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How People Leaders Can Remove Barriers to Work-Life Integration

how people leaders can remove work-life integration barriers

If you’ve been hanging around this space for a while, you may know that I find the term “work-life balance” to be woefully inadequate for the world we’re trying to create. Instead, I advocate for creating a human-centered work-life integration. That means alternative work rhythms that deviate from the traditional 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday work schedule.

Finding ways to help us work less and produce more, ward off burnout, and create rituals of rest crucial to our overall well-being is central to our mission of building better workplaces for People. There are many ways these rhythms can come to life, including 

  • Flexible start and end times.
  • Compressed workweeks.
  • Telecommuting (also known as working remotely).

However, it’s ultimately up to the people leaders in your organization to build this kind of culture. They’ll follow suit if you live and model a rhythm that prioritizes your and your team’s well-being. 

How Leaders Can Model Human-Centered Work-Life Integration

When I’m asked in interviews what shift I’d like to see normalized in the next five years, I almost always answer with the practice of leaders placing importance not on working hours but on the value an individual adds to the business. When we can get leadership to shift into this mindset, we open the doors to a human-centered work-life rhythm that prioritizes well-being.

The list below is not exhaustive, but these are some of the “low-hanging fruit” we see having the greatest impact on the success of your team members in our day-to-day client work:

Practice what you preach regarding taking breaks and using vacation and sick leave. Leaders can model rest rituals and encourage their team members to do the same. Reduce stress and burnout and improve your productivity and well-being.

Set boundaries around leadership availability and communication after work. By setting guidelines and expectations, leaders can ensure everyone is on the same page. For example, they can designate specific times for responding to emails or calls. They can also clarify that they do not expect their team members to be constantly on call. Providing support and resources to their team members can also help them create boundaries. By doing so, team members can de-center work from their lives, avoid burnout, and have sufficient time to rest and recharge.

Ensure that all vacation and sick time is being used. Leaders should not penalize team members for taking time off when needed. By encouraging team members to take vacation and sick leave, managers create a culture that values work-life integration and recognizes the importance of rest. 

Some team members may be reluctant to take time off because they feel guilty or worried about the workload they will return to. Be sure to offer support and resources to help team members feel more comfortable taking their allocated time away. This could include reprioritizing projects or temporarily stepping into their role to help with workload management.

Include moments of self-care in your team culture on a micro and macro level. It can be as simple as reminding team members to take breaks throughout the day or as significant as encouraging them to take time off to recover.

Leaders can directly affect their team’s work-life rhythm by fostering a team environment that values and promotes the specific behaviors discussed above. However, these behaviors must be supported by a high level of psychological safety.

Busting Myths About Work-Life Balance

There may be some anxiety when a significant deviation from the norm occurs, even if the change is for the better. As a leader, however, you should eliminate yourself from being a barrier to your team. To help my clients navigate the complexity of any evolving approach, I encourage them to focus on how they can most effectively help team members. It will allow them to thrive instead of just surviving.

Whenever significant policies are updated, leaders may feel a sense of loss. Often, this is caused by misunderstandings about what work-life rhythms can look like for team members. 

Myth #1: If we allow more flexibility in work schedules, productivity and profitability will be negatively affected.

There are several arguments I can make to refute the notion that allowing more flexibility in work schedules will negatively affect productivity and profitability. But here’s what we know to be true: Flexible work arrangements can increase productivity because team members are more motivated and engaged when they have control over their time. Not convinced? These studies share similar findings:

  1. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that team members with flexible work arrangements were more productive, had higher job satisfaction, and were less likely to experience burnout than team members who did not have flexible work arrangements.
  2. A survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that team members who had flexible work arrangements were more productive and had higher job satisfaction than team members who did not have flexible work arrangements.
  3. A study published in the Journal of Human Resource Management found that team members with flexible work arrangements had higher levels of work engagement, which was associated with increased productivity.
  4. A survey conducted by the FlexJobs website found that 81% of team members who had flexible work arrangements reported increased productivity, and 78% reported better work-life integration.

Myth #2: Work-life balance is only for working parents.

Is it common for parents and guardians to be forced to take unplanned or “inconvenient” time off from work? Yes. As a parent or caregiver, they must deal with those possibilities every day. 

That said, work-life integration is essential for everyone, regardless of whether they care for a family member. We all have commitments and responsibilities outside of work, and we all need to find a rhythm that works for us. 

Myth #3: Not being able to find a work-life balance is a personal problem, not an organizational issue.

Some companies have policies and systems that make alternative work schedules challenging. Still, work-life integration is not just a personal issue but a systemic one involving an organization’s policies, practices, and culture. Companies can support team members in finding a rhythm that works for their lives by using the same policies, procedures, and culture.

Myth #4: Poor work-life balance results from poor time management.

Despite its importance, other factors besides time management contribute to work-life integration. Managing stress, prioritizing your commitments, and setting boundaries around your work and personal time is also vital.

Myth #5: If I can’t balance my work and personal commitments perfectly 50/50, I’m failing.

The key to finding work-life integration is discovering a rhythm that fits your personal and professional goals. Over time, work and personal commitments may fluctuate. When you are at different stages of your life, it’s okay to prioritize one over the other. You’re not failing; you’re human.

Overcoming Senior Leadership Objections on Work-Life Integrations

Our organizations face real challenges when moving from surviving to thriving. To be an effective leader, you must diagnose the entire situation, regulate the heat of those around you, and experiment quickly. Give your senior leaders the information they might need to feel confident about modifying policies by helping them move into an experimenter’s mindset:

  • Build a business case on the benefits at the micro level for your team, such as increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and turnover. If your company runs annual team member surveys, you should incorporate relevant feedback and coordinate focus groups and interview to bring qualitative findings to your leadership.
  • To build leadership buy-in and support, involve your senior leadership in planning any proposed changes.
  • Encourage your senior leadership to experience the change firsthand by trial-running the proposed behaviors. It could be as simple as asking them to take breaks, utilize their vacation and sick leave, and unplug from work after hours.

However you approach it, work collaboratively with your senior leaders to overcome barriers to creating a better work-life integration so that your people can begin to truly thrive.

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Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.

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