Work-Life Balance and Employee Engagement

Recognizing the signs of imbalance and how to foster a life-work culture

work-life balance

How many of us know (or are) self-confessed, personally obsessed workaholics?  The first misnomer many tend to make is to draw a link between work-life balance and employee engagement. TalentMap’s research shows this link is tenuous at best.  At one of the highest performing companies in Canada with an overall favorable engagement score of 87 percent, employees ranked work-life balance 13 out of 14 engagement drivers. Almost 30 percent of employee survey respondents questioned the work-life balance, giving it a neutral or unfavorable score.  Why? Because when people are engaged and putting in a lot more discretionary effort, some of those people tend to suffer on the work-life side.

And since it’s such an individual issue we tend to sluff work-life balance issues off on the individual. Over the years that’s been ingrained in us, especially when leaders like Jack Welsh at GE say things like, “there’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.” Some people may think that’s unfair. Others may think it’s entirely appropriate.


What different studies tell us and we all know from our own observations, is that technology can have a nefarious effect on the individual. This techno-invasion creates a situation where employees can potentially be reached anywhere and anytime, and feel the need to be constantly connected.  Employees feel compulsive about being connected, forced to respond to work-related information in real time, trapped in almost habitual multi-tasking, with little time to spend on sustained tasks or sustained thinking. We’ve all seen the blackberry or smartphone addict. And what about those people who take computers and laptops and other electronic devices with them on vacation? Not being connected causes people to lose their sense of importance to the organization.


Autonomy & Control

A fascinating piece published in the American Sociological Review looked at a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This study followed 700 highly skilled tech professionals - divided into two groups. Prior to the study, all 700 employees reported working long hours (more than 50 hours a week). Some worked remotely from home but indicated they faced some pressure to be visible at the office.

  • Group One - the Treatment Group - were given greater control over when and where they worked. The supervisors they reported to provided more explicit support for their families and personal lives.
  • Group Two – the Control Group – essentially continued to work in conditions that remained unchanged.

Over the experiment’s six-month period, there was a significant reduction in work-family conflict (that chronic sense of being pulled in two different directions).

Adjustments in management’s thinking about when and where work gets done and support for employees’ lives outside work led to system-wide flexibility - relieving pressure, i) without burdening those who work conventionally and ii) without placing the onus on individual workers to figure out how to achieve balance.

Parents reported working one hour less per week than non-parents. Other workers, single workers, those without family or kids didn’t have to increase workloads to accommodate parents.

Overall the Treatment Group reported they felt more in control, less overwhelmed and had adequate time to spend with families. As for productivity, this same group nearly doubled the average hours of work at home (almost 10 to 20 hours per week).

Signs of Work-life Imbalance

How do you know if your organization suffers from a work-life imbalance? Ask yourself the following:

  • “Face-time” – do people feel they will be judged poorly by their peers and/or supervisors if they’re not physically present?
  • Do peers and supervisors equate presence with productivity and output?
    • “If I don’t see you, I don’t think you’re working”
  • Is performance recognized by work quantity rather than quality?
    • “She’s very responsive – she’ll answer an e-mail day or night”
    • “He’s great. He’s always here late into the evening”
    • “He’s not a team player – always leaves before 6:00”
  • Are meetings or calls held at odd hours?
    • “Because it shows you’re committed”
  • Is there disorganization, a lack of consideration for others’ time, last minute requests?
    • At 3:30 Friday afternoon – “I absolutely need this by Monday morning”
    • Meetings never start on time – “Because being there on time would be interpreted as not being busy enough – and the senior person always arrives last.
  • Is procrastination and lower productivity apparent?
    • “I’ll be here till 8:00 anyway, I’ll get it done later.”
  • Is there a sense of self-preservation? Do employees deflect tasks and avoid accountability?
    • “I’m already overloaded this weekend – sorry.”
  • Do people vie for a “Badge of Honour”?
    • “OMG – I’m so busy!”
    • “I’ll look at this over the weekend….”
    • “It’s just part of the business”
    • I’ve been divorced twice! My partner couldn’t accept the ‘lifestyle’

How do you create a life-work culture?

It’s about management actions. Understanding employees’ needs and concerns. Being available (keep those office doors wide open). Extending support when challenges are encountered. Trusting employees and giving feedback. These four steps can help your organization create a stronger work-life culture.

STEP 1: Policies & Practice


While “culture” begins at the top, leadership must demonstrate it takes work-life balance seriously by instituting policies and practices around:

  • Work hours and job design
    • Restricted hours, minimal work required during off-hours
  • Organizational culture
    • Minimize negative norms such as “no one leaves until 7:00 p.m., no internal meetings after 4:30 p.m.”
  • Incentives which encourage balancing work and life
    • “Use it or lose it” vacation policy, incentives for not claiming sick/personal days, etc.
  • More flexible work/telecommuting arrangements
    • Pay attention to equity and fairness; some jobs lend themselves better to this than others and inequity is often a source of strife
  • Wellness and benefits
    • Gym memberships with “use or lose” provisions
    • Child and elder care provisions
    • Paid paternity leave
    • Adoption assistance

STEP 2: Address the Impact of Technology


A Google study identified two types of workers in terms of how they deal with competing demands:

  1. Segmenters: cleanly separate work and personal activities
  2. Integrators: find work looms constantly in the background. They not only find themselves checking email all evening, but press refresh again and again to see if new messages have come in (demonstrating the compulsiveness inherent in technostress)
    • Of note: 69% of integrators indicated a desire to achieve a better separation but couldn’t do it on their own.

Google’s strategy:

  • Help employees disconnect by designing environments which make it easier for employees to disconnect i.e.: “Dublin goes Dark”
  • Charity fines for those who respond to off-hour e-mails

STEP 3: Address the Culture


To address root causes and change your organization’s culture:

  • Base performance on output, deliverables, and quality. Delete ANY inference to performance based on physical presence
  • Recognize and reward the performance of individuals who work from home or outside the office (of course, if performance warrants)
  • Lead by example:
    • Be aware others are watching how long you’re in the office
    • Be open about working outside the office on a regular basis
    • Devalue “badge of honor” comments
    • Manage external pressures by negotiating reasonable deadlines and pressures, at every possible instance.
  • Always arrange for major deadlines on Fridays. NEVER Mondays.


Keep at it! Shout it out!

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