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Work Life Balance. The Best Place to Start.

What's your biggest challenge at work?

Biggest Challenge at Work Commentary are Tim’s thoughts on real-life challenges submitted by readers like you. Want to send us your challenge? Take the Biggest Challenge at Work Survey

Lifestyle Consultant

Not everyone who has downloaded 22 Surefire Ways to Boost Employee Engagement works for a big corporation and is looking to engage hundreds of people. Some of my readers are self-employed, and they are looking to engage… themselves.

These folks don’t need to call a council meeting to find out what’s dragging them down. Nor are they afraid to tell it like it is to their boss. Yet their needs are not that different from the needs of other worker-bees. For example, this Lifestyle Consultant is craving balance.

So, here’s a thought for all of you listicle-mongers on the quest for employee engagement. What about balance? Could it be the missing link? Can it help at least some of us work like we mean it?

Why not? It seems as though people who have balance in their lives don’t resent their work. They don’t do a half-ass job and leave it to the manager to fix it. They have room for passion, meaning, and growth in their work.

Unfortunately balance is rare. Instead, companies are full of desperate, unbalanced managers and employees. Which must be the reason that our Lifestyle Consultant is so busy these days that even he has to put his lifestyle on hold.

Sure, Tim. Balance is nice. And it's popular with the Millennials. But is it something a company can take on, on behalf of its employees?

I think the answer is yes. Not only it can, but it must.

But first, some clarity on the word “balance.” Balance at work can mean anything from eating lunch to handling your emotions. When we say we need balance, do we mean balance between job and family? Between creativity and productivity? Between work and play?

If you answered “all of the above,” you are correct. If you needed a reliable car, you wouldn’t choose to maintain some parts, but not the others. Similarly, the secret to employee engagement is, plain and simple, working with the whole person.

Clearly, that’s a lot, and I won’t be able to cover it all here. If you really want to look at all the moving parts of the company-manager-employee relationship, I’d like to refer you to my book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? I wrote it to explain all the sources of employee unhappiness and disengagement. And if you’re struggling with a particular challenge, you’re very likely to find the answer there.

In the meantime, we could talk about the most basic, common, and obvious imbalance in most of our work lives. And that is the imbalance between work and rest.

In the book, I go into all sorts of work-rest cycles in Chapter 24, Give Them a Break. Most people have a good understanding of one or two. If true balance is a goal of yours—for yourself, your reports, or even your entire company—I encourage you to read and think through all of the work cycles we experience in our lives. Again, not enough room here to do it complete justice, but this article will definitely get you started.

Let me say right away that the problem is not how many hours you work. You could be working 80 hours a week and feeling great. Or you could be working 20 and feeling miserable. Here’s what’s really important: can you get a break from work when you need one?

By the way, I am not talking about family emergencies. That goes without saying. Rather, I am interested in the times when you feel depleted. Physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. Do you even allow yourself to feel depleted? And if so, do you know what it is that you need to feel whole again? Is it a stretch? A walk? A nap? A day off? A 2-week vacation? Or a 6-months sabbatical to rediscover your purpose?

Most of us think that we can somehow ignore or delay our urges. Not only do we believe ourselves capable of fooling our survival instincts, but also obligated to do so by our work contracts. Of course, when we do that, our need for a break doesn’t go anywhere. Instead, work becomes something that goes against our nature. Until we never want to go to work anymore. Hmm… what do you call that again?

Yet, the people who live and die by their ability to perform at full capacity never flat-out deny themselves. One mother of eight, for example, goes to bed whenever she starts feeling angry and fed up. No passing the blame. No playing the martyr. No matter what time of day it is. She always makes sure she gets at least some rest before attempting to solve any problems.

Another example is a manager of a small dance company. Every year he gets stuck with fitting all of the costumes for the upcoming season. For the last year’s production of the Nutcracker, he sewed 1,200 individual costume pieces. He gets through it by watching reruns of Friends while working late into the night, every night. Naps are not his thing, but he has found another way. The sitcom helps him put to sleep the anxious and judgmental part of the brain—the one that a lot of us tend to overwork—so he can focus on the task he already knows how to do.

Both of these people accomplish insane amounts of work by knowing when and how to take breaks. However, for the rest of us, it may not be as easy as it sounds. For one, the pressure we feel at work often overshadows all other feelings. Second, we won’t ask for what we need, unless others around us have it. That’s how a yoga mat in your cubicle becomes a question of workplace culture. Employees either feel safe and supported in their search for balance—or they don’t.

As managers, we are taught to look after work results, and let people figure out on their own how to rest. And yet the best managers seem to do the opposite. They train their people to take care of themselves, and trust them to figure out how to get their work done.

One of my friends built a fantastic company out of a dusty ceramics shop in a crime-ridden neighborhood. She never guilted anyone into coming to work. But she did force her employees to take paid summer and winter vacations, threw birthday parties for their kids, and even bought them plane tickets for a surprise getaway. She completely changed the way I thought about running a company and about employee engagement.

She was not the first employer to make sure her people got the rest they needed. Nor are generosity and trust limited to the quirky small businesses. In 1958, IBM became the first large-scale manufacturer to replace hourly wages with salaries for its entire workforce. The CEO Thomas Watson, Jr. had a similar idea: he wanted his people to be able to take breaks and vacations without the fear of losing their income.

"From time to time, I hear of people who are somehow too busy to take their vacations. Some of you may feel that this is a commendable attitude. I don't."
—Thomas Watson, Jr.

Of course, back in 1958, they didn’t have iphones and ipads to keep themselves glued to the screen around the clock. Today some tech companies literally have to teach their people how to relax and stop burning their eyes and ruining their posture. Some use standing desks. Some invest in window offices. Some collect handheld devices before sending employees home to rest.

Instead of searching for employee engagement ideas, you could ask your people what would help them feel less stressed and burnt out. Don’t worry about the cost. You could always start with something small. And yet the mere fact that you’re looking out for your people will change everything.


If you’re looking for balance in your life and work, you might like my book, because it will help you take unnecessarily struggle out of both.

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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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