Why employee work-life balance matters and how you can improve it

Having a positive work-life balance can help employees carve out enough time for both work and the many other facets of their lives. But when running a business, although not intentional, it’s understandably easy to focus on the work domain of employees’ lives, forgetting they have a whole other life outside of the office.

However, it is crucial employees achieve a good work-life balance. Not only does it improve their mental health, but it benefits the business too; employees with a good balance are more efficient, productive and motivated.

And while ensuring such a balance isn’t the sole responsibility of employers, you can do a lot to help by establishing supportive policies and realistic expectations.

Work-life balance in the UK
At the moment, it’s fair to say that here in the UK we’re not quite there with the whole work-life balance concept. Around 6.5 million UK employees – that’s around 30% of the working population – describe themselves as unhappy at work, according to research published last year.

The Mental Health Foundation calls the increasingly demanding work culture in the UK “perhaps the biggest and most pressing challenge to the mental health of the general population”. A survey by the foundation on the subject demonstrates why this could be the case:

  • 1 in 3 feel unhappy about the time they devote to work
  • 40%+ are neglecting other aspects of their life because of work
  • When working long hours 27% feel depressed, 34% feel anxious and 58% feel irritable
  • Nearly two thirds of employees have experienced a negative effect on their personal life such as a lack of personal development, poor home life and physical and mental health issues

The survey also found that as weekly hours increase, so do feelings of unhappiness. Which feeds into their next finding: the more hours that employees spend at work, the more hours outside of work they are likely to spend thinking or worrying about it.

The benefits of a work-life balance
Muddling through with a poor work-life balance is no fun; it makes employees more disengaged with life in general, envious of their friends’ lifestyles and feeling alienated by modern life, according to the YouGov report. It’s bad news for their mental health too. The Mental Health Foundation states: “The cumulative effect of increased working hours is having an important effect on the lifestyle of a huge number of people, which is likely to prove damaging to their mental well-being.”

Poor mental well-being directly affects how employees behave at work – a government report on work related stress demonstrated that stress accounted for nearly half of all working days lost because of ill health

An ACAS report on flexible working and work-life balance showed how a poor balance can lead to absence, low productivity and stress. But when balance is achieved, benefits can include:

  • Better levels of efficiency and productivity
  • Lower levels of absence, sickness and stress
  • A motivated workforce
  • Improved customer service
  • Higher retention levels
  • More applicants for vacancies

There is no doubt that when employees are given the space and time to live a whole and rounded life their sense of wellbeing increases and they feel happier. And as this article highlights, a happier workforce is good news for business.

How to promote a work-life balance in the workplace
Most employees need to work to have sufficient money to live, so it can be challenging for them to bring up such issues with the employer. This is where you come in. There are many ways that business owners and HR managers can help employees achieve a better work-life balance:

  • Flexible working options (e.g. compressed hours, job sharing, remote working)
  • Paid time off policies
  • Supporting employees with caring duties (see our article How to support carer employees provides advice on this)
  • Implementing reasonable time and communication expectations
  • Mental and physical health promoting activities (e.g. gym membership, cycle to work scheme, lunchtime meditation classes)
  • Medical services such as 24/7 access to GP and health assessments at work help employees fit appointments around their work and other commitments.

It’s worth noting that a one-size-fits-all approach to balance is unlikely to be suitable. The mother struggling to juggle work, childcare and looking after her elderly parents isn’t going to benefit from the same solution as the millennial who wants to balance work with travel. To help your entire workforce live a more balanced life, you’ll need to tailor your approach individually. This could be achieved through one-on-one meetings with staff to see what solutions would best work for their specific situation. If your organisation is too large for this to be feasible, you could work with segmented focus groups e.g. new parents, graduates, carers and so on.

Of course, some balance-based policies can be applied across the board with success. Case in point: sensible communication expectations. The YouGov report found that pressure to respond to communications is one of the major culprits of work seeping into life, with 43% reading or sending work-related emails out of the office. It appears this culture of ‘always on’ is expected even on the annual summer holiday, with 38% reporting making or receiving work calls on holiday. You can go a long way towards restoring balance by implementing reasonable communication expectations (and then sticking to them).

To achieve a workplace culture which promotes balance, the above efforts must be underpinned by managers who truly get the importance of work-life balance. Training may be required to enable managers to spot signs of poor balance and its effects on the individuals. Work-life balance should also be modelled from the top down. If business owners and the senior management team take a break away from their desks for lunch, employees won’t feel obliged to stay at theirs.

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Good work-life balance benefits both the employee and business, making it worthy of your time and investment. Why not use some of the above ideas to kick-start the conversation around work-life balance in your workplace? Let us know how you get on via LinkedIn and Twitter using #worklifebalance

This content originally appeared on Benenden’s workplace hub where employers can find a range of related articles to help with their health and wellbeing strategy.