Over the last few years work-life balance has become one of those buzzy phrases that it seems like everyone is eager to talk about. Organizations of all sizes, across a variety of industries are discussing the importance of work-life balance. Tips to ‘achieve work-life balance’ are everywhere.

Many organizations have taken the talk to heart and are taking realistic steps to establish work-life balance. But there are many others that leave finding work-life balance up to their employees. There’s one problem with that hands-off strategy: work-life balance only works if the organizational culture permits it. It’s on employers to make work-life balance possible. Is your organization on the right side? Below are realistic strategies employers can take to establish a realistic work-life balance.


set clear expectations

All your employees should have a clear and up-to-date job description. Knowing how work is divided and what each individual person is responsible for ensures that nothing falls through the cracks and no one is saddled with an overwhelming workload when crunch time comes.

Clearly outline the number of hours employees work, including how overtime is handled. North American culture often valorizes workaholic culture in an unhealthy way. It’s not necessary to outline minute-by-minute when employees should or shouldn’t be at work, however it is important that employees can set boundaries about when they work and when they don’t. For instance, a full-time salaried employee is typically expected to work 35-45 hours per week. Being salaried doesn’t mean an employee is always on-call, unless that’s clearly outlined in their contract.

encourage employees to take vacations

In Canada, employees must receive a minimum of 10 days of vacation each year. Many employers offer even more. But the reality of using that time off can be complicated and workaholics are often lauded for their unhealthy approach to work. With the expectations and pressure placed on workers (many of whom don’t have adequate back-up to perform their duties if they’re not present) many employees don’t feel comfortable using their rightfully earned vacation time. Canadians leave more than 31 million vacation days unused each year. In the past, we’ve discussed the benefits of vacations and taking downtime. Though it seems counter intuitive to some managers, productivity actually increases when you encourage employees to take downtime to refresh and reset.

offer balance days

Balance or personal days are different than vacation days. They’re available to employees who need a day to take a break and re-calibrate when they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Vacations are often planned well in advance, and often coincide with holidays or events like weddings, which employees have little control over. So vacations don’t always occur when they’re needed most. Balance days allow employees to take a short break when they need time to de-stress or tend to their mental health. Make sure it’s easy for employees to access their balance days and they don’t have to jump through hoops to use them. A no-questions-asked policy can be one approach to ensure that workers feel safe using them.

respect break times

The human brain works best when it has time to rest in between tasks. A recent study showed that people need a break every 90 minutes in order to maintain 100% focus. After 90 minutes of focusing on a task, people show signs of fatigue both physically and mentally and their productivity drops. Taking a short 5-minute break to grab a drink of water or stretch your legs allows you to reset mentally, and get into a head-space that will be more productive in the end.

That’s why it’s important for employers to respect break times. Some workplaces encourage unhealthy workaholic habits (such as skipping breaks or eating lunch at your desk) that can harm employees’ mental and physical health. Designate lunch hour as work-free times. Encourage employees to use their breaks to get outside, take a walk, or otherwise disengage from work. Implement a rule that everyone has to get up from their desk to eat lunch. Even if it means heading to the company lunch room, that time away from your workspace matters.

reject ‘always on’ work

Always-on work refers to the practice of treating workers as if they’re always available to work, even when they’re not physically at work. Always-on work has become a complicated issue since the rise of smartphones and mobile devices makes it easy to stay connected to work at all times. However there are steps employers can take to reduce always-on work habits:

  • don’t treat employees as ‘always on the clock’ just because they’re salaried
  • don’t expect emails, texts, IMs or phone calls to be answered immediately, especially if they’re sent outside of typical work hours
  • respect downtime and vacations; if an employee is off the clock, have zero expectations about them responding to requests or completing work
  • have contingency plans in place for all tasks; when work needs to be completed urgently and a worker isn’t immediately available, have a back-up plan ready

lead by example

Workers are more likely to feel comfortable exercising healthy work-life balance if they see their leaders doing so. Ask leaders to model healthy behaviour and employees will follow suit. Encourage managers and executives to adopt flexible work habits, use their vacation days, and respect reasonable working hours. Workaholic managers can harm your culture. Even if these managers don’t explicitly ask their direct reports to follow their punishing schedule, it can have a detrimental effect on employee health, wellness and job satisfaction. Employees often feel pressured to take on unhealthy habits to impress their boss (such as staying at work until their manager leaves, or skipping lunches.) Ensure your leaders explain what’s expected of their direct reports, and keep the lines of communication open so employees feel comfortable bringing their concerns about work-life balance to their manager.

don’t police vacations

Recognize that using vacation time doesn’t mean an employee is less dedicated or hardworking. Everyone needs time to themselves once in a while and they’re free to use that time when and however they want. Unless there’s a good reason to deny someone’s vacation, such as lack of coverage because of other vacations happening at the same time, do everything you can to respect vacation requests. Workers are entitled to use the vacation day they’ve earned. Even if their plan is to stay home and chill on the couch, that’s their choice to make. Staycationers are often saddled with the expectation that because they’re not going on a ‘real’ vacation that they will be available for priority work or checking emails. Aim to make vacations an escape from work, regardless of how employees choose to spend them.

be flexible and adapt

If an employee needs flexibility to deal with a personal situation, accommodating them is in your best interest. Today’s workplaces are moving away from the 9-to-5 workday and toward more flexible schedules that allow for employees to manage their time. If you’re punishing employees when they’re a few minutes late for work, or need to leave work early for an appointment, you’re harming your culture and reputation as an employer. Trust employees to manage their workload. As long as they’re turning in their work on time and as expected, allow them the freedom to choose how it’s done. Canada’s unemployment rate is at the lowest it’s been in decades and employees have more choices than ever. Don’t be that employer who is hung up on arbitrary rules or schedules at the expense of employee happiness and well-being. A little respect and adaptability will earn you goodwill and keep employees around long-term.

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