

What gets in the way of work-life balance?

When we asked several leaders what has been one of the most challenging hurdles to overcome in achieving work-life balance, we got some interesting answers. While they are all worthy of consideration, we’d like to focus on one today: the feeling that one needs to be “always on”.

always on

This feeling complicates the goal of coordinating work and home lives, and leads to an interesting paradox that stems from the rapid technological change that continues to occur.

On one hand, technology enables flexibility which can facilitate work-life balance. Employees can telecommute, work from home, and take advantage of flextime and flexplace. All of which contribute to an organization’s ability to offer flexible working arrangements that can in turn lead to the benefits presented earlier.

The downside—and this is a biggie—is that with technology, employees may feel the need be constantly on. Emails are repetitively checked and monitored, laptops are opened and work is done during family time, and vacations are rarely technology-free. This may be due, in part, to the telepressure individuals feel when they are given lots of flexibility. Essentially, employees strive to be extra responsive and constantly engaged with their smart phones, laptops, or tablets.

This can lend itself to lower levels of productivity (and higher levels of stress, strain, and burnout), as individuals simply do not have the necessary time to recover from the workday, because it doesn’t have a clear end.

How do you turn off?

Consequently, the question becomes: can we ever truly unplug given our constantly connected society? We think the answer is a resounding yes.

For example, leaders can set organizational norms regarding email response times and protocol via their own behaviors (in other words, leaders can set the tone or the example for others to follow). In addition, team members can engage in back-up behaviors to cover one another’s email inboxes during vacations or personal days off, thereby affording their colleagues well-deserved recovery time.

Let’s discuss:

  • How do you manage to unplug and avoid the pull to be constantly connected?
  • What is your biggest challenge when it comes to “balancing” your work and home lives?

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