Why are we so bad at achieving a work-life balance?
When it comes to taking time off, most Irish people don’t avail of their full holiday entitlements. But this is starting to change as some companies take steps to encourage staff to take time away from the office.
Over the years various research has shown that a large chunk of Irish people don’t take full advantage of their holiday entitlements. Recently surveys by the Cpl Employment Market Monitor and Hotels.com suggest this chunk may be as large as 80%.
So why is this? Is it that we have too much leisure time? No, its simply that we are bad at achieving a work-life balance.
Why are we so bad at achieving work-life balance?
Some employees may want to appear dedicated and eager in the workplace. Though this might have been the way to impress your employer in the past, today many companies have come to realise that the best way to get the most out of employees is to make sure they take time away from the office.
For others, it can simply be hard to let go. Some may fear that things will go wrong while they are away from the desk, but realistically the chances are that upon their return everything will be the same.
A survey conducted in the US showed that the two main reasons people didn’t take time for themselves was because they simply didn’t have the time to do this or because they felt guilty. But increasingly employers want staff to take time off.
Long work hours increase stress and impair health. The benefits of taking time off have been proven again and again. One study showed that taking holidays will reduce your risk of heart attack. Another 2015 study by professors at the University of Stanford found that work stress, which often stems from a lack of work-life balance, contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year in the US.
While a third study of women’s health by Arizona’s health services showed that women who take more time off work are less likely to become depressed and this in turn led to improved work performance.
But even for those of us who know its important to take time off, it’s not always easy to put this into practice.
New York Magazine recently looked at this phenomenon. Director of MIT’s Work-Life Centre, Kathy Simons, knew exactly how time off improved a worker productivity and health, but she didn’t take a holiday for five years.
Similarly, Phyllis Stewart Pires who headed up the work-life office of international software company SAP, neglected her family and friends while pushing to improve the work-life balance of her colleagues. Today, she is the director of work-life strategy at Stanford University and continues to question her past behaviour.
Part of the problem is that we tend to be overly optimistic when it comes to planning for the future. Everything always takes longer than you think it will. That’s where task timing tools like Toggl can come in handy. Once you know exactly how long something takes its easier to plan and set boundaries. It is also important to have a digital detox every now and then.
But beyond this workers need help.
The approach to work-life balance abroad
In France, its policy-makers that are pushing to create a better work-life balance for workers.
In 2000, the statutory working week in France was reduced from 39 hours to 35 hours. French employees now have more leisure time. France’s National Economic Planning Agency recommended that time at work should be in line with other demands on time generated by social and private life. In its evaluation of the 35 hour week, it found that the reduction in working time has affected employees positively, both in terms of work and home lives.
Earlier this year another new employment law obliged companies in France with more than 50 employees to define the rights of staff to ignore their smartphones.
Technology has blurred the line between our work life and personal life. Often even when we should be relaxing, we aren’t. We’ve become masters of technology and multi-tasking and it can be too easy to check your emails while watching TV with the family. But we need to be mindful that our downtime is actually downtime, as it is necessary to completely recharge our batteries in order to have the energy to face all the challenges work can throw at us.
In France, lawmakers established the right for workers to disconnect in an aim to tackle compulsive out-of-hours email checking.
In the OECD’s Better Life Index, France performs well in many measures of wellbeing, but ranks above the average in work-life balance. French workers have more time to devote to leisure activities than any other country in the OECD.
Companies leading the way at home
Ireland isn’t doing too badly in this area either, as it is currently ranked 8th for the amount of leisure time workers have. Last year, the government also introduced two weeks paternity leave. But often here it is companies that are leading the way to create work-life balance.
The best companies to work for often have programmes and policies in place help their employees find balance. Airbnb is one company that is combatting the old way of thinking by making employees take their holidays.
As well as encouraging employees to take time off, the company also gives employees credit towards Airbnb every quarter so that they can travel. This gives them some down time, as well as the chance to connect with the culture of the company. As this allowance is quarterly, it is likely that Airbnb staff take some time off every couple of months.
Companies like LinkedIn, which has its European HQ in Dublin, offer staff unlimited holidays. While some go as far as to offer unlimited paid time off.
Looking at the Fortune 100 Best Workplaces, one of the criteria looked at is the amount of paid time off companies offers to its staff. Companies like The Boston Consulting Group, Nvidia, VMware, Adobe Systems, CarMax and Workday offer their staff unlimited time off. Workday even allow staff to take time off for volunteering. While Deloitte and Ernst Young, which both have offices in Dublin, offer 42 and 40 days paid leave respectively.
Its obvious that work-life balance is important for the wellbeing of employees, as well as their productivity at work. Though its less obvious how the right balance can be achieved, its something that needs to be taken on board by workers, employers and policy-makers alike.