The ‘opium’ of work-life balance…

Economy, Industry News, People, Work Place Competencies

Recently I read an ‘open’ letter supposedly written by a leading Industrialist to his employees, urging them to finish their work during office hours and spend personal time with their families.  It was an impactful message on managing our productivity, and having a good ‘work-life balance’.

Though I am not sure how authentic that letter was, but it brings up an interesting facet of the modern workplace.

“Work-Life Balance” was coined sometime in the seventies to stress on importance of giving time for personal work, rejuvenation, family and social engagements etc . This was to ensure employees maintain their mental and physical health and sustain productivity at work. Since then, the concept has grown to be a significant aspect of benefits offered to employees.

Today, leading organizations offer numerous perks to improve the work-life balance of their employees, including paid holidays, wellness support, flexi-timing etc. This is necessitated by the need to retain good talent and sustain desired levels of productivity.

But are ‘work-life balance’ benefits truly working for Organizations and their employees?

Obviously, they improve the health and personal life of the employees, but to what extent?  As per the Global Human Trend Report (Deloitte 2015), more than 85% of employees were disengaged at work and less than 50% would “recommend their employer to peers”.(No wonder, they need a break from the stress and drudgery of their workplace).

Some statistics related to ‘work-life Balance’: (Workplace Flexibility study 2015)

  • Two third of the employers think they offer good work-life balance while 50% of their employees do not think so.
  • More than 80% employees spend average 10 hours of their personal time for office work every week. (Not surprising as >65% employers expect their employees to be connected after office hours).

On the other hand, more than 50% employers are planning to spend more towards work life balance benefits for their employees by offering flexi timing, paid holidays, health/wellness support, community involvement, caring for dependents, financial support, culture change initiatives, outplacement support etc. By the way, their biggest concern is that these benefits would be misused by the employees.

Of course, most organizations showcase their ‘work-life balance’ perks to attract good talent (@ 70%)

Interestingly, as per surveys done in organizations which offer such perks, a significant number of employees, especially males, single and those aged > 40 years (Baby Boomers/GenX), hardly use these benefits.

The larger reasons being that they are not aware, are discouraged by the organizational culture, fear that availing the ‘benefits’ would impact their growth prospects or are uncomfortable being away from the workplace. The need to be ‘on top of the situation’ dissuades them from taking long leave or ‘switching off’.

As per latest trends, voluntary turnover is increasing across the globe. To retain talent and deepen engagement, organizations seem to lean on ‘work-life’ perks (among other things) as a quick solution.

This does raise the question whether ‘work-life balance’ benefits are a genuine solution or just a palliative for a deeper issue?

Working in an organization has its share of ‘mental pain’ and stress. To varying degree ( and varying times), most employees would wax eloquent on the frustration of ‘incompetent’ supervisors, unproductive meetings, paralyzing  rules and procedures, throttled innovation, slow process, wasteful work, complicated matrix structures, need to seek alignment et al. On top of that, human related issues like nepotism, corporate politics or poor communication. Everyone needs the ‘opium’ of  paid leave, flexible timing and other benefits to rejuvenate and get back to the ‘grind’

As we move into the future with rapid technological changes, unstable employment and complex work environment, the profile of ‘work-life balance’ benefits might change (For example, most employees now consider ‘outplacement benefits’ as a more important perk ).

But will they really solve the deeper issue of ‘disengagement’ and mental stress related to work?

The answer supposedly lies as much with the new age worker, as with his organization. The worker of the future may have to realize that ‘work life balance’,as it is perceived and offered by her employer  is more like a ‘soothing balm’, and to cure the ‘pain’ a deeper approach may be required. Some key competences which he/she may have to develop are:

I am responsible for my productivity:  A proactive approach to sustained productivity, which may include good living habits (exercise, rest, food), continually skilling oneself, building competencies and focusing on areas of excellence. A good question to ask would be “how am I adding value to my organization and myself?”  If required, boldly share work challenges with the organization to seek help.

I am able to say ‘No’: As one takes responsibility for productivity, the challenge is to know ‘what I should not do’ and learn to refuse. Whether at work or on the personal front, there are commitments which are better refused, so as to avoid conflict later. As technology takes us into a 24×7 work mode (which, I believe, is already happening), the choice of prioritizing work and life will be much more with the worker.

I have learnt to daily optimize my work and life: An intention to ‘optimize’ work and life on a daily basis. Finding ways to tackle work deadlines, keep oneself healthy, engage with the family and manage personal commitments within 24 hours of each day. This would also reduce dependence on the weekends to finish the ‘piled up’ family or health commitments. Use of technology, discipline, prioritization and innovation could help in making it happen.

I actively seek happiness in my work: More than job satisfaction, finding happiness and fulfillment might be the key to deeper ‘engagement’, which may give a more balanced approach to our ‘work life balance’. If the ‘happiness’ is not happening, look actively for other options. Thus, the weekend or paid holiday may not be just an ‘escape’ but more to rejuvenate and go back to do more of what we like.

It’s good for organizations to add to the ‘work-life balance’ perks offered to employees. Though eventually, it might reach a point of diminishing returns.

They might benefit much more in the long term by training and supporting their employees to build a proactive attitude of ‘work life optimization’.  Of course, it’s easier said than done !

Looking forward to feedback or views!


  1. Career Arc 2015 workplace flexibility study
  2. Corporate work life balance initiatives -Use and Effectiveness : Alexandra Beauregard
  3. Trends and Drivers of Workforce Turnover : Mercer ( 2014)
  4. Global Human Trend Report ( Deloitte 2015).

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