Working Smarter

Work-Life Balance: How Flextime Prevents the Work-Family "Break Point"

Posted by Joe Robinson

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This is the first in a series of articles highlighting the results of key studies on work-life balance, stress management, and productivity.

THE RECENT decision by IBM, a leader in remote work and flexible schedules, to bring many of its teleworkers back into the office has left human resource experts, not to mention employees, scratching their heads. IBM joined companies such as Yahoo and Aetna, which have made the same move.

Why would a savvy organization like IBM want to roll back flexibility when countless studies have shown that it improves performance and job satisfaction and that the core need of everyone is more autonomy, not less? 


Flexibility is particularly important to a big chunk of the current workplace: millennials. Some 80% cite it at the top of their list of employer requirements. A recent Gallup study shows that telework is not going away; it’s booming. Some 43% of employees in the U.S. say they can work remotely at least part of the time. That’s a 4% increase since 2012.

Studies have shown that flexibility increases perceived work-life balance, which in turn reduces the stress of commuting, marital conflict, and money spent on childcare, opens up the pool of talent beyond the immediate geography of the company office, increases hours available to work and quality time to think without interruptions, allows employees to not burn up sick days while taking care of an ill child or aging parent (only 22% of sick days are used because the employee is sick), and boosts family time and productivity.

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Some say that IBM’s recent lackluster revenue might be behind the call for employees to come back to the office. Others say that better collaboration requires more physical proximity. The strategy certainly didn’t work in the case of Yahoo.


I thought it would be a good time to look at what the research actually says about flexibility—in particular one influential study using IBM employees as its subjects. It’s the first of an ongoing series on the Working Smarter blog here spotlighting key studies in the work-life balance, stress management, productivity, and engagement arenas. This particular study, “Finding an Extra Day a Week: The Positive Influence of Perceived Job Flexibility on Work and Family Life Balance” (Hill, Hawkins, Ferris, Weitzman 2001) examined the impact of flexible place and time on a cross-section of 6,451 IBM employees, and deserves more notice.

The study devised a clever gauge to measure the impact of flexible schedules on perceived work-family imbalance. They measured the number of work hours per week when employees experienced difficulty managing work and home responsibilities. They defined it as “the number of weekly paid work hours at which 50% of the sample responded they had a difficult time or very difficult time balancing the demands of their work and family life.” They called this the “break point.”

They also measured the weekly hours at which 25% of employees had trouble managing their work-life—the “balance point.” They did their calculations for each work group by setting work-family balance as equal to .50 or .25 and then measured those with and without “flexplace” and with and without flextime.

The researchers found, not surprisingly, that longer work hours corresponded to lower work-life balance, and flexibility was associated with higher perceived work-life balance. Only 28% of employees with flexplace and flextime had difficulty with work-life balance, compared to 46% of those with neither of those options. Twenty-nine percent of those with a choice of where they worked had trouble with work-family balance, while 40% of those without that option had work-family difficulty. The difference was larger for those with flextime. Just 29% of those with flextime had work-family problems, while 44% without it did.

Another interesting finding is that for hourly workers, who had the most rigid schedules, only 18% had work family difficulties if they had flexplace and flextime, compared to 42% without it. The biggest advantage was for parents with preschoolers. The work-family break point for women with small children was 43 work hours per week, but without flexplace and time, it was 32 hours a week.


We have known for a long time that flexibility in hours and locales not only increases employee satisfaction, but it also results in more hours worked, i.e., increased productivity. The same was true in this study. As the authors stated, “Employees with perceived flexibility in the timing and location of work were able to work longer hours than those without perceived flexibility before experiencing a difficulty in balancing their work and family life.

“For example, the break point and balance point for those with perceived flexibility in the timing of work were 60 hours per week and 44 hours per week, respectively. The break point and balance point for those without perceived flexibility in the timing of work were 52 hours per week and 41 hours per week, respectively.”

They concluded that the business payoff of perceived flexibility in the timing of work is a big one. It allows an employee to work “an extra day of work” before work-life balance becomes difficult—60 hours with flextime, 52 hours without flextime.

The data is compelling. Remote work and flextime work, which is why more and more companies are opting to offer it. We know this makes sense intuitively. People who feel they have more control over their work schedules have more perceived control over their lives. It’s lack of control that drives stress and overwhelm and the “spillover effect”of strain on work-family, as it’s called in the research.

The study spells it out. “Perceived job flexibility, given a reasonable workweek, enables more employees to have work-life balance (personal and family benefit) and also enables employees to work longer hours before impacting work-family balance (business benefit).”

That sounds like a big win-win to me. Regardless of IBM’s decision and that of a few others, the trajectory is for more flexibility to keep talent on board, particularly among millennial staffs and management. The digital tools and collaborative software, from Slack to Base Camp, make it possible to maximize performance while allowing employees to feel more effective and self-responsible in the process.

If you would like details on our work-life balance employee training programs and how they can increase your team's performance and work-life survey scores, please click on the button below:

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Tags: setting boundaries at work, work-life balance reeaarch, telework, remote work, work-life balance studies, flexibile work hours, work-life balance and flexible hours, remote work and producitivity, boundaries

The Science of Why We Burn Out and Don't Have To

Posted by Joe Robinson

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JOB BURNOUT is an accident. No one aspires to a state of exhaustion so complete you don't want to get out of bed. If we knew ahead of time that we were headed down this road, we could change course. But we don’t know that, because the chronic stress that drives burnout directs us down an unconscious track of mechanical momentum.

We don’t think about managing the demands that are pushing our buttons, we just keep reacting to them on autopilot on a route I call the burnout treadmill. Just keep going until the paramedics arrive. Unfortunately, they are arriving so we need a healthier approach to how we work and react to pressure, stress, and other people, and that means a conscious understanding of how we respond to burnout triggers and how certain personality traits and habits factor in to the equation. Stress management has to be as routine as brushing teeth.


To prevent auto crashes, we moderate speed and make sure the brakes are working. To keep the accident of burnout at bay, we have act preventitively too, by putting the brakes on uncontested stress and perfectionism, and what researchers call self-undermining, from bad coping habits to lack of communication 

Most of the people I work with in my coaching practice suffer from burnout. They come to me after a long period of extreme work hours, workloads beyond their capacity, and high chronic stress from demands that have overwhelmed their coping systems, touching off anxiety, cynicism, and fear about what the future holds.

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They are not slackers; in fact, they are the opposite. They have worked so hard that they have gone beyond what’s healthy or needed to be productive in their work. They may think they are the only one who can get the job done right and don't delegate. Often, they associate endurance, quantity of hours on the job, with performance, when in the knowledge economy, it’s all about how fresh the chief productivity tool—attention—is. I meet them when the exhaustion, drop in performance, and medical issues tell them they can’t go on anymore like this. 

Burnout is what happens when chronically high demands meet low to no resources or support. The final stage of chronic stress, burnout is a condition of accumulation, unresolved stress that piles up day after day for months and years until it drains all coping resources—emotional, physical, and mental. It’s easy to get caught up in because chronic stress floods the body with adrenaline that masks the physiological impacts and makes us think we’re handling it, at least for a while—until we’re not. 

We're left in a state of chronic exhaustion, futility, and feeling a lack of personal accomplishment. Not only do you not have energy to do the job or live your life with joy, but you also feel like there’s no point to doing either. Cynicism and emotional distancing, withdrawal, and a host of medical issues follow.


Studies show a high incidence of depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependence in burnout cases (Ahola, 2007). Burnout is also a factor in cardiovascular disease, diabetes (Melamed, Shirom, 2006), gastro-intestinal problems, and stroke.

On the performance side, burnout triggers higher absenteeism and turnover (Maslach 2001), and presenteeism. The body’s at the office but not much else. It takes longer to get tasks done because of low energy and attention levels, so productivity is reduced.

There are situational factors that trigger burnout—the structure of the work, unrealistic deadlines, excess workload, and insufficient reward or support—but also individual causes rooted in personality traits and our own responses (or lack of them) to demands. The key to not fall prey to reflex burnout triggers is to be aware of the daily issues that drive stress, and resolve, dispute, communicate, and adjust them so they don’t push your buttons.

We all have a job we have to do. Nothing we can do about that. But how we do our tasks is something we can change. When we make adjustments to how we do our tasks and how we respond to others, we turn off the engines of burnou, which thrive on lack of control. When we make little and big changes, delegate, ask for help, control devices, and find ways to feel more autonomous, we eliminate the festering root of burnout—helplessness.

Research shows that when we exercise acts of choice and flexibility, we satisfy one of our core needs, autonomy, an antidote to burnout (which thrives on futility and lack of agency). One study (Bakker, Demerouti, Euwema, 2005) found that employees who communicate often with supervisors, get regular feedback (something you can ask for), have social support, and feel more autonomy as a result can have high demands but not get burned out.


The key to managing the stress that drives burnout is increasing control over demands and the thoughts and self-talk that undermine us. That’s where we gain autonomy and make work-life less difficult. But we have to set boundaries, which are a success tool, studies show (Nash, Stevenson, 2004). We can’t be doing two hours of work email at home. We can’t reflexively do 12-hour days without asking what’s wrong with workflow, delegating, or time management. 

And we have to speak up. We have to let others know the situation is untenable. One of my clients told her boss that though she loved her job, the toll of burnout on her and her family was no longer something she could accept. Something had to change. The boss agreed and removed a person driving high stress from contact with her and gave her a month off with pay to regather her crashed resources.

Proaction is the way out of burnout. Keeping everything inside is the way to keep burnout going. This client is an introvert, but she was able to step up and communicate her needs. Studies show, by the way, that extraversion is negatively associated with burnout. So if extraverts tend to have less burnout than introverts, that is instructive data. People more inclined to talk about challenges and ask for adjustments feel more control over events, and that control reduces the helplessness of silence.


In a fascinating study, Arnold Bakker and Patricia Costa examined the individual side of burnout. They found that, “Employees with higher levels of daily exhaustion show self-undermining behavior…Chronically burned-out employees are less able to manage their own emotions, and more likely to encounter conflicts at work. These self-undermining behaviors all contribute to higher daily job demands.”

Bakker and Costa found too that high levels of daily exhaustion resulted in mistakes that had to be done over, which pushes schedules back, creates more time urgency, and more pressure in an ever-repeating cycle.

Researchers have found the best antidote to burnout is something every employer wants: employee engagement. People who feel they are valued and participants in the way the work is done don’t get burnout out. Burnout scholar Christina Maslach has reported that the key dimensions of burnout—exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of professional efficacy—are the polar opposite of engagement's main domains: vigor, dedication, and absroption. 

The autonomy support framework created by the University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan is an ideal antidote to burnout. It brings more teamwork, satisfaction, and something else critical for anyone to do something that’s hard—the right kind of motivation, intrinsic motivation. When we work, not for the external payoff, but for internal goals such as service, challenge, excellence, or craft, we satisfy our core needs of autonomy, competence, and connection with others and don’t go down the track to isolation, alienation, and catastrophic thoughts that lead to burnout.

Attention, then, is our exit off the burnout treadmill. The more attention we have on how we work, the fewer emotional reactions and mechanical momentum that can self-undermine us. There is nothing more important to pay attention to than your health, so let’s all make sure we jump on the triggers that set us off and not give stress a pass or buy the bravado that we can “take it.” Or one day, you get taken by burnout.

Tags: work overload, setting boundaries at work, stress management, burnout, job burnout, burnout causes, boundaries

Work Overload: Speaking Up about Boundaries

Posted by Joe Robinson

Boundaries are key to work-life balance

Alarmed that marathon workweeks were driving out too many talented people, the Boston Consulting Group created a program to head off the problem. Called the Red Zone, it flags employees who log more than 60 hours a week for five weeks, citing their exploits on reports seen by partners and managers. “A hero is not someone whose light is on at 10 at night,” says Kermit King, the firm’s head of recruiting for the Americas.

A Red Zone event triggers a meeting with a Career Development Committee sponsor to find out what’s causing the pattern. The manager reviews the project to see where adjustments can be made to prevent an expensive burnout.

Solutions can range from reprioritizing duties, to adding more resources, to changing the timeline and better time management. The program lays down a marker that pushing to the brink isn’t a smart way to work. The Red Zone has increased the number of consultants who feel their job is manageable and, as a result, boosted the number of people who say they want to stay at the company and improved work-life balance. 

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Unfortunately, few organizations are aware of the importance of clear boundaries on their bottom lines or talent. One tech firm bases promotions on how much weekend time you work—while struggling with a growing retention problem.

A Red Zone program could have saved Karen Walker, a marketing exec for a large Silicon Valley firm, from herself. An intense case of workaholism drove her to 90-hour weeks, as well as chronic hives, hair loss, and thyroid medication. “I will work something till I feel it’s worthy of the company’s name,” she told me, a dictum that overtook her health.

A few sensible boundaries can save a lot of turnover and medical bills. There’s a reluctance to go there, though, because a very powerful myth makes us think that success requires going to the absolute breaking point. Yet the research and case studies are unequivocal: success depends on boundaries.

Researchers at Harvard Business School found that the key component for successful business executives that gave them true satisfaction was “the deliberate imposition of limits.”


“It allows them to say I don’t need to work away at this particular thing until I’m satiated and hate the very sight of it,” said Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson, authors of "Just Enough," in the Harvard Business Review. “This is ‘just enough.’ They recognize the importance of setting their own standards for ‘enough.’ And not falling prey to the lure of the infinite ‘more’.”

That’s what Susan, a Denver financial advisor I coached, discovered when she got to the end of her rope with 70-hour weeks. “I was hating work that I love and, by driving myself harder and harder, I had started to hate myself and my life,” she says. “My productivity was at a standstill, and I was always angry at myself for not accomplishing more."

The problem, she came to see, was that she was trying to be the best, an external goal, instead of focusing on doing her best, which is where the more important internal rewards come from. After shifting her outlook and revamping her schedule, she was able to set boundaries and improve her performance at the same time.

When a client recently asked her to do another loan report after she’d just finished one for this customer, she did something she never did. She said No. “I knew I had done enough,” she says. The client was initially unhappy, but called back the next day and apologized for being out of line.

“It feels great to know you can say you’ve done enough,” says Susan.

Research by Stanford Medical School’s Mark Cullen has uncovered something very revealing about the impact of overperformance on job satisfaction. Even if you love your job, if you do too much of it, you’ll hate it. Overly tasked people, says Cullen, don’t like what they’ve done at the end of the day. It turns out that too much work strips all the accomplishment, and fun, from what you’re doing.


Over the last couple decades we have become more and more hesitant to set boundaries, but that’s no longer tenable in a 24/7 world. It’s time to reclaim boundaries and see them for what they are, the most basic management tool, a key to work-life balance that allows us to work more effectively. They are also an essential stress management tool.

A small but growing number of companies are recognizing that operating without limits is hurting bottom lines and retention. Two maladies associated with long-hours schedules, stress and depression, are five to seven times more costly to treat than other workplace illnesses. 

We all work more productively when we have a chance to think, plan, and organize. We get that from boundaries. A report out of Harvard on speaking up in the workplace called the word No the “voice-oriented improvement system.” Things get better for employee and employer when we find out what's not working and don’t do more than we can do well.

This same report said that people are speaking up at work—they tend to be extroverts—and there is not the negative repercussions to it that are feared. People live to talk about it.


I do an exercise in my workshops where people who set boundaries share with those who don’t what happens when boundaries are verbalized. Sometimes nothing. Sometimes static, but often the boundary sticks and the person is actually respected more for it. They are not sent to the gulag.

Oftentimes, managers don’t know how many things you’re working on. Clarify. with them the tasks you’re doing. Your duties and schedules can help him/her see that it doesn’t make sense to have you do an excessive number of things poorly that don’t reflect the real priorities.

Most people today are in retaliatory mode all day, simply reacting to devices and what comes at them. That drives a lot of action and assignments without thought. You can bring that thinking into the equation by asking questions and offering more productive solutions than the task or the schedule that takes you beyond the capacity of physiology and excellence.

Boundaries give everyone a clear picture of where things stand, which is what you want to be able to do at the end of the day. 

If you or your organization could use some adjustments in the area of boundaries, click the button below for more information on our stress management, work-life balance, and productivity development trainings.

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Tags: overwhelm, work overload, workaholism, setting boundaries at work, overtime costs, work life balance programs, burnout, chronic stress

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