Most HR professionals and company employers agree that finding the key to optimize employee performance is more than just a huge challenge - it can be the make-it or break-it point for an organization. Employee performance is affected by a variety of factors, ranging from work-culture environment to personal health and wellbeing.
In order to enjoy the benefits of high employee performance - higher job satisfaction, improved retention rates, increased profitability and an overall rise in success - companies should really be asking themselves this: how can employee work-life balance be improved?
Enriching work-life balance (WLB) is thought of as one of the major HRM practices that increasingly promotes the enhancement of employee performance, according to a study of High Performance HRM: NHS Employee Perspectives.
The consistent theme and definition of WLB is essentially an acceptable balance between employee work and personal lives. However, with a global economy filled with increasing obstacles, unpredictable events, changing workforce needs and new generational demands, HR leaders and business managers can take the reins and completely redefine what this means to their company and their employees - while overcoming the problem of work-life imbalance and its associated negative spillover in organizational functions.
The Evolution of Work-Life Balance
A Century of Hard Work
Over the past 150, the concept of work-life balance and the amount of hours worked has been constantly changed, defined and redefined. Overall, you may or may not be surprised to discover that working hours have decreased drastically over the past 150 years.
The Industrial Revolution in Europe and in the United States, and the innovative technologies brought with it, played a strong role in the restructuring of work hours. That’s right, in 1870 most workers in early-industrialized economies worked around 3,500 hours a year - that’s 70 hours a week.
That number has been cut today by 50% due to global labor laws. In France, for example, there is a maximum 35-hour workweek, one of the shortest in the world. So while the global workforce in the 19th and 20th century was working extremely long hours, this cut into personal time and rest periods between work, making it hard to imagine that there was any healthy balance between work and personal time.
Innovation, industrialization and technology provided employers and employees with the tools to work with greater efficiency while reducing expensive costs and decreasing the amount of time spent during a typical work day.
However, the modern work-life balance has been drastically affected by the professional and workforce tools that are constantly being introduced into the working environment. After-work emails and phone calls are just a small but significant example of the sometimes necessary, but certainly invasive, form of trespassing into an employee’s work-life balance.
The boundary between work life and home life has shrunk with new information and communication technologies, and even more so with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. This past year, more than ever, companies and employees have had to adapt to a work-from-home world - and shifting from in-house to remote work has certainly been a struggle.
How can an employee create a real boundary between a healthy work and private life when the two are mixed together? Does the boundary even exist anymore?
Some of the best companies for WLB have been proactively leading the way by providing their employees with paid-time and parental leave policies, accommodating home-office needs with office supplies and equipment, offering perks that make remote work more comfortable and engaging, and supporting digital solutions that allow workers to manage their day-to-day availability, requests and flexible work schedules from afar. While digital tools can create an absence of limits for personal, private lives and excessive interference, they also bring flexibility and freedom to employees who crave that balance.
Putting Balance into Practice Worldwide
There is a wide gap between corporate practices and initiatives, and employees’ understanding of the concept of work-life balance. What many employers may find most challenging is providing an initiative which would take into account the intrinsic interest of employees and create a conducive, motivational work environment, but without resulting in considerable increase in time and expenses to the company.
Around the world, countries are attempting to find the right way to define a WLB equation for their workforce.
The open-to-interpretation concept of WLB is expressed clearly in the 2017 El Khomri Law in France, a leading legislator of WLB related regulations. The law gives employees the Right to Disconnect from digital tools outside of work hours, introduced following various calls to reform and a 2016 study that discovered that 62% of workers wanted better regulation on the use of professional digital tools during their leisure time. Interestingly enough, the El Khomri Law does not apply to independent or freelance workers.
However, while the El Khomri Law does introduce the right to disconnect, it does not define it, thus allowing companies and employers to choose and implement the best ways to go about this regulation. Employers need to be able to take into consideration the nature of their business while understanding the needs and rights of their employees.
Businesses in Germany have also implemented similar policies to promote better employee WLB, although there is no officially mandated legislation. Companies like Volkswagen, Telekom and Bayer have placed limits on the amount of digital connection employees have after designated work hours. The employment ministry actually banned its managers from contacting employees after hours in order to protect the mental health of their workforce.
The European Union recently passed a Working Time Directive, outlining the conditions of employees in regards to daily and weekly limitations, rest periods, leaves and overtime. By enforcing a maximum 48-hour week, the directive allows employees to enjoy their personal lives outside of their job framework.
Sweden is actually becoming a prominent figure in flexible work hours. Under Swedish law, employees have the right to take leave to look after a sick child with the state reimbursing them for 80% of their salary; some companies only require employees to be in the office between 9am and 4pm. With flexible schedules becoming the norm, Sweden strongly promotes a healthy employee work-life balance with a happy and efficient workforce.
Based on the acting examples of these countries and their WLB regulations, the following are suggestions and implications that would aid the implementation of WLB policies in industry sectors:
- Flexi-Time Schedules: Flexible working hours and schedules are commonly used to benefit both parties by granting employees greater flexibility and autonomy, and a less stressful work-life balance. The anticipation of working unusual or unpredictable hours has been shown to lead to poor psychological, economic and mental wellbeing risks (which is a major part of why the Fair Workweek Initiative gained so much traction in the United States - and around the world.)
- Leave Management: Organizational encouragement of leave initiatives and programs, and proper management of requests and time-off, is important. Many companies choose to provide their employees with tools to directly manage sick leaves, child care support requests, and more through their managers. Managerial support, responsiveness and communication is crucial in securing a committed, engaged and happy workforce.
- WLB Strategies: The instant-gratification and demand of today’s modern society can be a major interfering factor behind a company’s or employee’s poor WLB. It is becoming increasingly important that WLB-related policies should be included in the HR and Operations strategies of organizations. The adoption of work-life balance programs would help companies gain a competitive edge through the attraction and retention of highly skilled and qualified employees.
Create the Right WLB for Your Company
“We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own ‘to do’ list,” said Michelle Obama, former First Lady.
Providing a great work-life balance in today’s fast-paced globalization and competition is an undeniable challenge but an, or arguably ‘the’, important factor for improving employee wellbeing and reducing the high turnover rates that affect nearly every industry.
Organizations that provide flexible work arrangements, enforce fair labor regulations, protect workers’ rights and empower employees with tools for wellbeing, growth and autonomy will achieve greater results and greater success.