Creating Work-Life Balance For Your Team Is Difficult But Vital

Creating Work-Life Balance For Your Team Is Difficult But Vital

“By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.”
— Robert Frost

Unfortunately, even the situation that Robert Frost was criticizing in the above quote does not apply anymore. Today, both managers and employees are often expected to work twelve (or more) hours per day. However, in response to the widely-read New York Times article last week about Amazon’s demanding work environment, there has been a lot of discussion around the benefits (or drawbacks) of pushing a workforce to the breaking point. Personally, I perform significantly better when I get adequate sleep and a break from work, and my teams do too.

Similarly, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz recently wrote a wonderfully candid post detailing his regret at spending too many hours at the social network’s offices and offering compelling proof that “beyond ~40–50 hours per week, the marginal returns from additional work decrease rapidly and quickly become negative.”

Coincidentally, a similar article appeared in the Harvard Business Review the same day called “The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies,” explaining how working more hours doesn’t actually result in more output but does result in more health problems (which adds to a company’s insurance costs) and leads to more mistakes. Counter-intuitively, limiting working hours actually leads to greater and higher quality productivity.

I’ve heard many successful people counsel young workers to be the first person in and last person out of the office every day, and I used to try to follow that dictum myself. We know now that this is simply wrong. Managers should not only set policies that encourage their employees to work reasonable hours, they also need to model that behavior by working reasonable hours themselves. For example:

  • Explicitly tell people that, except for special situations, you expect them only to work 40-50 hours per week.
  • Don’t send emails to or expect emails from employees after a certain (reasonable) time at night during the week.
  • Keep weekends as communication-free as possible. Ask yourself if what you’re about to send can wait until the work week begins or if it is truly time-sensitive. If it isn’t, don’t send it until work starts up again.
  • Insist that people take time off regularly (we allow unlimited vacation at Nylon, but managers must ensure people take advantage of it and don’t feel pressured to actually take less vacation).
  • Try to implement a partnership with a gym, yoga studio, etc. to offer employees less expensive ways to stay in shape, and encourage them to work out regularly.
  • Offer flex hours where appropriate (this can depend on different employees’ responsibilities).
  • Remain vigilant that you are not unconsciously rewarding people who work excessively long hours. Effort and long hours are not necessarily commensurate.
  • Most importantly, you should work hard and stay focused for 8-10 hours per day yourself, and then stop without feeling guilty.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote a brilliant column almost twenty years ago called “My Family Leave Act,” detailing how overwork drove him almost to the point of burn-out:

You love your job and you love your family, and you desperately want more of both. You’re doubly blessed, in a way. Whatever you get of either should be a delight. How dare complain? But here’s the rub: There’s no way of getting work and family into better balance. You’re inevitably shortchanging one or the other, or both. You’re never able to do enough of what you truly value.

Don’t tell me to improve my time-management skills. I’ve done that, and I’m scheduled to the teeth. Teen-age boys don’t need you on schedule. A spouse doesn’t share intimacies on command. Work doesn’t always present new opportunities or crises just when you block out time for them. Throw in a boss who has a good idea every two minutes and you can forget the schedule for good.

In the end, you simply can’t do more of both. There’s no room for better ”balance.” The metaphor is all wrong. You have to make a painful choice.

Indeed, negotiating your own work and personal life, and those of your employees, will always require making painful choices. You will need to prioritize and compromise. Just as your employees are making difficult tradeoffs between work and life, you have to manage your own expectations of how much you can expect from them without pushing them to the point of diminishing returns. Resist the temptation to believe in the simple but simply wrong linear equation that more work equals more results.