Jason Brennan, Director of Leadership and Wellness at Wrkit says a healthy work-life balance requires us to being able to ‘unplug’ from work – how can employers support staff to make this happen?
The recent criticisms from young Goldman Sachs employees over how they are expected to work 95 hours a week have highlighted a dangerous attitude towards what constitutes a healthy work-life balance. In fact in a recent survey conducted across 46 countries, 89% of respondents said their work-life balance was getting worse, while 85% said their wellbeing has declined, highlighting that this issue is not only global but is also growing.
One of the key issues surrounding employees’ inability to maintain a healthy work-life balance is not being able to ‘unplug’ from work.
The development of digital technologies has indisputably changed the way we work, and while it may have revolutionised the way we live in many positive ways, it has made it fundamentally harder for workers to unplug themselves while on a break or after leaving the office. As most people continue to carry access to their work email inboxes and other communications tools like Slack, around with them, it can be tempting to carry on working, and to be seen to be working, outside of contracted hours.
This issue has only increased as many of us have been working from home, as it has become harder to separate work-life and home life when they exist in the same space. This problem is likely to continue with the extension of the work from home order and businesses such as HSBC making the work from home switch a permanent one for significant parts of the workforce.
Impacts on psyche
While businesses may originally believe that this increase in the amount of work people are doing is a positive, as it should increase output, it can actually have the adverse effect on productivity. The specific inability to unplug ourselves from our devices has led to proven impacts on workers’ psyche, including being linked to raising stress levels and increasing social anxiety. All of which can negatively affect productivity.
An unhealthy work-life balance and an inability to arrange time to de-stress can lead to employee burn out, which is often linked to serious mental health issues. In turn, this increase is having a significant impact on businesses, with mental health absences thought to cost the UK economy £26 billion per year.
89% of respondents said their work-life balance was getting worse
Helping employees to limit their work-based technology use outside of working hours can help with brain recovery that a Kansas State University study linked to a reduction in stress. Diminishing an employees’ ‘downtime’ outside of work reduces the time allowed for the brain to recover. Managers and directors should be leading by example and seeking to only contact employees outside of work hours in the case of emergency.
Excessive technological use, especially when it is tied to stress such as in a work capacity can also affect a person’s ability to maintain a healthy sleeping schedule. Reduction in sleep can increase the likelihood of mental health complications and will make it harder for employees to carry out their work-related tasks to a high standard.
Additionally, facilitating a working environment that promotes ‘unplugging’ from work can actually help employees to improve their focus. Employees who are trying to juggle both a home and work life simultaneously will have their focus split, which will increase their chances of making mistakes at work and quality of work can suffer. A 2013 study revealed those who have a greater tendency to multi-task are actually less skilled at it than those who multitask infrequently. Putting policies in place that allow for employees to separate work and home will inevitably result in a more focused and productive workforce.
It is good practice for employers to reassure their workforce of the importance of wellbeing and emphasise that their mental health should come first. Employees who are reassured that their employment doesn’t rest upon working in excess of what has been asked of them are more likely to use their downtime to unplug and unwind from work. These practices can also make employees more committed to their place of employment if they believe they are being placed before output.
Additionally, making sure your working environment is built around this idea, and that burnout practices don’t become part of the work or office culture will encourage employees to balance their commitments in a healthy way. This includes offering flexible working hours and employee benefits so that employees will feel valued and that their needs are being heard.
Finally, while there has been a shift to working from home, as lockdown restrictions start to ease there is also a need for workplaces to incorporate ‘unplugging’ measures into office spaces. That can include simple workplace modifications, such as providing office space away from desks for employees to take their lunch breaks so they will be less tempted to work through lunch, giving their brain time to recover.
The importance that investment into employee wellbeing and employee health can have for a business in preventing burnout, increasing productivity and also improving long-term employee retention cannot be understated. There are plenty of small changes that can be made to a working environment that will make a noticeable difference to your workforce’s satisfaction and mental health, that subsequently will help to improve employee commitment overall.