News

Find Your Balance: Keep Your Work Life in Check

Written by Tim Edmundson

Oct 18, 2016

If you had a choice of being at the office or lounging on a beach somewhere, which would you choose?

The real answer is you would choose the beach. But eventually, you’d run out of daiquiri money and have to start teaching scuba lessons….and guess what, you just joined the workforce again. For many fortunate people, having a job gives us a purpose and sense of accomplishment but the reality is almost all of us NEED to work to support ourselves, our family, our lifestyle, our freeloading friends, etc. But for many American workers, that lazy beach day isn’t really an option at all. According to a Gallup poll, the average American worker spends more time on the job than any other industrialized nation, with the average work week for a full time employee being 47 hours. When you’re working hours like that, the beach is but a distant dream.

For those who experience anxiety on the beach just thinking about what’s going on at the office, it’s understandable why. With work being demanding and a nonstop challenge, it’s hard to pry yourself away from the office without a massive feeling of dread that everything will go wrong once you’re out the door. You may even have developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for the office, somehow convincing yourself that you WANT to be there to handle all those headaches.

So what’s the balance? How much work is too much? This has become a bit of a hot topic in professional circles. As workers continue to clock longer and longer hours (especially in the tech industry), a growing number of voices are calling for a better balance when it comes to professional and personal life.

If you’re one of those who wants nothing more than to soak in the rays in a tropical paradise, then keep on doing what you’re doing. But if you can’t handle the thought of missing work, then you may want to take note of the following. A better work-life balance not only makes for a happier self, but a more productive one as well.

IT’S WORTH STEPPING AWAY

A common reason why people never take time off of work is because they’re afraid their absence will lead to catastrophic results, and that they’ll be judged for it.

Dramatic reenactment: “Taking a week off means missing emails, which means projects get delayed, which means my quarterly goals aren’t met which means the business has to shut down my division and file for bankruptcy and it’s ALL MY FAULT.”

This line of thinking may sound hyperbolic (if anyone needs a vacation it’s this person) but too many people let this dominate their thinking. Chances are, unless you’re literally saving lives (brain surgeons, etc.), missing some time at work isn’t going to be the end of the world.

Harvard Business Review recently ran a piece on leaders who make the effort to step away and lead by example when it comes to work-life balance. One of the examples they call out is Tom Tierney, formerly of Bain & Company and now the cofounder of Bridgespan. Tierney made it a mission to put his family time first – he made it clear to everyone that he did not work weekends, and would prioritize his loved ones over work. Did this harm his career? Not at all; he rose through the ranks of Bain & Company to eventually become its CEO. People respected his priorities and understood what he cared about, and he arranged their expectations around it.

If you’re taking time off, as long as you communicate with your team and ensure they’re prepared to handle anything urgent, the office will survive without you. Your coworkers will respect that you’re on vacation (they’d expect the same when they’re out of the office), so disconnect for a while and enjoy the time away.

FOR YOUR HEALTH

If you’re still struggling to come to terms with missing even a single email, and feel the need to be tethered to the office then consider this: it’s hard to step away from work, but its important to do so – your life may depend on it.

In 2012, a team of researchers reviewed a catalog of studies and found that working long hours (around 10 hours a day) can lead to a two-fold increase in coronary heart disease, due mainly to the prolonged exposure to stress hormones like cortisol. Not only can too much work be draining mentally, it can be bad for your heart. “Working yourself to death” can be a very real thing if not taken seriously.

And it’s not just heart health you should be worried about. In another 2012 study, researchers in Britain tracked 2,000 middle-aged civil servants for six years to examine the effects of working long hours. The results showed that the workers who clocked 11 hours at the office were two and a half times more likely to develop depression than their counterparts who only worked seven or eight hours per day. And this was regardless of whether they saw the work as stressful or not, meaning it was the time spent working rather than the work itself that was having such a negative effect.

So take a vacation, or barring that, avoid working longer hours and take a day off here and there. You don’t want to end up like those poor overworked, cortisol-ridden civil servants, and your body and mind will thank you for it.

A HEALTHY TURNING POINT

Thankfully the tide seems to be turning when it comes to how people and businesses see work-life balance. More and more companies are catching on to the idea of encouraging their employees to take time off, so this could very well be at a turning point when it comes to companies valuing their employees’ personal time.

And speaking from experience, it really is beneficial to offer your employees the freedom to plot their own course when it comes to using their time. We’ve benefited greatly from policies built on trust at SteelHouse – not only when it comes to vacation time, but also how team members work on a daily basis. By showing trust in its team, the company has created an environment where team members respect each other’s time and share their experiences – whether its through vacation photos or actually going on vacations with one another. The result is a workplace that, while stressful at times, has an underlying foundation of trust and respect that makes the day to day much easier.

And SteelHouse’s vacation policy recently created some buzz – not only is there an unlimited amount of vacation time available to each team member, the company will pay them $2,000 to go anywhere in the world to ensure they take time off and get away from the office for a bit.

The idea, says President and CEO Mark Douglas, is to give team members a chance to step away and recharge their batteries. “I actually want you to go somewhere and enjoy yourself,” he says. And it’s true – team members returning from vacation tend to be more productive and ready to take on new challenges. SteelHouse’s policy struck a chord with a lot of people, and it even got us featured on Good Morning America this month. And hey, if Michael Strahan is telling the country that he wants to work for your company, you must be doing something right.

Employees getting away from the office not only benefits the workers who take the time off, it helps the companies too. Ernst & Young, the multinational professional services firm, conducted a study of its employees and found that for every ten hours of vacation time an employee took, their performance ratings improved 8%. And not only that, the employees who took the most vacation time were also the ones who stayed with the firm the longest.

It’s not only in your best interest to take more time off, it’s in your company’s too. According to Project: Time Off, Americans waste 658 million vacation days a year  — so if you’re one of those who is responsible for a chunk of those days, do everyone a favor and plan your next vacation now.