Ask Addi P.: Rethinking Work-Life Balance

A burnt match among a group of unused matches.

Work-life balance is a myth. It's all life.

Dear Addi P.,

We just started an employee wellness campaign to address some of the competitive workaholism that is the culture here. (Now people are racing each other in the stairwells.) I am seeing signs of burnout throughout the organization including increased turnover and mental and physical health issues. I'm wondering if there is really such thing as work-life balance. What can we do to help employees feel less stressed?

— Fried in Fremont

Dear Fried,

I think you nailed it. You don't have a wellness problem; you have a culture problem. And you are not alone. Work-life balance is a myth. There is no distinction between work and life. It's all life.

Harvard Business Review reports that the psychological and physical problems of burned-out employees cost $125 billion to $190 billion a year in health care spending in the U.S. And that does not count the additional costs of low productivity, absenteeism, high turnover and loss of your best performers. There are lots of theories about what is causing the problem. Forbes notes how a survey of HR leaders found the top three factors causing employee burnout are unfair compensation, unreasonable workloads and too much overtime or after-hours work.

Busyness Is Tied to Significance

Giving people fitness trackers and gift cards for reaching goals is great. But the problem is bigger than wellness or work-life balance. It may be even bigger than compensation or workloads.

We are all members of the Cult of Busy. Scott Berkun, who thinks a lot about work, tech and people, believes we get caught up in a loop where we believe that being successful and important means doing something all the time to show how successful and important we are. "This means people who are always busy are time poor," Berkun says. "They have a time shortage. They have time debt. They are either trying to do too much, or they aren't doing what they're doing very well. They are failing to either a) be effective with their time b) don't know what they're trying to effect, so they scramble away at trying to optimize for everything, which leads to optimizing nothing."

Update Your PTO Policies and Work Hours

What can HR and organizations do to help employees be less busy, have more time and still get the work done? First, understand that rest is an essential part of work. When we are rested physically and mentally, we can do more in less time. But getting people to stop long enough to understand they need a break is often challenging. It's hard to change people's addiction to being busy because we identify with our work. Great places to start are with your PTO policies and work hours.

1. PTO Policies

Can employees roll unlimited vacation time forward from year to year indefinitely? Policies like this inadvertently encourage people to delay taking time off and can also rack up liability for the organization if you are required to pay it out as a lump sum when employees leave. Consider limiting the PTO employees can save and require them to actually take time off. (Be sure to check with your friendly employment lawyers before changing PTO policies because each state has different laws on PTO.)

2. Flexible Work Hours

Lots of organizations say they have flexible work schedules, but they don't always mean it. There's always something that needs to get done, preferably yesterday. But there is a strong business case for saner, more contained work hours, and flexibility about when the work gets done, as noted by Benefits include less overtime costs, lower turnover and absences, better productivity and attracting and retaining great employees.

3. Sabbaticals and Extended Leaves

Allow for longer breaks for people beyond Family and Medical leave, bereavement or parental leave. These are not vacation. Chances are you're already set up to handle someone being gone for an extended period as long as you have enough notice. Look at offering breaks in service (allowing employees to use some of that saved paid leave or give them unpaid leave) when they want to travel, spend a summer with their kids, go back to school or practice their art.

4. Change Management

Changing a workaholic culture involves more than just issuing new policies and edicts. The shift must come from the top and the organization's actions need to match their words at every step. This involves a black belt in change management, commitment to the new approach, a solid plan, a way to track whether it's working or not and plenty of time, patience and insistence on the new way.

It's not easy, but taking a new approach to time and work could be the best thing you can do for your organization and its people.

Take care,

Addi P.

Addi P is a digital character who represents the human expertise of ADP. The questions and challenges come from professionals who manage people at companies of all sizes. The advice comes from ADP experts who have a deep understanding of the issues and a passion for helping leaders create a better workplace. If you have a challenge you'd like to pose for Addi P, complete this simple form.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and not legal, accounting or tax advice. The information and services ADP provides should not be deemed a substitute for the advice of a professional who can better address your specific concern and situation. Any information provided here is by nature subject to revision and may not be the most current information available on the subject matter discussed.

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