As you drive into your lab’s parking lot, you notice that you are one of the last people to arrive. You congratulate yourself for having developed such a dedicated and focused workgroup. Then, later in the day, you notice that a surprising number of your staff are on medical leave, and a sense of unease grows. Can there be a connection between these two observations?
Wikipedia definition: “Work-life balance is a broad concept including proper prioritizing between ‘work’ (career and ambition) on one hand and ‘life’ (pleasure, leisure, family and spiritual development) on the other. Related, though broader, terms include ‘lifestyle balance’ and ‘life balance.’”
Occasionally I check the list of the most prescribed medications. In 2008 the list included members of several classes of medications that are directly or indirectly linked to poor lifestyle management. These include antidepressants, antianxiety agents, lipid regulators, proton pump inhibitors and several antihypertensive agents. The next time you are in a pharmacy, look at how much valuable shelf space is devoted to similar OTC and generic drugs.
Some jobs are especially likely to create imbalance or cause people to put too much emphasis on work. The job is simply too fascinating to leave for long; the work goes with you wherever you go and whatever you do. A research laboratory can be like that, especially if you are involved in really important work with the potential to make a significant breakthrough and if you are part of a great team. Process laboratories, too, can become highly engaging and are likely to cause staff burnout and work-life disharmony.
A report from the Conference Board released in January 2010 has some interesting if not startling figures: job satisfaction between 1987 and 2009 dropped from 61 to 43 percent in all categories in the survey, “from interest in work (down 18.9 percentage points) to job security (down 17.5 percentage points)”; the results also crossed all four “key drivers of employee engagement: job design, organizational health, managerial quality, and extrinsic rewards.”
What you can do?
What can you as a manager do to prevent or reduce the impact of work-life imbalance? A lot, but it will take the involvement of everyone in your group—you can’t dictate harmony, proportion and work style. There are a number of pieces to the puzzle of good balance. Included are physical fitness, recreation, distraction from the job, involvement in charitable activities—but real balance requires doing what you want to do, what you enjoy doing that isn’t connected with work! Some suggestions for the three groups that can make a successful change—you the manager, the individuals in the staff and the team—are given below.
The manager’s role
Here are some questions you may think about: How good are you at setting an example? Do you maintain your physical fitness? Take vacations and have outside activities? Or do you exempt yourself because you are the leader and much too important to take time off ? How clear is your policy on time off and the importance of balance? What have you done lately to encourage life outside the lab? How open are you to requests for time off or involvement in outside activities?
How did you score on this short quiz? You may need to get your priorities straight before you launch into a major effort for your staff !
The individual’s role
Develop in your staff the skills of selfmonitoring and feedback. Here’s a quote from Steven Covey: “Many people simply conclude that they are not disciplined enough. My response to that idea is that it’s usually not a discipline problem at all. The problem is more often that the person has not yet sufficiently paid the price to get very clear about what matters most to them. Once you have a burning ‘yes’ inside you about what’s truly important, it’s very easy to say ‘no’ to the unimportant.”
How can you help your staff get clear about what is really important? Start by setting some guidelines about hours at work, vacation and outside activities, and then make sure that you refer briefly to your policies and expectations at staff meetings. For more, think about posting data about leave not taken, weight lost and physical activities that are available. This is about a change in a way of thinking, and that takes a long time and constant effort.
Here’s a quick list1 that you can discuss with your staff:
1. Figure Out What Really Matters to You in Life
2. Drop Unnecessary Activities
3. Protect Your Private Time
4. Accept Help to Balance Your Life
5. Plan Fun and Relaxation
The team’s role
The role of the team in setting life-work balance is particularly important. The attitudes of peers can make or break an initiative by managers. Get the staff involved in setting standards, understanding and supporting efforts to balance work and life, encouraging physical fitness and outside activities, defining vacation and time off as an important integral part of the job, and monitoring and adjusting behavior that deviates from the standards. From my experience, a staff team will probably set tougher standards than the manager would have set, when they are given the freedom to act. Nothing is as powerful as peers who are committed to and support a good life-work balance. Think about the high success rate of AA; one of the key elements of that success is the use of peer pressure to aid recovery.
Making the change
More from Steven Covey: “Much of my teaching and writing in this area has focused on the power each one of us possesses to:
1. Take responsibility for, and become the creative force of, our lives;
2. Decide what’s most important in our whole lives—developing a vision and deep commitment to the “first things” of life; and
3. To then put those first things first and organize our lives around our priorities. For something that seems so self-evident to most people, it’s remarkable how many of us struggle to translate our intellectual awareness into day-to-day practice and decision-making.”
Sometimes managers are reluctant to be gone because of a “fear of being replaceable.” However, the best-managed teams are the ones that can function well with the manager out of the picture! Further, your manager knows that.
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and Jill a rich widow.” —Evan Esar (1899-1995)
Work-Life Climate Questionnaire
Parking lot. When does the parking lot start to fill up? When does it begin to empty? How many cars are there on the weekend?
Time off and vacation. What is the attitude about vacations? A necessary evil? Something that is taken, and given, with reluctance? Or a real opportunity to recharge your batteries?
Lunch. Where do people eat lunch? At their desks, or the lab bench? Is lunch seen as an opportunity to compare notes on ongoing projects or something to be dispensed with as quickly as possible?
Kids. Are the activities and accomplishments of children a frequent topic of conversation and pride?
Coffee break conversation. What do people talk about? The job only, or a wide variety of topics?
Pacesetters. Who are the heroes of the lab? What are their characteristics? Are you rewarding the kind of activity you want to see more of ? It was as true of the ancient Greeks as it is today: What gets rewarded gets done!
Health. How many of your staff suffer from chronic stress-related illness? (Be careful here because of confidentiality issues.) Is the focus of the health care your company provides on prevention or cure?
Exit interviews. What do people say in exit interviews about the work pace and focus?
The “right” answers to this quiz are obvious!
Achieving balance is vital for the long run. In all organizations there are times when the pace of work is high and it is necessary to focus on the work side of the equation. The problems emerge when this “all hands on deck” attitude becomes the norm. Make sure that your surge capability does not become your typical way of doing business. Review the concept of age cohorts in the November and December 2009 issues of Lab Manager Magazine for some ideas about what is important to different age groups.
Changing a well-entrenched work style is difficult, especially since it means some short-term loss in productivity. Everyone needs to be involved, and the manager needs to concentrate on progress. Develop and track data that is easy to acquire (unused vacation, increased use of sick days, increased use of overtime) so you’ll have an early indication of a return to old habits.
1. 5 Tips for Better Work-Life Balance: WebMD guides you through 5 practical steps toward better work-life balance. By Sherry Rauh. WebMD Feature (http://www.webmd. com/balance/guide/5-strategies-for-life-balance)
For further reading: Forbes Special Report: Life-Work Balance, Edited by Dan Bigman and Michael Noer 03.19.07, 3:00 PM ET (http:// www.forbes.com/2007/03/19/work-life-balance-leadcareers- worklife07-cx_db_mn_0319worklife_land.html)
Komaroff, Anthony L. Health and Well-Being. A monthly column in the Harvard Business Review.