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Who is responsible for protecting work-life balance? It depends who you ask

February 20, 2022
Borderless Leadership

Over the course of her career, Tiffany Jung experienced different challenges maintaining a balance between her professional and personal life.

When she began her career at a law firm, Jung says there was no such thing as work-life balance (or the sometimes-preferred term, work-life integration). Employees were expected to log significant hours, be available at all times, and even cancel vacations at a moment’s notice.

Seeking a change of pace, she moved to an in-house position at a high growth tech company, but despite its strong focus on company culture, work-life balance became tricky in new and unexpected ways.

“They had an open floor plan, meaning there was pressure to always seem available, but also busy,” she says. “There was also a sense of pressure to participate in company social events that would take place after work hours, which meant employees had to fit work culture into their personal time.”

Before long, Jung says she was having trouble sleeping, felt unmotivated at work, and began identifying signs of burnout. Eventually, she decided to leave the company to take a work sabbatical, before re-entering the workforce part time as a freelancer.

Jung isn’t alone. Over the last two pandemic-filled years, the divide between work and life has become less clear, especially for those who work remotely. Failing to establish and enforce healthy boundaries can lead to burnout for employees, and create staffing issues for employers. So, who should be responsible for drawing that line, and what’s the best way to ensure workers have the ability to do their best work without burning out?

According to a recent survey conducted by TRUCE Software, 43% of employees believe that responsibility falls squarely on them, but the study also identified a striking difference of opinion across generations. While a majority of workers over 45 believe establishing and enforcing those boundaries to be their personal responsibility, that perspective was only shared by 42% of those under the age of 45.

TRUCE Software’s CEO, Joe Boyle, says that those who began their careers in an era when bringing work home was a conscious decision have grown accustomed to establishing and enforcing that divide themselves. On the other hand, those who started working in an era where they could be reached 24-7 via email, Slack, Zoom, or any number of other workplace tools, typically expect their employer to support and model a strong work-life divide.

“I’m a little bit older, a little bit grey, and I tend to feel like maintaining the balance of all of the aspects of my life is my responsibility,” he says. “[But] I think that the younger generations are right. . . . It’s [great] that younger generations continue to influence positive movement forward into companies thinking and acting in more responsible and sustainable ways.”

The transition to widespread remote work made issues related to work-life balance impossible to ignore, but Boyle says those lines were already starting to blur before COVID-19, in large part due to technology.

It’s a topic to which Boyle has given a lot of thought. TRUCE provides software that can be programmed to limit access to non-work-related applications when a mobile device is on company property, and remove work-related applications as soon as they clock out.

“The consumerization of [personal] devices and workers bringing them into the workplace created this very strong intersection between work life and personal life that never existed before,” he says. “It created an environment where you didn’t have to [actively decide to] bring work home with you; work came with you wherever you went.”

Boyle adds that once those boundaries are crossed and new expectations are set, they often don’t regress. “Long ago, we moved the technology boundaries between life and work, and then we went into the pandemic and removed the physical barriers between life and work. At this point, the only partition that exists for most people between their work life and their personal life is a switch that flips inside their head,” he says. “Technology is going to continue to evolve, it’s going to intermesh our lives more and more.”

Leaders should strive to model sustainable practices in order to ensure workers take time off and don’t feel tethered to their work at all hours of the day.

In January of 2020, Jung accepted a full time position with one of her freelance clients, a developer platform called Commit, which allowed her to work remotely on a full-time basis, even before the pandemic began.

“The flexible work and the default trust that leadership has in everyone: these two elements build autonomy, where I can work how I work best, knowing I’m trusted,” she says.

The first major test of that trust came soon after Jung began in her new role, when she decided to have a child. Jung says in her previous positions she would have been hesitant to take a significant maternity leave, but was encouraged to do so by one of the company’s leaders, who himself had taken an extended paternity leave earlier that year.

“Having the precedent set at Commit by dads is immensely helpful to moms in de-stigmatizing and actually celebrating the time off that parents take,” she says. “Maybe the most important thing that Commit’s leadership does is lead by example.”

Establishing work-life boundaries is neither strictly a matter of corporate policy or personal responsibility, but should be a shared commitment by both employees and employers, argues Deniece Maston, a knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Unless organizations establish and commit to policies that ensure workers feel confident being truly “off the clock” during non-work hours, employees often need to decide between establishing their own boundaries—which could come at a cost to their reputation—or allow work to disrupt their down time. Rather than choosing between two undesirable options, Maston says employees should engage in an honest dialogue with their managers about their personal needs and responsibilities.

“It requires ongoing effort from both the employee and employer,” she says. “Employers can set policies, they can actually lead by example when creating that work-life balance, and then there’s going to be that honest and open communication that employees can give their employers for what they need personally to create that work-life balance.”

Maston says that many organizations boast about their work-life balance policies in job postings, but setting policies that encourage that divide—such as banning after-hours work communications or encouraging staff to take time off—is only effective if they’re followed by leaders.

“Managers also need to exhibit that behavior,” she says. “So not sending those after-hours emails and expecting a response, giving people time after meetings to get themselves together before they go back on the clock, setting those types of examples is really what employees are looking for.”

By Jared Lindzone



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