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Work-life balance: How managers can help their people (and themselves) 

As a busy manager, you’ve probably wondered how to strike the right balance between your work life and your home life. If so, you’re not alone.  

The work-life balancing act was already hard before the pandemic but, in the past two years, it’s become even trickier. Amidst lockdowns, travel restrictions, and home-schooling, the lines between work and home have never been so blurred. And it’s taken a big toll on managers and their people.  

Harvard Business Review reports 85% of workers experienced a decline in wellbeing in the past two years, while a global study from Coursera cited worker burnout as the number one reason that people quit jobs. 

It’s no wonder that research by the National Bank of Australia found one in five Australians surveyed quit their job in 2021, and a PwC Australia survey found 38% of Australian workers want to switch jobs in 2022.  

In this time of The Great Resignation, the message for managers and leaders is clear: Prioritise your people’s work-life balance, or they may walk out the door. 

More pressure, fewer boundaries 

Depending on where you live, the pandemic has probably changed how you socialise, how you holiday, how you exercise, how you see your family – and how you work. 

As managers and their teams galloped into the unknown territory of working from home en masse, many slipped into the trap of letting work intrude on their private lives. The lack of physical boundaries between the spaces in which we work and live has made it almost impossible to separate the two. For many, that has led to longer working hours, higher stress levels, poorer mental health and – in extreme cases – burnout.  

However, the good news for managers is that you can be part of the solution. In this article, I’ll offer some suggestions to help you help your people strike a better balance. 

Prevention measures to find a heathier balance 

As a manager, you have a wonderful opportunity to set the tone in your team. You can help demonstrate the behaviour you wish to see in others. If people see you setting boundaries that prioritise your health and wellbeing (as well as those you care about) while remaining open and accessible, then they’ll find it easier to do likewise.  

Being unambiguous about your expectations is also crucial. One of the most effective things you can do as a leader is to be crystal clear about what you expect from people and – perhaps even more importantly – what you don’t. Give them clear responsibilities, be calm and measured and, above all, remember that everyone is only human. Right now, we’re all figuring out new ways of working. We’ve all got things going on outside our jobs too. And we’re all going to make mistakes. So it’s important to show your people that you understand this. 

Try to remember (and remind your people) that most jobs are not a matter of life or death. Chances are, no one’s going to die if you miss a meeting, struggle to hand in a report or need a little bit longer to hit certain targets. 

So, encourage your teams to work smarter, not harder. From a manager’s perspective, working smarter might include putting systems in place that force you not to micromanage. Trust your team. They’ll be happier, healthier, and more productive when they feel you have confidence in them, and that you’re not peering over their shoulder. That doesn’t mean letting them run wild – it just means being constantly willing to adapt and change the way things work.   

Look for the joy together 

Instead of seeking work-life balance, I believe we will all be happier when we accept that work is a significant part of everyday life. Balance comes from finding joy in whatever work we do.  

So, try to remember why it is that you do your job (including what you love about it and what its purpose is). And then, ask those questions of your team members, too. Give them the opportunity to stop and reflect, to assess and to adjust.  

Create a safe and open space for them to discuss what’s not working and to suggest meaningful changes. Just because something has always been done a particular way at your organisation, doesn’t mean that it’s the right way. Give yourself and others space to be flexible, creative, and innovative. The more people enjoy work and feel their leaders are approachable, the easier they’ll find it to strike a better balance at work. 

Warning signs that work life balance is off kilter 

Despite your best efforts, some of your colleagues may still struggle with balancing the competing demands in their lives. But as the pandemic continues, spotting the symptoms of this can seem difficult. With many teams now working remotely, it can be harder to get a sense of how people are feeling and coping.  

However, there are still some simple ways to connect with your people, and warning signs to watch out for: 

  • Do you keep in touch with them? It’s surprising how many managers do not meet with their direct reports on a weekly basis. Having that quick ‘check in’ every week provides a platform for your people to talk about how they are tracking, and what support they might require from you. It also reduces the chances of small problems festering out of sight where they can grow bigger and harder to solve. 
  • Are they getting their work done? This sounds obvious but, if you have a team member who is habitually missing deadlines or falling behind, that could be a sign they’re struggling with balance. 
  • When are they working? The beauty of increased work flexibility is that people can mould their workday around their home life. They might, for example, pick up the kids from school at 3pm and then catch up on work at 7pm. But if you’re seeing emails from colleagues sent at all hours of the night and day, this is often a sign that they are overdoing it. 
  • Has their behaviour altered? Are they suddenly struggling to make decisions or remember important information? Have you noticed a drop in their confidence? These could be signs that someone is overwhelmed. 

If you do have concerns about a team member, it’s important to raise these in a manner where they feel safe and comfortable. Here, preparation can make all the difference. Consider how you, as their manager, might be able to support them – but also find out what resources your organisation might have to offer (e.g. an employee assistance program). Your aim should be for a constructive conversation, where you commit to listening to whatever your colleague has to say. Beyond Blue and NZ’s Mental Health Foundation offer further advice on how to have such discussions. (And, if you run a small business, you may find this web page useful too.) 

Start with the manager in the mirror 

I’ve worked alongside managers and leaders for many years, and I’m constantly impressed with how many of them put their people first. Such selflessness is to be admired, but it’s also important to remember that you can’t look after other people unless you also take care of yourself.  

So ultimately, when it comes to balance, my advice is to start with yourself. What matters most to you? What do you love doing at work? Take the time to answer these questions, and you’ll set yourself (and your people) on a path towards better balance. 

About the author 
Susan Rochester FIML is Managing Director of Balance at Work and co-host of the new Work Wonders Podcast. Both her website and podcast include a range of practical and useful resources to help managers achieve balance.


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