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More and more people juggle busy lives with the demands of working from home and the pressure to work longer hours. If you lead a team, a department or a corporation, you’ll recognise the experience. The big question, though, is “is it sustainable?” Read on for three ways to re-claim work-life balance, avoid burnout, and benefit the bottom line.

What kind of leader do you want to be?

Great leaders, it is often said, lead by example. Unfortunately, poor leaders do the same.

This article examines how easy it is to inadvertently set the wrong example – and how achieving the right work-life balance for you and those who work for you is easier than you might imagine.

Hard work and success are good but excessive hours may not deliver the best results

Before you look at those you lead, look at your own work-life balance and ask whether it is as it should be. Consider the number of hours you work – excessive working hours reduce productivity, cause stress and damage health and relationships.

A few people (and it is surprisingly few) are genuine workaholics. They wouldn’t be who they are otherwise. Even they, however, should consider the impact of long hours on those who work for them. Most people do better with a genuine balance between their work and personal lives.

Spending too many hours working diminishes the quality of work you do. Concentration drops and vitality is lost. Working long hours leaves you tired and degrades the quality of decision making, rendering you vulnerable without knowing it.

If just one person is doing this possibly the damage to the business is small. If lots are doing it, the costs go up. If the leader is doing it, the pressure is on those they lead to do the same. Is that what you want?

Why have we ended up working longer?

Using commuting time to get ahead

If you’re not in the office every day, the working day will probably have got longer by default.  By using commuting time to start work earlier and finish later, you’ve automatically built-in extra hours. This may seem like a bonus and a simple way to get more done.

And it appears to make sense. We all want to do well. We enjoy working hard to achieve in our chosen fields. Many of us are competitive, some extremely so. Making the day a bit longer, quite easily, seems attractive. It might be, but over a sustained period of time, the danger that it does harm becomes more likely.

We’re also packing in more

Take meetings, for example. Physical meetings take time, even if you don’t need to leave the building. Meetings generate actions. In 2019, there was a practical limit to the number of meetings it made sense to attend during the day, simply because of the time involved in meeting in person.

Translate those meetings to live video, and it’s possible to have back-to-back meetings all morning. the internet creates the expectation of an instant response, so each meeting creates work to be done promptly, or so it seems. Without choosing to do so, you’re doing the work of two or more days in one…

And with ‘always on’ communications, it can be tempting to read or send emails late into the evening. When do you properly switch off?

You can find a further exploration of this experience in a Daily Telegraph article by Alice Hall, What working a 55-hour week does to your body .

Recognising the problem and its impact

The work-life balance concept is not new.

The 19th century industrialist, Robert Owen, argued for “eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” For Owen, it was a practical way of managing shifts in mills. It may not be a perfect fit today, but it’s a useful reference point with tangible benefits. In 1914, Ford reduced the working day to 8 hours and increased pay. Productivity increased and by 1916 profits had doubled.

This does not mean business leaders don’t have calls on their time that employees may not. If anything, it means you may need to pay even closer attention to getting the balance right.

Warning signs

Indicators that your work life balance is wrong can include poor sleep patterns, the feeling (and reality) of being stressed, and a temptation to eat more high-fat, high sugar foods. Feeling constantly tired is another sign, and this will impact on your relationships – practically, emotionally, and romantically. Quite simply, you won’t have the energy to do anything but work.

Are you leading others astray?

Modelled behaviour has great power

If the warning signs strike a chord with your personal behaviour, spare a thought for those you lead. Consider the impact of your example. If you are working too much (it’s not about working hard, but for too long as a matter of habit), remember the behaviour you model will be emulated by others. Some will do what you do because they aspire to be you; some will copy because they fear the consequences of not doing so.

Mostly this happens by accident. However, if you feel compelled to work long hours, is it right to expect others to do the same, given the cost to their quality of life – and probably the cost to your own bottom line?

Watch out for burnout

If you are feeling the strain of excessive working hours, you’ll know many of your staff will feel likewise if they are doing the same. The last thing you want is a team in tatters because it has all become too much.  You need strong colleagues to ensure high productivity, innovation, and loyalty. An exhausted, often sick, workforce is a corporate vulnerability.

Three ways to build-in work-life balance

Here are three strategies to help you achieve your own work life balance, help others do the same and build a happier, more productive team.  You won’t be able to fix every problem. You may even not recognise some issues raised. But as we adjust to the post pandemic world, it’s worth having a discussion as to what constitutes a good work-life balance. Make sure agreed changes are put into action.

  1. Agree upon the shape of the working week and working day

Think ahead. Be aware of what days people will be in the office or at home. Make it clear that it is the quality of the work the counts, more than the hours spent working. Have a system in place to keep track of who is where and when.

Discuss productivity. During the day, encourage people to have breaks of about 15 minutes between tasks. Most can concentrate well for about 90 minutes, although it can be longer. In essence you are making the working hours at home less homely and more disciplined.

Be realistic about what you can be done in the available time. If it’s not already part of the culture, be explicit about the skills required to prioritise.

  1. Be clear about the importance of a holistic approach

Be emphatic about the value of a healthy diet, regular exercise, and enough sleep. These are as important for performance at work as they are for the good of the individuals concerned.

Recognise the importance of personal relationships and outside interests. All work and no play really does make Jack a dull boy.

  1. Email etiquette – get it right

We all know the temptation to look at and answer work emails late in the evening. We probably also recognise the negative impact that this can have in creating an ‘always on’ culture.

Make sure there is a clear end point in the day for work emails. Don’t send them out yourself after that time. Some businesses adopt a disclaimer along the lines of ‘I’m sending it now but I don’t expect you to read it until tomorrow.’ This seems disingenuous. Far better to schedule to send early the next day.

Depending on roles and responsibilities, suggest that people remove work email accounts from their phones, or turn off their work mobiles at the end of the day. It is surprising how many of those urgent messages are nothing of the sort.

Tip the balance towards success.

Many things contribute to a thriving business. Having a healthy well motivated workforce is one of them. Ensuring they stay that way can be a challenge. All sorts of commercial and cultural pressures may make long hours a tempting proposition, even though you know this makes the lives of real people harder.

But long hours are not the same as productivity. What really counts is work done really well, consistently. To get that you need people who have enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and avoid excessive alcohol. You need people who have a life to call their own outside work.

When you have people who come to work re-energised after the weekend, then you’ll have people who think clearly and work well. With that you can build strong foundations for the future.

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