The topic of work-life balance seems to be getting more attention than ever. That’s generally a good thing — everyone could benefit from a little more balance in life — but a closer look at the media coverage reveals a common theme. Much of the conversation around finding work-life balance revolves around how individual workers can better juggle their careers with their personal lives, such as brushing up on their time-management skills or unplugging on the weekends.
Coverage rarely focuses on the pivotal role that employers and corporate leaders play to make that juggle possible. It’s a glaring oversight — and points to a huge opportunity.
In JUST Capital’s annual survey — which asks the American public what they care about most when it comes to business practices — work-life balance has consistently been one of the areas that Americans want companies to prioritize. And several other studies have uncovered significant benefits in workers’ productivity, satisfaction, and retention among companies that provide them with flexibility and help them manage their personal needs.
For example, one study from the CEB, a global best practice insight and technology company, found that employees who report having a good work-life balance work 21% harder and are 33% likelier to plan to stay with the company.
Employers can’t overlook the fact that today’s workers are attracted to companies that accommodate and care about their personal needs. Millennials and younger generations of workers expect a level of work-life accommodation from their employers that earlier generations of workers may not have imagined possible, says Julie Cohen, an executive coach and trainer and CEO of Philadelphia-based Work. Life. Leader.
“Asking for certain things — like the ability to work from home occasionally — used to be really risky,” Cohen says. “Now it’s often part of the discussion before someone will accept a job.”
But there’s also the reality that workers can only do so much to balance their work and personal priorities without help from their employer, Cohen says. For example, many employees still have to ask their manager for permission to take an hour off to take a sick child to the doctor.
So, what can leaders and managers do to encourage work-life balance among their employees? Here are six key ways, including both the better-known but crucial strategies we’ve written about before and a few lesser-known but equally important methods.
1. Offer Flexible Work Arrangements Tailored to Employees’ Needs
Some leaders may avoid offering broad flexible scheduling benefits to their employees because they think it will open a floodgate. But realistically, most employees who ask for flexibility request pretty modest scheduling accommodations, Cohen says. Perhaps they want to work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. instead of the typical 9-to-5 schedule so they can pick up their kids after school. Maybe working from home just once or twice a week will provide them with extra time to take care of personal matters.
The important thing is realizing that flexibility can’t be a one-size-fits-all benefit, Cohen says, and managers who want to do it right should have individual conversations with everyone on their team to determine their personal accommodation needs.
“I may have four direct reports, and one of them loves being in the office from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and has no desire to work from home,” Cohen says. “Someone else is going to have a totally different set of needs, and it’s going to be a totally different conversation.”
Less than half the companies JUST Capital evaluates and ranks every year disclose flexible working hours. But according to our research, those that do have a median five-year return-on-equity (ROE) 2 percentage points higher than the companies that did not.
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2. Foster a Culture of Autonomy and Trust
Leaders should consider the overall amount of autonomy they give employees – as that will directly affect how flexible they view their jobs, Cohen says. However, providing autonomy naturally requires that the organization has built a culture of trust where employees feel they can take ownership of their work — and in turn, when and how they perform that work — without feeling micromanaged.
Autonomy supports work-life balance because it means employees feel comfortable dictating their own work schedule — at least to some degree — and can thus make their own accommodations without feeling they always need a manager’s approval. They can take an hour-long run or bring their kids to the doctor without feeling like someone is always looking over their shoulder.
3. Cater to the Needs of Working Caregivers
Raising kids is one of the biggest balancing acts many workers face. Companies that create policies and practices designed to make life easier on parents — such as providing backup or on-site childcare and giving new parents ample paid leave — can pay off for the company, as well.
JUST Capital research found that only 23% of the 890 companies we ranked in 2018 disclosed that they offer supplementary or backup day care services, but the win-win was clear: The companies that offered this benefit to employees had a median five-year ROE 2.5 percentage points higher than the companies that did not.
Starbucks is widely considered a leader among large companies in terms of providing work-life balance. It offers up to 10 days of backup care per year to employees to care for both children and adults.
See more ways your company can better support working caregivers here.
4. Encourage Employees to Use Their Vacation Time — and Truly Unplug
Work has unfortunately become an around-the-clock expectation for many people, encroaching on their personal time and obligations. Many modern workers feel they must check their email in the evenings and on weekends. A study by the Center for Creative Leadership found that people who use smartphones for work spend more than 13 hours every workday and five hours during the weekend checking work email. Another survey found that only 28% of workers use up their vacation time.
This is burning people out — and making them more likely to quit.
Company executives and managers who encourage their reports to unplug and take work-free vacations will benefit from overall happier, less stressed employees. Some companies are even paying their workers to take time off. Expedia, for example, gives its employees an annual travel reimbursement of $250 to $750, depending on how long they’ve been employed there.
You don’t have to go that far right away: Something as simple as making it very clear to your team that responses to email are not expected while on vacation can go a long way in setting the tone for a true break.
5. Establish Clear Client Expectations
One reason employees may be working long hours is because clients think they’re always available and will respond to emails or calls swiftly, Cohen says. Managers can alleviate that burden by telling clients that employees often don’t check their email or voicemail when they’re not working or simply that they should expect a call back within 24 hours.
Likewise, managers should make sure someone is appointed to serve as a backup contact for any employee who’s taking time off, so that the employee doesn’t get bombarded with emails and calls when they’re supposed to be taking personal time.
6. Be a Role Model
Generous work-life balance policies and accommodations aside, leaders who don’t walk the talk by also showing they value their own personal time will discourage their employees from valuing it, too. If you encourage workers to, say, use up their PTO days, you should be doing that, too.
“If you’re a boss who says ‘don’t send emails after 7 p.m. and then you’re sending emails at that time, you’re sending mixed messages,” Cohen says.
Ultimately, leaders and managers need to be cognizant of the work and personal balancing acts their employees’ face – and they shouldn’t assume that employees without kids or who don’t talk about their personal lives at work don’t have their own personal needs and goals.
“You can’t come to any of these conversations with a preconceived notion of what anyone wants,” she says. “Let them tell you what they want and need.”
We’ve covered topics like workplace burnout, employee retention strategies, and which companies treat employees best in the past, but we’ll never stop tracking the shifts being made to prioritize worker well-being. To stay up to date on this issue and much more, sign up for our free weekly newsletter, The JUST Report, today!