Management’s Least Favourite Phrase? Not Anymore.

Work-Life Balance
Written by Pauline Muller

An Afrikaans adage, from long ago and far away, gently counsels us, Die oggendstond het goud in die mond: Dawn has gold in its mouth. Today, most of us who rise at dawn or earlier would more likely be mumbling, “The early bird catches the worm.”

Yet, in a kind of backlash that the business world is already feeling, taking time out to be present in the moment, wholeheartedly cherishing one’s personal life (and the dawn) and those of your loved ones is—for millions across the globe—becoming more valuable in the bigger scheme of things than chasing goalposts at the office all day every day. And, it seems, the sentiment is spreading.

Recent studies show that over 70 percent of employees confirmed a healthy work-life balance to be paramount in considering new work opportunities. While nearly 60 percent of workers indicated that a low-value work-life balance is a no-go zone for them when applying for new positions, the real surprise is that less than a quarter of the employers who participated in these studies say they are consciously committed to cultivating company cultures that value a wholesome work-life balance.

As COVID-19 restrictions blurred boundaries between work and home for many previously office- and field-bound professionals, the boundaries between work time, downtime, and life have also grown hazy in the past few years. This has led to several proposed solutions to help workers regain some level of private life.

Trying on the four-day week
In Europe, Belgium passed an official bill to legalize the four-day workweek in February 2022. Since November 21st of last year, workers who choose to pack their regular work volume into four instead of five days are now legally allowed to do so based on a 100:80:100 ratio representing 100 percent of the work completed in 80 pecent of the time in return for the full salary, according to Euronews.

In the United Kingdom, 61 companies and more than 3,300 workers participated in what became a superbly positive six-month pilot project to test the effect of a four-day workweek in local markets. While the new model does not suit all industries, huge strides are being made in introducing greater flexibility in people’s work schedules around the world.

The benefits of improved flexibility in employees’ workweeks prove to be far-reaching for both workers and employers. In the United States and Canada, studies show that people reported better mental health and were more productive during four-day workweek trials.

As people have more time to spend at home, Jack Johnson’s song, Banana Pancakes—where the singer pretends it is the weekend on a weekday—could make an apt anthem for this avant-garde movement that aims to get all the work done on time—just with a calmer, more grounded mindset.

Not only do better-balanced workdays give people more time to do life, but they could, ultimately, devote more time to the physical, mental, and emotional health and happiness of their families and themselves. Especially, more time spent together could include more time in Nature.

Long believed by our ancestors and eco-psychologists like Philip Sutton Chard to lessen and balance many of our modern-day ills like insomnia, stress, burnout, and a range of interpersonal and emotional issues, nature and the outdoors is where increasing numbers of people are reaping the benefits of spending more of their downtime together.

More vitality, more positivity
Personal growth and development garnered from having a bit more time for oneself inevitably translate into greater vitality and positivity being brought into the workplace. That brings us closer to creating what Esther Perel, a Belgian-American psychotherapist, describes as a “company that is not dead versus a company that is alive.”

To bring this sense of vitality into the collective mind of a team, Perel hints at doing what we do in love. “[Consider] the quality of imagination, mystery, risk-taking, novelty, that people bring to their relationships. Those are the things that bring life [in companies too],” Perel continues.

Adding to the argument, Sigmund Freud reminds us that love and work are “the pillars of our humanness.” How much better can we be when we love our work, too?

While many aim to achieve increased productivity by offering staff social events, improved pay, and better hours—but without looking into employees’ deeper emotional needs—it is good to consider Perel’s observations of modern people in the workplace. This is true especially when looking to improve a company’s productivity while becoming more flexible in terms of work hours and where they are spent.

“Work has become an identity economy. It is not just ‘What am I going to do?’ It is ‘Who am I going to be?’” she says. “Work parallels our love relationships. What do we talk about at work? We talk about transparency, belonging, authenticity, trust, and psychological safety. I mean, when did the entire emotional vocabulary enter the workplace to such a degree? These relational skills have very quickly become the new soft skills or heart skills,” says Perel.

“We expect much more from love and work today than we have ever expected before. We want our relationships to be transformative, transcendent, meaningful, purposeful… We want it at home, and we want it at work. Because we want work to give a sense of identity, of meaning, of self-fulfillment, development. We need the paycheck. But we also want the paycheck to be meaningful to us,” she says.

Joy and productivity
In a paper called Happiness and Productivity by Andrew J Oswald, Eugenio Proto, and Daniel Sgroi of the Department of Economics at Warwick University in the United Kingdom, some interesting behaviour came to light among the over 700 people who took part in the “first causal evidence using randomized trials and piece-rate working.”

The biggest takeaway from this project is that it points out what Google has already learned in practice: that it pays to encourage a sense of joy in employees as they will produce faster while delivering the same level of quality and accuracy.

In addition, being happy and well-balanced in one’s life and work environment also stirs excitement and a healthy dose of FOMO, which means that not only does one want to be at work and engaging, but, specifically, one does not want to miss any of the action. As a result, being more available to life and work also means a drop in absenteeism.

Being a part of achieving a worthwhile goal means we are less alone in the world. We become less vulnerable when we have a tribe—even at work. And there’s safety in knowing that the Self can lose itself in a bigger purpose when it is protected by a benevolent greater whole.

“Today, the Self is the center of everything and so fragile. The Self has never been more fragile. We are constantly making sure that it does not get overwhelmed, that it does not get triggered, that it does not get violated, shattered. Because it stands there alone. Like the little Dutchman trying to hold back the dyke with his finger,” says Perel. Therefore, when we work toward doing better and we receive the recognition we feel we deserve from colleagues and peers, being better becomes almost inevitable.

In response to Perel’s statement, one finds John Leonard, a cultural critic of the 60s, still as quintessentially current as when he was quoted in the New York Times in 1968: “It may be that certain forms of play are an escape hatch for us from technology; a therapeutic hope… Craftsmanship, the self-shaping of privacy, the health-giving labour, could be our way out.”

While such sentiments may sit uncomfortably with some, evidence shows that increasing numbers of people reach for nature and artistic pursuits to help them navigate the pressures of modern life outside of work. Having more time to do so by using time people are at work more effectively can only be beneficial to companies that are generous enough and wise enough to recognize the writing on the wall.

Happiness, the best HR
With online job-rating sites like glassdoor.com being commonplace these days, it’s easy for prospective workers to get a sense of what companies are about. As we’ve said in a previous article, one of the surest facts about labour in the twenty-first century is that people vote with their feet. Therefore, no matter how long some employers may want to put off embracing this new era of happiness creation in the workplace, the reality is that the result of such a mindset will be visible in dwindling worker retention rates.

In the context of this piece, one could say, “happy workforce, happy labour source”—or something like that. Word travels, so keeping workers so happy that most new appointments originate from staff referrals is one of the most effective ways to find new employees. Companies who knowingly apply this strategy report attracting applicants who typically fit their culture and want to stay.

Of course, not all industries can benefit from more flexible work arrangements. But research shows that where it’s possible, it is indeed worth exploring, for several reasons. Improved staff health and work satisfaction, improved return on investment in terms of productivity, more creative problem solving, and ultimately, improved staff retention and growth all make it an idea worth exploring.

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