and How to Help Your People Find It
If you assume that creating a healthy work/life balance is your employees’ responsibility, Dr. Carmella Sebastian would like to encourage you to reconsider that position. When you
take steps to help your people separate their personal and professional lives and reduce their overall stress, she says, everyone wins—including your company’s bottom line.
The line between “work” and “personal life” has become really (really!) blurred for most American workers. Thanks to evolving technology and an unforgiving economy, we’re under constant pressure to perform. The result? Even when we’re not at our desks, we’re tethered to our devices. While we’re helping kids with homework, we’re also thinking about how to fine-tune that proposal, and while we’re watching TV, we’re checking our email. And when we’re on vacation—wait, what is a vacation again?
You might assume most employers would love this scenario—don’t bosses want their employees to be “on” 24/7? Not at all, says Dr. Carmella Sebastian (aka Dr. Carm or “The Wellness Whisperer”TM). Counterintuitive as it may seem, smart leaders know that when people have a healthy work/life balance they are better employees, period. And the smartest employers don’t just pay lip service to this idea; they actually take steps to make it happen.
“As an employer, you’re in the best position to help employees turn the chaos in their lives into balance,” says Dr. Carm, a WELCOA (Wellness Council of America)-certified expert in workplace wellness. At Florida Blue, she oversees the National Committee for Quality Assurance-accredited wellness program “Better You from Blue” and manages over 100 client consultations per year. “You’re the one who will benefit from their increased productivity—and frankly, you may be the main reason their lives are out of balance in the first place.”
Very few employers overtly discourage vacations, “mental health days,” and sane work schedules, Dr. Carm admits. But still, it’s also true that few take the initiative to make sure that their people are maintaining a healthy balance. (In fact, the OECD Better Life Index, released yearly, concludes that the U.S. ranks 28th among advanced nations in the category of “work-life balance,” ninth from the bottom.) That’s not too surprising; after all, going out on a limb and encouraging your people to (gulp) stop working so hard is pretty scary!
“When you take that risk, though, you’ll find that helping with work/life balance attracts better talent and increases productivity, loyalty, and engagement,” she states. “But I want to stress that employers have to be the ones to get the ball rolling—employees might be afraid to ask for and initiate these changes themselves because they don’t want to be labeled lazy or uncommitted. High performers in particular have to be ‘forced’ to take time, whether it’s to care for themselves or even to adjust to a stressful life event.”
Here, Dr. Carm shares 11 win-win strategies to help your employees separate their work lives from their personal lives and enhance both in the process:
First, walk the walk yourself. If you’re serious about helping your employees achieve a healthier work/life balance, you have to be willing to set the example. This isn’t negotiable.
“If you want your people to unplug from their devices, take time for themselves, de-stress, and more, you can’t be sending them emails at 10 p.m., frantically making requests of others on their way out the door, and constantly calling in while you’re on vacation,” says Dr. Carm. “They’ll follow your lead, not your suggestions. And have you ever considered that maybe improving your own work/life balance might make you a better leader?”
Encourage employees to take those unused vacation days. According to Expedia’s 2013 Vacation Deprivation study , on average, Americans were given 14 vacation days but used only 10 of them. (That’s twice as many unused vacation days as the previous year.) And let’s not forget—this is paid time off we’re talking about. So why do employees leave those four—or sometimes more—days on the table? In some cases, they’re too busy. In others, they may feel that company culture discourages “too much” absence, or they may want to prove themselves indispensable. And, of course, some people are workaholics or simply forget to plan.
“As an employer, let your people know that it’s okay—and even encouraged—to take the full amount of vacation,” advises Dr. Carm. “Tell them explicitly that you believe rest, relaxation, and outside adventures make them better workers. To put your money where your mouth is, you may even want to build ‘extra’ vacation days that aren’t calendar holidays into your schedule. Either the whole company could close, or different departments could rotate having three-day weekends, for instance. You’ll be surprised by the effect this has on morale and productivity.”
Specify that the beach is not a sandy office. No, you may not go as far as France, which recently passed a law specifying that workers in the digital and consulting industries must avoid email and switch off work phones before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m. But it’s still a good idea to encourage your people to back away from their devices when they’re not at work. Fair warning: This might be an uphill battle. According to Expedia, 67 percent of Americans stay connected to the office (checking voicemail and email) while on vacation.
Teach time management. Often, employees remain tethered to their devices in the evenings and on weekends because they’re worried about unfinished tasks and loose ends that might require their attention. While you might not be able to guarantee that your people can leave work at work every single day, you can help them gain the skills that will reduce their amount of “homework.”
Teach stress management techniques, too. Unless you oversee an organization of ice cream tasters or mattress testers, there’s no such thing as a stress-free workplace. That’s not a bad thing; a small amount of anxiety keeps us alert and motivated. But too often, employees feel an unhealthy amount of stress that bleeds into and affects their personal lives, too. Believe it or not, stress costs American businesses around $300 billion each year!
“Work-related stress contributes to health problems, absenteeism, burnout, and turnover,” Dr. Carm points out. “If you offer a short workshop that teaches stress management techniques like meditation, deep breathing, or yoga, for instance, your employees will reap the benefits. And just knowing that you’re concerned about their mental health will also lift a weight from their shoulders.”
Help them understand the business cycle. As a leader, you know from years of experience that your business goes through (more or less) predictable seasons. For instance, September through December might be crunch time, but you know that after the new year things will be more relaxed. Just don’t take for granted that your employees share this understanding!
“Educate your people, especially newer hires, about your company’s natural business cycle. If things are hectic and overtime is mandatory, rookies might assume that it will always be like this and worry that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. You can reduce their anxiety by pointing out that in a few weeks the pace will slow down. It’s easier for people to push hard through crunch time if they know a lull is just around the corner.”
Include exercise in the workday. Exercise is one of the most effective stress management tools available. It’s also fantastic at increasing energy, improving focus, and boosting attitudes. And, of course, it’s good for your health. Best of all, exercise can be both easy and inexpensive to integrate into the workday: Think lunchtime walks or even walking meetings (assuming your company has enough land to make it feasible). This is a great solution for employees who just can’t find the time to stop at the gym in the midst of their hectic personal lives.
Be flexible on when and where work happens. Depending on your field, technological advances may mean that many employees are no longer tied to their desks. (And isn’t that one of the reasons why our personal lives and professional lives have become so hopelessly enmeshed?) If possible, allow your employees to take advantage of being able to do work from their homes or from the coffee shop down the street.
Dare to get personal. On a regular basis, try to connect with your employees in a way that doesn’t revolve around “shop talk.” Ask about their kids, what they’re planning to do over the weekend, and whether they watched the latest episode of Mad Men, for example.
“When you establish a personal connection with your employees, you’ll have a finger on the pulse of what’s going on in their lives and how it might be affecting them at work,” points out Dr. Carm. “They’ll also feel more comfortable coming to you with requests to attend an upcoming out-of-town wedding, a child’s recital, or a relative’s funeral. Working with employees so that they can attend to personal obligations without feeling guilty is a great way to gain their long-term loyalty.”
Play hard to work hard. Work doesn’t have to be all, well, work. That’s why Dr. Carm suggests integrating “fun” activities in the workday once a week or so: office scavenger hunts, trivia, darts, hall putt-putt, bring-your-pet-to-work days, cookouts on a Friday afternoon, etc. Use your imagination, and if you’re lacking ideas, ask your employees what they’d like to do.
Help with the housework. Some companies offer laundry services and on-site dry cleaning pick-up and delivery. Others provide their employees with free housecleaning services and take-home meals. If that’s in your budget and capabilities, it can take care of one thing on the long list of chores your employees have to complete outside of work, leaving them that much more time to relax.
“Of course, perks like these are expensive to institute and maintain, and simply aren’t feasible for many companies to offer,” Dr. Carm acknowledges. “And that’s okay. Alternatively, perhaps you could purchase and distribute coupons to a local dry cleaner or housecleaning service, for instance. You can also offer time: Close the office a few hours early one afternoon a month and encourage your employees to use that time to catch up on their personal to-do lists.”
“Remember, anything you can do to show employees that you care about the quality of their lives outside of the office will earn their goodwill and loyalty. The happier and less stressed you can help your employees to be on and off the job, the more loyal and engaged they will be—and the more your bottom line will benefit.”
Dr. Carmella Sebastian (known as Dr. Carm or “The Wellness Whisperer”TM) was born and raised in Pittston, Pennsylvania, and received her MD degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania. She earned her master’s degree in healthcare administration from King’s College in Pennsylvania. She is board certified in internal medicine and was in active clinical practice before joining Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Northeastern Pennsylvania, where she was VP of medical affairs and chief medical officer.