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It’s easy to think about a good work-life balance as resolutely taking all of your holiday and going for a jog at lunch. But a surprising amount of achieving a healthy balance relies on the actions we take at work. It’s about finding ways to work effectively, and then properly switching off when we’re not working – which is harder than it sounds.
While a successful work-life balance looks different for everyone, getting it ‘right’ means we feel healthier, more productive and able to fully focus on what we’re doing at home or at work.
That focus is good for business. And a recent study by Aviva found that balance is good for recruitment, too: 36% of employees said they were attracted to their current role thanks to the salary, while 41% said it was the work-life balance that got them to sign on the dotted line.
So, how can managers model the behaviours that’ll keep their team feeling like mentally resilient and well-rounded people? In this guide, we’ll look at ideas in two key work-life camps:
- How to work when when you’re at work (or, shortcuts to focus and productivity)
- How to stop thinking about work when you’re not there (or, ways to properly disconnect)
What are the benefits of a healthy work-life balance?
Keeping a bit of time and space between our jobs and our home lives means we can turn up to work feeling mentally refreshed. Big decisions feel easier, deadlines feel less daunting, and our relationships with colleagues (and family members, for that matter) all seem to run a little smoother. Physically, we’re well rested and energised by our hobbies or a fulfilling social life. We’re bursting with innovative ideas inspired by places and media outside of our immediate professional industry.
For businesses, all this means a more motivated team, increased productivity, improved retention and an altogether happier workforce. These are big claims, but for the evidence, we have to consider the flip side of the coin: how does our wellbeing suffer when we’re not achieving a good enough work-life balance?
Download our ‘Right to Disconnect’ policy template
The risks of overworking
Back in 2021, we teamed up with charlieHR to survey 1,460 employees across the UK and found that an alarming 79% of them often felt close to burnout at work. Burnout is a kind of chronic workplace stress that causes a painful cocktail of symptoms like exhaustion, negativity and ineffectiveness. Burnout isn’t always caused by overworking, but it is closely related to a feeling of imbalance that’s rooted in our relationship with work and the control we feel we have (or don’t have) in our role.
Longer hours and being contactable 24/7 also have a part to play in a poor work-life balance. Despite having the tech at our fingertips to be more productive, we’re actually working longer hours than we were before. According to a 2019 study by RescueTime looking at 185 million working hours,
- 40% of people use their work computers after 10 pm
- 26% of work is done outside of normal working hours
Lots of us have bought into the idea that 8 hours of paid work means 8 hours at 100% productivity, so we end up making up for ‘lost time’ (or time we’ve spent having meetings, communicating with our teams and…thinking) after work. It’s a dangerous precedent. And naturally, achieving a good work-life balance is even trickier now more of us are working from home with our dining tables doubling as a desk.
Psychologically speaking, long hours spent at work (or at home but working) mean we begin to tie our whole identity to our job. This is exaggerated if we happen to work for a purpose-driven brand that we joined enthusiastically because it aligned with our personal interests and values. We start taking work criticism to heart, and stepping away from our desk at the end of the day gets harder and harder to do. Our self-esteem suffers, long hours start to interfere with our sleep cycles and diets, and our bodies are exposed to prolonged stress in a way that they were never designed to cope with.
- Employees who work 55 hours a week have a higher risk of stroke and heart disease.
- Long working hours are a risk factor for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
- Sick leave due to poor mental health was the top cause of time off work in the UK in 2021.
In short, overwork is a serious health risk. It can interfere with our sleep, our diet and our mental and physical wellbeing. But overworking isn’t just about the hours you’re physically at your workplace – it’s about the hours you spend thinking about work, too.
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14 ways to improve your team’s work-life balance
Making wellbeing a visible priority for everyone in your business is a big job. But even some small tweaks to the way you work could have a big impact on your team’s culture and approach.
When when you’re at work
To stop work time encroaching on your personal life, think about ways to make your working day as productive and stress-free as possible.
1. Defend your diaries
If your team has a goal, get them to block out enough time in their calendar for execution. Encourage them to turn off notifications while they’re in deep work – or set aside ‘Deep Work Wednesdays’ where your whole team goes off-grid to get some serious stuff done without meetings or distractions.
2. Consider flexible hours
Giving people an hour or two’s leeway about when to start their day not only helps employees to balance their home responsibilities with their work life, but means people can make the most of the time of day when they personally feel most awake and productive.
3. Keep meetings structured
Set the expectation that every meeting will have an agenda and a purpose – you can include this in your calendar invite template as a reminder. Whoever calls the meeting is responsible for communicating both of these to the invitees. (You’ll be surprised how many meetings turn into a quick email, instead.)
4. Share more in public channels
If you use a platform like Slack, get your team into the habit of asking (and answering) questions quickly in a public channel, instead of direct messages. Keeping more people in the loop saves time when reporting on progress, spotting snags and handing over tasks – and makes Frequently Answered Questions quicker to find. This also helps people who have taken a well-deserved holiday to avoid FOMO and hit the ground running on their first day back.
5. Encourage prioritisation
In team catch-up meetings, help your employees to frame tasks as choices. You could use a structure like “I’m working on X this week, not Y” to frame your conversation. This helps people to feel more in control of their workload, and stops any underlying pressure to over-deliver.
6. Try sharing unconditional praise
Unconditional praise means praise that’s not directly related to work performance. It could be a compliment about a colleague’s character, outlook or approach. By giving people ways to share unconditional positive feedback, your team is less likely to crave recognition through over-exertion.
7. Space out your meetings
Taking time out between calls can stop stress building up, and makes for more productive meetings, according to new research by Microsoft. (Check out their cool heat map showing your brain in meetings.) Setting your standard meeting time to 25 or 55 minutes can be a handy way of giving people a chance to make a cuppa if they end up in a back-to-back situation. Or you could try a plugin like Reclaim to organise and optimise your diary for you.
8. Work out your boundaries
Setting better boundaries at work is a shortcut to protecting our productive work time and our personal time, too. But communicating our boundaries with others doesn’t always come naturally. Find out how to set healthy boundaries at work, and achieving your ideal work-life balance should come a little more easily.
When you want to stop thinking about work
Give yourself and your team permission to properly rest and disconnect during breaks and outside of working hours.
9. Define your team’s reasonable hours
Having a personal rule about not looking at emails at night isn’t always enough. Those notifications outside of work hours can be hard to resist, and if you experience anxiety or ADHD, they can be downright disruptive to your health. Decide as a team when to cut off work communications in the morning and evening, and use scheduling tools on your email and Slack to make sure that all work-related messages are sent within those hours. No cheating.
10. Be vocal about your holidays
Take all of your own holiday allowance and chat to colleagues about it openly and positively. Encourage the big boss, if that’s not you, to do the same. Remember to show respect for people’s time off by adapting any deadlines to take holidays into account – and be explicit about leaving work phones and laptops at home. You might consider making ‘number of holiday days taken’ a team KPI if you’ve noticed that people are hesitant to book paid leave, so you can check in on progress regularly. At Spill, we created a holiday pledge to show we’re serious about taking time off.
11. Don’t mention working late
Comments about working until midnight might seem throwaway, but they can affect your team’s expectations over time. If you choose to work late, it should be exactly that – a conscious choice – not a decision made out of fear, expectation, or in anticipation of extra kudos. Instead of saying “I stayed up until 11pm finishing that spreadsheet”, just say “I finished that spreadsheet.” It’ll feel good, we promise.
12. Make breaks more visible
Take regular breaks away from your screen or workstation and encourage your team to do the same. A good way to do this is to change your Slack status when you’re not at your desk. A jogger emoji next to your name stops your lunchtime run from being interrupted, and it normalises taking time out, too.
13. Take mental health days
Encourage your workplace to treat mental health concerns the same way they’d treat physical ones. Let your team attend counselling and support services during working hours, just like if they had a doctor’s appointment. And implement paid mental health days if you can. This is one of the best ways to protect your team’s wellbeing overall. These unplanned days off let people reset when they feel exhausted or mentally overwhelmed. This not only lowers stress levels and reduces the risk of serious burnout, but it also nurtures trust and transparency between managers and employees.
14. Record big meetings
One of the biggest reasons that people won’t take their time off is that they’re worried they’ll miss out somehow when they’re not at work. Recording your team meetings and sharing it in public channels means that nobody’s dialling in from their deckchair in Greece, and everyone is able to catch up with the company news once they’re back in the office.
Some of these ideas are easy to implement, others need a bit more buy-in from the wider business. But the personal benefits and business rewards of a better work-life balance are really convincing.
If you think your team is at risk of burning out, the most important thing you can do is help them to speak up when they feel under pressure. You can do this with an open-door policy as a team leader, or by starting a wellbeing survey to flag when people are struggling. Once you know the scale of the issue, it’s easier to take action.
At Spill, we created a ‘Right to Disconnect’ policy to fly the flag for a good work-life balance and help our team feel able to really switch off outside of work. We’re so keen to get other businesses doing the same that we’ve made our policy open source – feel free to download it and amend any or all of it to suit your business.
Download our ‘Right to Disconnect’ policy template
See how much it would cost to actively maintain your team’s mental wellbeing with proper mental health support