Work-life balance: five pieces of the workplace wellbeing jigsaw

In the first of our two-part blog series to mark National Work-Life Week (12-16 October), we examined the issue of work-life balance by highlighting the signs that organisations and managers can look out for so they can support colleagues who may be struggling.

In this blog post, we suggest some strategies, tips and ideas that could help both managers and employees to stay on the right track.

We highlight five areas of focus - five pieces of the workplace wellbeing jigsaw - that can make a huge difference to wellbeing, performance and staff retention within an organisation.

Part two. Work-life balance: five pieces of the workplace wellbeing jigsaw

It is essential that we view health and wellbeing in the workplace as a team effort, requiring the employee to try to take charge of their own health and to make the right decisions for them on issues of work-life balance, but also requiring the employer to play a key role. It is a partnership. It requires a commitment to work together: employee and employer, hand in hand, step by step.

We previously highlighted three categories of concerns that come up time and time again when employees are asked about work-life balance: boundaries, expectations and support. With these concerns, there is an overriding theme that runs through each, like a name through a stick of seaside rock: the vital importance of having two-way, honest, ongoing, clear communication.

We have suggested five areas of focus to help tackles these concerns and to help organisations and managers to get the communication right and to make a difference.

1. Build and maintain an open, supportive culture
Work-life balance problems, as well as many other issues that can affect the mental health of employees, can be tackled if employers provide the right combination of support and a proactive, preventative workplace culture that can help employees to thrive. For employees to thrive at work and to feel empowered and informed to make the right work-life balance choices for them - these choices will be different from employee to employee as there is not one single, homogenous person working in your organisation - there needs to be a culture that supports those decisions.

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The culture of the workplace is not just the policies, procedures and processes that employers have in place, although these are important, it is the unwritten, implicit ways in which people behave towards each other. Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines in the US, once said that workplace culture is "what people do when no-one is looking" (1).

We are not aware of many organisations that have formal policies in place that say 'we expect you to be permanently attached to your mobile device and answer emails at all hours of the day and night' but we do see this sort of expectation and behaviour creeping into workplaces and having a damaging effect on work-life balance and mental health. It doesn't need to be written down to exist. Workplace culture is both the policies that acknowledge the association between work related stress and mental health but also the informal ways in which people treat each other and their work.

Managers can encourage a culture of openness about time constraints and workloads within their teams by regularly checking in with their colleagues and asking them about their to-do lists and priorities and helping them to reallocate work, delegate and reprioritise when times are busy. It is critical for employees to feel that the culture in which they work will reward, not punish, them for raising concerns about their workload, the stress they are experiencing and their own mental health.

This is not just achieved through flexible working policies and rules and regulations, but by having a regular, open dialogue in which managers support staff to ensure they are not over-worked or feel overwhelmed.


2. Start a conversation and then keep talking
To support the ongoing maintenance of a positive, proactive and preventive culture, managers need to start a conversation with every member of their team. This conversation needs to focus on setting realistic, clear and healthy expectations of how each member of the team will work and should provide a roadmap for how staff will operate within the organisation.

The focus should be on working with individuals to help them plan their time effectively, prioritise work, set clear boundaries (including when emails should be sent, received, responded to etc) and making it clear that they can say ‘no’ to some requests at work and not just keep taking on more and more work. Managers should also encourage employees to make time for themselves and their hobbies and exercise (possibly with support from the employer with gym memberships, walking maps for lunchtimes, book clubs etc), and talk to employees about taking a regular lunch break or rests during busy periods of the day.

This conversation needs to be the start of an ongoing, open dialogue that requires the employee and the employer to be honest about how it is going and whether any changes need to be made. Most people in the workplace appreciate that some weeks and days are busier that others and that from time to time extra work is needed to meet a deadline or deliver a major project. The point of regular dialogue, ideally diarised and held face to face (or screen to screen in these COVID-times!), is to keep checking in and to make sure these expectations are still being met and that temporary heavy periods of work are just that, not part of an ongoing daily pattern.

It is critical for managers to remember the whole person sitting in front of them - they are not a machine but a human being who needs to rest, replenish and recharge their batteries if they are to be happy to perform at a consistent level. The importance of finding time for breaks, hobbies and rest cannot be overstated, nor can the importance of managers using their ongoing conversations to listen to the individual needs of their team members. Managers don’t have all the answers - their employees are the experts in their own lives.

3. Be a role model
As with many things is life, talk can be cheap but actions speak louder than words. In the sphere of promoting positive, healthy work-life balance, there is a crucial role for leaders and managers to demonstrate good behaviours and to set an example. All the positive talking in the world will just be talk if the reality of employees' experience doesn't match up.

Leaders and managers can do some simple things to set a positive, healthy example, including making sure they themselves take regular holidays (using up their full holiday allowances and not saying they are too busy to take holidays as a badge of honour or a statement of their importance to the organisation). Managers should be encouraging their team members to take holidays - and then making sure they are not emailing staff either when they or their teams are away.

The same principle applies to late nights and weekends. Most people at work, appreciate that at times urgent or emergency issues arise that need tackling out of hours. But when this becomes the norm and not the exception it becomes part of the culture or an organisation that doesn’t allow employees to switch off or enjoy some downtime.

At the end of 2016, the French government introduced new legislation that was dubbed 'the right to disconnect', with employees getting the legal right to avoid work emails outside working hours (2). It meant that companies with more than 50 workers were obliged to draw up a charter of good conduct, setting out the hours when staff were not supposed to send or answer emails. This is a fairly extreme response to a growing problem in the workplace, but managers could affect the same results by setting a good example and operating within healthy boundaries between work and home, with their own use of emails signalling that commitment.

The role of the line manager cannot be overstated. They are to most employees the face of the organisation. Research published in the Harvard Business Review showed that 'employees who work with a supportive supervisor - someone who offers emotional and practical support, who acts as a positive role model, and who is a creative problem-solver - experience reduced work-life conflict, improved health, and increased fulfilment on the job and at home.' (3) Supervisors/line managers have the power to encourage (or at times to discourage) employees from making use of flexible working policies through their own attitude and behaviours which can signal (or not signal) that there will be support for those who prioritise or give equal weight to home and work responsibilities.

Regardless of their seniority, line mangers can be leaders on work-life balance.


4. Signpost and support
As well as emotional support and providing a positive culture, organisations and managers can provide practical, day-to-day support to employees. This includes, not only encouraging activities that promote good mental health, for example lunchtime exercise or relaxation classes which may be provided by the organisation or subsidised to make them more affordable, but also clear, regular signposting to the services and support available within the organisation.

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Most organisations will provide some form of mental health support, either directly, or through a third party, often using digital platforms, such as SilverCloud. It is essential that staff at all levels of an organisation are aware that these services exist and how to access them in a time of need.

Managers and leaders need to take every opportunity - in person and by email - and by using all the available internal communications tools available, such as screensavers, digital screens around buildings, staff newsletters and bulletins, intranets, wall posters and flyers, to promote the availability of the support services available.

Alongside this, line managers should encourage staff to attend counselling and support services during working hours as they would for other medical appointments. Going to the GP, for a dental appointment or an eye test shouldn't be treated differently or any less routine from a request to attend an employee assistance programme meeting or a counselling session.

5. Put in the hard yards
According to the Mental Health Foundation, work related stress already costs Britain 10.4 million working days per year (4). This is an eye-watering number and is likely to be an underestimate of the real total, as often, due to ongoing fears of stigma or being judged for having a mental health issue or concern, some employees will disguise the true reason for their absence as something like a bad back or the flu.

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There are no simple solutions to the issues found in the workplace, many of which are linked to work-life balance concerns. The reality is that, like most other things at work, you get out what you put in and you get what you measure. As well as advocating the hints and suggestions above, we also acknowledge that much of the work required to build and maintain a healthy, supportive, proactive and preventative culture and the underpinning communication and support that will help it to succeed takes hard work, often unseen work.

Managers need, where possible to measure for success and try to regularly monitor and evaluate policies against performance indicators such as sickness levels, absence and improvements in staff satisfaction. These are proxy measures for how successful organisations are being at addressing work-life balance issues but they are helpful and go some way to proving whether the interventions suggested are working.

One of the best ways to track progress is simply to ask team members and employees 'how is it going?' at regular points during the week or month and to keep the ideas that underpin work-life balance at the front of mind and ensure that it remains a priority all year round: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Conclusion
The suggestions we make are part of the story and will hopefully help organisations and managers to support their employees and will make a positive difference in the workplace. This is ultimately a team effort, with everyone needing to play their part.

By being proactive and preventative in tackling business risks before they become major issues, managers can optimise the health and performance of a team, operating system or function. The same principles apply to the organisation's most valuable asset: its people. Helping employees to get their work-life balance right isn't just the right thing to do for health and wellbeing, it's good business.

If you have found this blog useful, you may also be interested to hear some of these issues discussed in our recent podcast, released to mark World Mental Health Day. In this multi-guest podcast episode we feature Dan Burningham, Mental Health Programme Director at City and Hackney CCG, Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health and Ben Jones, service user and soon-to-be psychotherapist who shared their thoughts and perspectives on Mental Health for All:
https://www.silvercloudhealth.com/uk/blog/world-mental-health-day-2020 


Footnotes

1 - https://www.management-issues.com/opinion/6719/whats-culture---and-whats-yours/  

2- https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-38479439 

3 - https://hbr.org/2019/08/better-work-life-balance-starts-with-managers 

4 - https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/w/work-life-balance