Working Smarter

The Work-Life Balance Imperative: Why Excess and Overload Are at Odds with the Human Mandate

Posted by Joe Robinson

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When your car is out of alignment, you know it. It drifts into the other lane when you take your hand off the wheel, and you wind up fighting your own vehicle to stay on the path. So you take it to the shop and get the wheels balanced. When humans are misaligned by overwhelm, 60-hour weeks, or five hours of sleep a night, we know it too.

That’s because our physiology was designed to function with all systems operating in tandem at a level the brain can manage most efficiently, known as homeostasis. It’s another way of saying we are born to be balanced.

When we’re not, we drift out of our physical and mental lanes into exhaustion, stress, and serious illnesses and diseases that burn up our health and performance like unbalanced wheels burn rubber—for nothing.


You wouldn’t know it from the state of the world or the sales of Tums, but staying aligned is a favorite topic inside each our heads and bodies. In one study, researchers measured what happens in the brain when it’s confronted with crazy, dissonant music with no discernible melody. The MRI scanner captured brain neurons furiously firing away, trying to find something, anything resembling a pattern.

They were looking for harmony, things in melodic equilibrium. Finding none, they couldn’t do their job, which is making sense out of the scrambled hash in front of us every day.

Another study measured what it is that people like about good dancers, which obviously we do, considering the number of dancing contests we have on the air and the appreciation of clever footwork going back to Fred Astaire and Soul Train. Researchers digitized the figures of the dancers, so the study’s participants wouldn’t be distracted by looks or clothes to go for the coolest or most beautiful person's moves. It turned out that what we are attracted to in the best dancers is their symmetry, the flow of body movements—harmony once again.

What is work-life balance in light of these findings? Balance is a built-in mandate, from balanced minds, to meals to work-life balance. Someone who is unbalanced we tend to want to give a wide berth to.

We can see that maintaining equilibrium is an essential part of the physiology and not a frill by the body’s own balancing acts to counter stress. As Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky puts it in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “a stressor can be defined as anything that throws your body out of allostatic balance and the stress-response is your body’s attempt to restore allostasis.”


When a threat overloads capacity to handle it, it sets off autonomic activation of the body’s defense system to cope with it, the stress-response triggering an alert that gushes hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol, jacks up blood pressure, rounds up energy stores in the body to push blood to the arms and legs to fight or run from the danger, and stops energy storage, unneeded when life is on the line.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

The activation process burns up energetic resources, such as fats and sugars, which have to be replaced. No problem. The body’s counterbalance squad, the parasympathetic system, is there to put a brake on the hyper-arousal and fuel-burning with its mandate—rest and digest. It makes us hungry for foods that can help us replace the lost nutrients (which can wind up to be junk food, if that’s what’s handy), and serves to calm us down after the threat is gone.

When the activation system of stress isn’t shut down, and we can’t return to allostasis for long periods of time or chronically, it can lead to any number of major health issues that we could term diseases and syndromes of imbalance. Irritable bowel. Hypertension. Diabetes. Stroke. Insomnia. Back pain. Adrenal dysfunction. Chronic fatigue syndrome. We get sick when we can’t counterbalance the forces throwing our system out of whack.

A mind out-of-balance because of excess demands and the chronic stress that results from them has less attention and focus, which undercuts performance on the job or anywhere else. Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis of the moment. You can’t plan or see the big picture. Emotions are on a hair-trigger. Rapport with customers or colleagues plummets.

It takes more effort for a fatigued mind to get anything done. Every task seems more difficult than it is as the strain of rumination keeps minds projecting an obsessive loop of worries.

One of the afflictions trending these days in many workplaces is Attention Deficit Trait. It’s not something you are born with, like Attention Deficit Disorder, but it mimics the symptoms—highly distracted, hard to stick with a task, flitting from one thing to the next, time urgency, shrunken attention span. It’s a condition that comes from overstuffing brain cells with excess demands, information overload, and various short-circuiting that comes from trying to do too much without a clone at your side. It’s your brain’s warning light that the gray matter is severely unbalanced.


We tend to procrastinate about things we don’t feel have value. Clearly, balance shouldn’t be one of those things. It is invaluable, crucial to our health, critical thinking, performance, and outlook. When we don’t pay attention to it, the default is to overload, chronic stress, burnout, and an unconscious mechanical momentum that perpetuates all of that.

Taking work-life balance seriously is a process of proactive self-management and awareness. We need to be aware of stress when we are in the middle of it, aware of emotional reactions and moods when we are in the middle of them, aware of where boundaries are needed, aware of demands that overwhelm coping ability, aware that we have to engage in work recovery processes after the day is done to enable the body’s balancing resources to shut down the activation of demands and start the re-creation process.

With awareness, we can catch ourselves and do what we need to dispute stress, solve challenges, restore the body’s natural recovery processes, and find the counterbalance to get back to where we once belonged, as Lennon-McCartney once put it.

If you would like to inject balance into your team or organization and the engagement that comes with it, click the button below for details on my work-life balance training programs and keynotes.

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Tags: work-life balance and productivity, work-life balance and stress, physiology of balance, work life balance and the mind

6 Signs Your Team Needs a Work-Life Balance Intervention

Posted by Joe Robinson

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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 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.

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— 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.


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.

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Tags: work-life balance and productivity, why have a work-life balance program, when a company needs work-life balance

How to Stop Working the Hard Way

Posted by Joe Robinson


Humans are prone to doing whatever takes the least effort—even though our brains want us to do the opposite and challenge ourselves. We are a little contradictory. The high brain wants the gratification of growth, while for the autopilot brain the default is to instant gratification and expending as little effort as possible. The TV remote may be the ultimate instrument for this impulse.

At the office, the “easy” reflex results in rote and last-minute behavior, along with the anemic productivity that comes with them. It’s why I usually hear from clients when overwhelm has peaked or work-life balance survey scores are underwater. 


It may seem like it’s easier to work on rote and avoid change, but it’s actually much harder, as clients learn in our work-life balance trainings. When we are stuck on reflex, that keeps us locked in habits that drive stress, slow us down, and make tasks more aggravating than they actually are.

Take interruptions, for example. Left unmanaged, they not only make it much harder to focus and finish the task you are on, but they also make anything you do seem more difficult than it is. They change the perception of the work to something harder. So which is easier? Managing interruptions or being managed by them?

It’s a no-brainer, as it is when it comes to letting devices call the shots or corralling them, so we are in charge. Do nothing and unbounded devices and messaging run amok, adding to workloads and disruptions that slow everyone down. Do out-of-control messaging and constant disruptions make the work easier or harder? Cut the volume of email and check it at set schedules, and you can reduce the amount of interruptions from 96 (checking every five minutes) to three or four times a day, the most productive checking schedules, report researchers at U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State.

We can all free up hours of time to focus and get work done with a system that manages messaging. This makes changing how we work a lot easier than being bombarded by the anarchy of the status quo. But the law of least effort is seductive and most people today are also caught up in the autopilot of busy-ness, a condition that makes us think we can’t stop for a second, or it will be apocalypse now.


Work-life balance is a process of stopping for a moment to find easier ways to work, of getting tools to carve out the space to live a quality life and take care of personal responsibilities and map out a healthier road to success. In our work-life balance programs we bring your team the best strategies vetted by the research to stop doing things the hard way and start doing things the smart way.

Bad work-life balance survey scores and crazy-busy workplaces rife with overwhelm are clues that things could be done a lot easier. If your team is drowning in meetings and teleconferences, that’s doing it the hard way. If deadlines are out of whack with reality, that’s doing it the hard way. If people are working in a way that drives stress and burnout, that is really doing it the hard way. Stress undermines intellect and drives irrational decisions.

A host of research and best practices tells us that we don’t have to do it the hard way. Instead, with the right self-management, boundaries, and effective norms, any team or organization can get work done faster, communicate more clearly, de-clutter brains, and help employees activate  lives off the job too. It all comes from avoiding the temptation to keep muddling through with the same-old, same-old.

Work-life balance training is about solving problems, taking inefficient habits and turning them into effective practices that create the space to think and manage demands and devices. It’s a collaboration in which we work together to identify the bottlenecks and pressure points that drive productivity and work-life south and get solutions that make work and life easier.


I’m working with a client now on a post-work-life balance training sustainment program, two months of developing and practicing skills of sustainable performance. The managers of this global firm, with offices from Stuttgart to Hong Kong, Brazil, and the U.S, are super-enthused as we troubleshoot bottlenecks, set new norms, and make their days more effective. Each new practice they use to manage information or global time zones, or strengthen the work-family perimeter inspires more employee engagement—the very extra effort our species has an aversion to at the most basic level.

It turns out that effort isn’t a problem for people who are encouraged to participate and solve problems. In fact, we all are designed to be self-starters, to have a hand in writing our own script. Initiative and proactive behavior pay off core psychological needs, such as competence, autonomy, and connection with others as well as the quest our brain neurons have for novelty and challenge—the two key elements in long-term fulfillment 

So when it comes to working smarter with a work-life balance training, it’s a win-win-win-win. We improve work effectiveness, satisfy core needs, unleash the fulfilling powers of novelty and challenge, and inspire the discretionary effort that comes from employee engagement. And along the way, we make work, and life, a whole lot easier.

If you would like more information on our work-life balance training program, click the button below for details.

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Tags: employee engagement training, work-life balance trainings, overwhelm, information overload programs, employee development programs, work effectiveness, work life balance, work-life balance and productivity

A New Productivity Model Based on Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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The traditional measuring stick of productivity has been endurance—whoever can work the longest or send emails at 2 in the morning. It’s based on a flawed notion that in the knowledge economy where brainpower rules that a fatigued brain is where it’s at for getting things done.

In fact, MRI scans of fatigued brains look exactly like ones that are sound asleep. The chief productivity tool is attention, and that goes AWOL after three hours of continuous time on task, studies show (Boksem, Meijman, Lorist). 


Productivity comes from a very different place than burnout and fatigue, from the opposite place than we have been led to believe—from brains that are refreshed and energized. And where do those come from?

The data tells us from organizations that take work-life balance seriously. It turns out that work-life balance is much more than a check-off box on an employee survey. It’s the prerequisite for work performance and engagement. It gives employees the tools and encouragement to work more effectively, to take care of their health, improve skills, and work in a way that makes them feel valued.

People who feel they have good work-life balance work 21% harder than those who don’t, reports the Corporate Executive Board, which represents about 80% of the Fortune 500. Gallup found that engaged employees are 28% more productive than those who aren't engaged. But only 29% of workers are engaged. American businesses leave more than $300 billion on the table in lost productivity every year due to disengaged employees.

Naturally, every company wants employee engagement, which means that employees put forth discretionary effort beyond the call of duty. What makes an employee do more than what's necessary? Certainly not a fatigued brain. The key dimension of engaged employees is energy, vigor.

That can’t come from people who are following the Burnout Model of productivity. The main marker of burnout and chronic stress is exhaustion, the polar opposite of engagement. All energetic resources have been depleted—mentally, physically, emotionally.


It’s time for a new performance model, one that’s actually based on what the science says works. Let’s trade exhaustion for the Sustainable Performance Model and focused attention. The goal is to eliminate the bottlenecks that drain attention and engagement through things such as interruption and information management, making operations more effective and less aggravating with better time management, managing demands, refueling the brain, and allowing employees the sense that they can take adequate care of responsibilities outside the office. 

In other words, make work-life balance an integral part of the operations and workflow of the team or organization. When the goal is working in a way that strengthens attention, well-being, trust, communication, wellness, and value, it doesn’t take a brain scientist to see that people are more inclined to give not just their all, but more than that, the discretionary effort of employee engagement.

Work-life balance sets the stage for engagement, making employees feel valued, competent, trusted, and that they are a part of the mission, participants, not just cogs. Companies with high participation levels have a 19% higher return on investment, a study by Edward Lawler found.

Every company should want their employees to have better work-life balance, since that leads to the energy, commitment, and involvement that creates engagement. Every company should want their employees to have better self-management and be more proactive. When they are, we can delegate more, more ideas come forward, better communication reduces conflict, and we eliminate stress levels that fuel turnover (40% of people who quit cite stress as the main factor in leaving) and bad decisions.


The Burnout Model leads to ill and drained employees who are there physically but mentally depleted—the condition known as presenteeism, which costs U.S. companies more than $150 billion per year. The Sustainable Performance Model produces team members whose brains are energized and focused on going the extra mile. Which is the better choice?

As a new generation that prizes work-life balance starts to play a bigger role in the workplace, the timing has never been better to integrate a comprehensive work-life program in every organization. There is a tectonic shift in corporate culture under way led by millennials and their values, and the Sustainable Performance Model of work-life balance can lead the way. It’s a no-brainer for millennials—for productivity, commitment, wellness, and satisfaction.

How do you get started? Start with our comprehensive employee Work-Life Balance training that brings the strategies of the latest science to help your team work smarter and live better. We also offer a follow-up program that sustains the new behaviors, builds in new protocols and norms, and identifies challenges and solutions. Aftwards, everyone wonders why they didn't do this years ago. Let common sense and work-life balance demonstrate that there's another road to success, instead of one that is best described by an old Monty Python routine, "Being Hit on the Head Lessons."

If you would like more information, please click on the button below for details and rates on our programs.

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Tags: work-life balance training, presenteeism, avoiding burnout, employee development programs, employee engagement, work life balance programs, work life balance, work-life balance and employee engagement, work-life balance and productivity, work-life balance and millennials, millennials

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