SLEEPING OVERNIGHT at the office and wearing the same clothes for a couple days would be a decent signal that some work-life balance might be in order. Ditto for missing persons reports with officers showing up at the company in search of AWOL family members.
But there are also many less obvious signs that the time is ripe for a work-life balance program or initiative, and if they are overlooked, performance, retention, health, and engagement take a hit.
Overstretched and overwhelmed organizations tend to operate like the humans within them, reacting to more demands with stamina and endurance, when the studies show that doing more than you can do well undermines the chief productivity tool, attention, and creates the conditions for top staff to go elsewhere for a better work-family fit.
THE WORK-LIFE BALANCE RESET
The default reaction is to grind on, to stress, overwhelm, and burnout, instead of a system of sensible and sustainable performance. We have to check this reflex by identifying and understanding the alarm bells that go off when we are not paying attention to how we work.
Awareness is hard to come by in a world of unbounded technology, where the autopilot is output and we don’t bring the input of thought needed to get the job done in the smartest way and put the life side on the calendar.
So let’s take a look at the signs that organizations need a work-life balance reset. They range from high stress levels, to fears about burnout, to serious medical problems, workload challenges, retention issues around family needs, poor work-life survey scores, absenteeism, and shrinking productivity.
—High Stress Levels. It’s a topic few like to talk about, since no one wants others to know they can’t "take it." Yet the signs are there to see—the frenzy and short fuses of time urgency, absenteeism, conflicts and issues with others, cynicism, dissension, chronic long hours, pressure-cooker conditions, and sometimes severe health issues. Watch out for medical absences. I found at several companies I’ve done work-life balance programs for that the impetus for the program was that an employee had died recently, from heart attack to suicide. This is serious stuff!
Having more on your plate than you can handle is the automatic trigger for the stress response. So are unrealistic deadlines and unspoken expectations. To get things under perceived control, the key to managing stress, requires adjustments to the task and operations side as well as self-management strategies to reframe reactions and emotions.
—Burnout. Though burnout is the last stage of chronic stress, I’m including it as a separate warning signal of its own because it compounds the problems of stress—impulsive behavior, rash decisions, mistakes, cognitive problems—with burnout’s distinct dimensions of exhaustion (mentally, physically, and emotionally) and cynicism. Neither does much for the bottom-line or the individual’s health. Burnout leads to depersonalization and withdrawal, further impediments to productivity and teamwork as well as more costly medical issues, from stroke to depression. Burnout tends to be expressed more often than stress concerns, maybe because the physical toll is so complete, they don’t care about disclosing it anymore. Listen for the burnout comments. I’m burned out. We’re on a burnout track. My doctor says... Pay attention to them.
Along with burnout come disengagement, withdrawal, absenteeism, and pessimism. Burnout is a serious medical condition that can affect the output and stress levels of everyone on the team and certainly everyone in the individual’s family and needs to be addressed before even more serious repercussions occur. Chronic stress triggers have to be resolved and crashed emotional resources need to be regathered for normal functioning to begin again.
— Work-Life Survey Scores. A common way for stress and burnout to surface is through anonymous employee surveys, in which people feel they can address the issues without being seen as weak. When survey scores come in low for work-life balance, that is a cry for help. Often, the work-life score sticks out like a hippopotamus compared to the other metrics. This shows that talent is struggling to juggle demands. They are reaching out with concerns about their continued performance and staying power under the current conditions. They are also saying that the personal and family-time piece of work-life needs attention. When leaders respond to this heads-up by offering work-life strategies that help staff manage their work and busy lives better, the research shows that performance, retention, and job satisfaction increase.
— Retention Problems. Chronic stress and burnout can take such a big toll on talent physically and emotionally that the individual sees only one way out, leaving the company. Some 40% of employees who leave cite high stress as the reason. Beyond stress, though, any organization concerned about retaining top performers has to be concerned about those who leave because of work-family conflicts. Companies from Deloitte to Ernst and Young and the Boston Consulting Group were compelled to start work-life balance initiatives to stem the tide of vanishing personnel, many of them women, leaving for a better fit with family and children. Each company has saved millions of dollars through programs and policies that are work-family friendly. Custom-made flex-time and flex-place solutions can solve the hemorrhaging of talent that happens when parents feel guilty that they aren’t doing either enough work when they’re at home or enough parenting when they’re at work.
--Workload. Another sign that help is needed is when excess workload is driving a high state of overwhelm. There’s just not enough time in the day to get everything done. Interruptions and devices are unbounded. The effect on the team is growing stress, no time for recharging, and impacts on thinking and impulse control, such as Attention Deficit Trait, which shrinks attention spans due to information overload. Instant technology and the always-on culture have ratcheted up the hours for most of us these days. Without norms and boundaries, overwhelm grows until some of the critical functions of attention, such as working memory and impulse control, are damaged.
The key to productivity in the knowledge economy is not how much data can be crammed inside our brains, but how energized and focused the mind is to process the task at hand. Brains have limits, from neural channels to data volume to working memory. We short-circuit when we ignore those limitations. To help correct the overdoing-it default, the Boston Consulting Group started a program called the Red Zone to flag employees who are working chronic 60-hour weeks. The program is the result of losing too many people to overload mode and family dysfunction as a result.
— Performance. Stress, burnout, and unbounded technology drive aggravation and fatigue, which has an impact on performance. Falling productivity is another sign that a work-life balance intervention is needed. Highly stressed teams are less engaged by definition, since their brains are focused on a perceived crisis that has nothing to do with the tasks they are working on. They are also more fatigued because of the physiological rejiggering that the stress response causes by channeling all energetic resources to muscles to fight and run, instead of to the brain to carry out a task.
The fatigue is cumulative. Today’s 16-hour day comes out of our hide the next day and next if the body’s activation and arousal system triggered by stress isn’t turned off. Both fatigue and stress undermine intellect and decision-making, causing what’s known as System 1 thinking—rash, instant, and subject to errors. People I’ve worked with tell me they were so burned out from doing too much for too long and getting too little sleep that their speech was slurred, as if they were drunk. Costly errors were made and projects had to be redone. An interruption of 2.8 seconds can double the risk of errors, research shows; one of 4.4 seconds can triple the risk of a mistake.
TAKE THE WORK-LIFE TEMPERATURE
The signs are there that a work-life program is in order—if we are looking for them, and better yet, asking about them. Talk to your employees more often. Take the stress and work-life temperature. What’s not working? What do people need to be doing less of or more of to keep the best talent engaged and satisfied? Do a work-life balance survey to find out the hot buttons and engagement levels.
I talk to engineers a lot, and they can tell you, even the strongest materials break apart subjected to the right amount of force and load. That can happen to your talent without safeguards and a sustainable approach to managing the 24/7 that can come from the kind of work-life balance program we offer. Let’s talk, and keep the missing persons officers away from the office door.
You can find out more about our work-life balance programs by clicking the button below. I look forward to speaking with you.