Working Smarter

Break the Silence: Communication Key to Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Speaking about hobbies increases work-life balance

IN A WORLD of hyper-texting thumbs, there is no doubt record levels of communicating going on, but perhaps never before has there been so little real communication between the humans doing the conversing.

Going beyond a few sentences is a luxury few think they have, and that’s especially true at the office, where the communication has always focused on the succinct professional to the exclusion of getting to know the whole person behind the administrator or engineer.

It turns out, though, that one of the most potent drivers of engaged work and life is going beyond office-speak and communicating often. Gallup data, for instance, shows that 87% of people who know their manager well and communicate regularly are engaged at work. The average level of engagement is 32%, by the way, while 68% of employees are disengaged.


Speaking up is also critical when it comes to stress. Sharing the impact of stress on your health with a manager and family member is essential to reducing stress and burnout, and it can save your life. Not talking about stress is what fuels it. Instead, we think and ruminate about it, making the false beliefs of stress appear real.

And lastly, talking to managers about your life, affinities, hobbies, and kid's Little League games is a major ingredient in creating work-life balance, say researchers. It seems that in the exchange of real life enthusiasms and challenges that there is more willingness to see the whole worker, not just the slice on the job. This makes adjusting schedules to see a child’s play or taking a vacation part of a person’s normal full-life schedule, instead of an intrusion into an inner sanctum in which everything outside the office is off-topic.

No doubt, many would feel reluctance to disclose the shocking fact that there is life beyond the day’s work. Yet, the evidence shows that communicating more of your life can provide the reasons, enthusiasms, and demands that make it easier to understand and support a more flexible approach to work-life balance. Strangers, which is who all of us are when we enter the workplace, have a limited basis for rapport. However, when you tell a story about your child’s soccer game or the adventure you had on your vacation, connections are made.

We all have a very strong need to be known and to belong. Both of these are satisfied when we share interests. Deeper communication is a powerful tool to build relationships and the practical application of work-life balance. Instead of a theoretical concept, work-life balance becomes something whose evidence is out in the open, living, breathing, and self-propelling employee engagement.


One study (Bennett, Gabriel, Calderwood, Dahling, Trougakos) found that, when the communication is two-way, with managers sharing how they use their free time, it gives permission to their teams to recharge after work. Employees get the okay to leave work at work.

Another study (Moen, Kelly, Fan, Lee, Almeida, Kossek, Buxton) concluded that getting past the presentation self and being able to talk about home needs with managers gave people a sense that a work-life balance policy could be acted on and wasn’t simply window dressing. They tracked a large group, 867 IT workers at a couple of units of a U.S. company. The goal of the investigation was to see what happens with more employee control over schedules and supervisor support for family and personal life.

Half the employees in the program were given flexibility over their schedules and where they worked, known as flex-place, and were encouraged to talk about their work-life issues and successes, while the control group did business as usual.

One of the innovations of the study was that researchers expressly trained managers how to be supportive of their team’s work-life efforts. They were told to talk about their own issues of balancing work and home, from an ill parent to wanting to attend a child’s soccer game. Common ground leads to understanding and understanding leads to acceptance of new behaviors, when the results are clear that the change is a winner.

The group that practiced work-life balance flexibility and made it an out-of-the-closet, non-secret mission talked about casually with managers reported significantly higher levels of job-related and general well-being. In addition, both employees and managers in the flex plan had reduced psychological distress, less burnout, and were happier. 


The message the researchers drive home again and again with these results is, not only that it’s in everyone’s best interest—manager, employee, organization, family—to practice work-life balance, but that having open communication about it from managers is key to making the policy credible and adopted widely. Teams take their cues from leaders. If there’s a work-life initiative, but your manager acts as if he or she isn’t part of it, then there is going to be reluctance to practice even the stated policy.

Of course, you have to use some discretion in what you say to whom, but in general communicating more and letting others know about pastimes and the person beneath the business card will be a plus. More human interrelating leads to better rapport, teamwork, friendships, and best of all, to the intrinsic act the social animal is designed for, reaching out to others in the real communication of interests and needs.

For details on my work-life balance training and keynotes and how to get a program rolling with your team or organization, please click the button below.

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Tags: work-life balance and flexible schedules, talking about work-life balance, leaders and work-life balance

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