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Why We Suck At Work-Life Balance, And How We Can Suck Less

Mark NicholsLast Updated: March 17, 2016


When it comes to work-life balance, we tech folk are a spoiled bunch. On paper, at least. 

We go to work every day at companies that champion work-life balance in revolutionary ways. Unlimited vacation policies have become widespread, with some companies even going so far as to enforce mandated vacation. Some particularly crazy companies even give their employees a time-off stipend, effectively gifting everyone a free getaway.

Beyond that, almost everyone has the freedom to work from home at least some of the time, should they choose to. We’re granted the freedom to pick up our kids from daycare, go wait in line at the passport office, or do whatever it is we need to do to make our pro-work lives that much more fulfilled.

And yet, despite all the touting of work-life balance in the industry, we don’t seem to have reclaimed much of our lives. A recent study shows that half of us still bemoan our lack of personal time. Get this:

1 in 5 respondents spent over 20 hours per week at work during what should be their personal time.

So here we are, the most privileged group of professionals ever, and despite every advantage we still aren’t getting any closer to the coveted work-life balance. What are we doing wrong?

Always working harder: It’s the American way

Overwork is nothing new to the average American worker, although the current state is considerably less urgent than it was, say, a century ago, when our nicely appointed offices were literal hellholes in the ground.

Take the Coal Strike of 1902, which was preceded by many strikes, but helped lead the way for workers to gain rights that those before them could only dream about. Among other hugely significant outcomes, the coal worker’s workdays were reduced from ten hours to nine.

While that’s a far, far cry from today’s perks of catered lunches and on-site baristas, it’s an important reference point in the long line of constant battles to reclaim our lives, sanity, and health from our employers. We wouldn’t have our unlimited vacations or even be thinking about work-life balance if our great-great-grandfathers hadn’t fought for one day off per week.

The oligarchs who thought a 70-hour workweek was a reasonable expectation of their workers have long been eradicated, but they were replaced by a nifty efficiency technique called time-and-motion studies, which came into fashion in the 1950s. At its core, time-and-motion is “the direct and continuous observation of a task to record the time taken to accomplish a task,” and was used as a way of standardizing and planning work. In an age of increasingly powerful unions, it was a powerful way for management to reassert their strength and intensify the pace of production.

This new type of scientific management also encapsulated a strange type of cynicism about the average worker and their production, and subtly enforced the idea that an honest day’s work was not quite enough to keep your boss—and your co-workers—satisfied. Check out Frederick Winslow Taylor’s concept of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay,” wherein “if a worker didn’t achieve enough in a day, he didn’t deserve to be paid as much as another worker who was highly productive.”

Suddenly, being in direct competition with your co-workers became a vital part of work.

This concept has evolved in some frightening ways, including at a Miami company which required their employees to download an app that tracked their whereabouts 24 hours a day. According to a plaintiff in a pending lawsuit against the company, a manager joked that he knew how fast she was driving at all times. As absurd as that example sounds, here’s another one:

One-third of us feel that we’re expected to check email and stay in touch when we’re not working.

In most cases, though, we’re not dealing with explicit duress like our forefathers. Instead, we’re dealing with the just-as-insidious idea that if we don’t continue pressing ourselves forward, we’re certain to miss out on an opportunity that might not even exist.

Without even realizing it, we’ve been pitted against our fellow employees, and left to constantly worry that we might not be good enough to stay afloat and earn our keep every day.

While we have some sense of the origins of this idea, each employee—and employer—ultimately has a multitude of reasons for overworking in the 21st century, and being robbed of their work-life balance birthright in the process. This HBR piece nicely outlines the psychology of overwork:

…we log too many hours because of a mix of inner drivers, like ambition, machismo, greed, anxiety, guilt, enjoyment, pride, the pull of short-term rewards, a desire to prove we’re important, or an overdeveloped sense of duty.”

Almost in perfect tandem with the ascent of the concept of ‘personal time,’ employers have gotten very good at using our natural competitive instincts to drive us harder during the precious time they’re owed.

So while we’ve made enormous policy strides in the last century to ensure that we can’t quite be worked to death, we’re easily convinced that we need to work harder. The drive to work hard—harder than we’re even expected to—is deep-rooted enough to persist even in the people-first nirvana of the 2016 office.

First, a fair possibility: We’re just really bad at managing personal time

Let’s take some of the heat off of ‘the man’ for a second here, and talk about the half of us who bemoan our lack of personal time, per that aforementioned study.

Regardless of how hard we’re worked during office hours, maximizing how we spend our personal lives is up to us, not our employers. If you punch out at 5:30 every day free and clear, only to spend your unencumbered nights and weekends watching LOST through for the third time with your spouse, complaints about your lack of personal time will fall on deaf ears. Sorry.

However, if your perceived expectations at work are heavily intruding on what should be your time off, there’s cause for concern. If nothing else, it’s clear to us today what is our personal time and what isn’t; we generally have a good idea of when we’re expected to clock in, check in, or head to the pub.

So for the 1/5th of survey respondents who spend 20 hours working during what they believe to be their personal time, how do we account for that? How do we account for those who don’t even take their two weeks of vacation per year, or those who go into work sick because they feel they can’t miss a day?

The key, I think, is to start taking our generous personal time policies much more seriously—at every level in the org chart.

A likely reality: Bad examples of work-life balance lead the way

Even if management is willing to give us a pass on the time off we need, we’re certainly not immune to the judgment of our fellow co-workers—especially in high-stress, competitive atmospheres.

In Why Some Men Pretend to Work 80-Hour Weeks, Erin Reid relays stories of how regular people were unfairly scrutinized for taking their permitted time off. Michael, for example, wanted to take 3 months—the full amount allowed by the FMLA—but was met with resistance by his co-workers and managers:

…Michael settled for just six weeks of unpaid leave. When he returned to the office following this leave, he also returned to the expected mode of working: he worked very long hours, traveling weekly, for the rest of the year. Yet, he found that ‘people still talked like I was out three months.’”

Too often—indeed, almost as a rule—there’s a disconnect between management and employees. Even though the dynamic has shifted from the days of the coal mine to be much, much, much more employee-friendly, we still look above for approval, guidance, and standards—even apart from the ones set forth in our company’s policies. It’s a part of the work of work we’ve yet to shake off.

So rather than following the generous policies set forth by our companies, we follow what would look best to management. And if management is getting what they want, it’s increasingly hard for them to interject and tell you to start taking better care of yourself.

This concept of ‘looking good’ has taken hold at huge companies. In a scathing exposé last August in the New York Times, Amazon’s culture of backstabbery and annual culls came to light:

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are ‘unreasonably high.’ The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.”

While Amazon’s management policies most explicitly take advantage of our innate and ruthless desire to get ahead, we should consider that most of us contribute to the problem in less pronounced ways.

For example, over at Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer announced not long ago that she’s pregnant with twins. Buried in the lede is a quick note about taking “limited time off,” and Mayer only took two weeks off after the birth of her first child. Yahoo currently offers new mothers up to 16 weeks PTO, and 8 weeks for new dads. Her reason for the shortened leave is that the pregnancy has been “healthy and uncomplicated,” and that it’s a “unique time in Yahoo’s transformation.”

It’s hard not to notice the instrumental precedent being set by Mayer: that despite Yahoo’s generous policies, employees should only take advantage of them if they really need to. They’re a suggestion, not a standard.

Mark Zuckerberg followed close suit and announced that he was taking 2 months paternity leave following the birth of his daughter—a jump, but still only half of what Facebook employees are permitted.

This is often seen with unlimited vacation, too, but with a bit of a twist: when there’s a time-off policy, but one without strict rules, people are rarely sure how much time is appropriate to take off. When this happens—when a policy typically viewed as a guide suddenly shifts into a grey area—we’re apt to follow the leader (or the most obvious precedent), and keep a close eye on how much time our co-workers decide to take. We want to carefully ensure that we’re walking the line of fairness.

As always, in the absence of structure, one usually forms anyway, and it’s usually toxic. Perhaps worst of all, “excessive” time off creates an unspoken policy that, since you’re so relaxed, you’ll work harder and more productively when you’re on the job.

It’s far too tempting to think we can set-it-and-forget-it with our policies, and it’s rarely the truth: people are always watching, with their finger on the pulse, waiting to see what will vault them ahead and what might leave them in the dust. Just because someone can take parental leave for 4 months doesn’t mean they will: that’s a decision more likely to be influenced by you, Mr. Manager, who only took two. Or perhaps your firm is starting a big new project soon—or going through a ‘unique transformation.’ Whatever that means.

This mismatch of expectation and policy might seem easily brushed off when it’s made by an entry or mid-level employee, but what about when it’s someone like Marissa Mayer—a CEO whose every thought impacts the stock price? It’s important to realize that management influences workplace culture not only by setting the policies, but by how they follow them. After all, we read biographies, profiles, and rambling thinkpieces by people who are where we want to be because we’re looking for guidance through a dark subject.

To paraphrase author Jonathan Franzen: a leader, as represented by his character Andreas Wolf in Purity, often has the power to alter the geometry of a room. This is a power and influence that should not be taken lightly.

We’re sorta still in the coal mine

So, why do we suck at work-life balance? Because even though the workplace is better for the employee than it’s ever been (uh, except for Amazon), we’re still playing the same old games. We have our incredible perks—our generous pat/mat leaves, our unlimited vacations—but we’re still living in fear of what we’re missing if we take advantage of them.

Will we fall behind?

Will our co-workers hate us?

Will we just lose our job?

The game is as it has always been: we’re afraid to snag what’s rightfully ours because of what we might lose if we do.

And as managers, directors, and business owners, we make mincemeat of these policies for a litany of reasons we try to rationalize: We don’t need parental leave because we can afford extensive childcare; we take zero vacation days because nobody can steer the ship but us.

Despite all these perks on the table, they mostly exist to serve as a beacon for what we know we’re missing while we slog through a 60-hour workweek. And so there we are, surrounded by wonderful policies, yet feeling unbalanced, unhappy, and as far away from a work-life balance as ever.

We’re certainly not in the coal mine anymore, but sometimes it can sure feel like it. What’s a practical way forward?

PTO: Predictable Time Off

What if we forced policies, rather than just suggesting them?

In an excellent Harvard Business Review study in 2009, Leslie A. Perlow and Jessica L. Porter discussed how Boston Consulting Group (BCG), an international company full of chronically overworked, “always on” professionals, could enforce time off.

The study was simple: take a company where nearly half the team works more than 65 hours a week—plus an informal expectation that they’ll respond to colleagues or clients within an hour—and give them predictable, heavily enforced time off, during which they’re absolutely not allowed to check voicemail or e-mail (this is 2009, pre-Slack).

There were two primary experiments: one in which employees were required to take a full day off each week, and another where participants were forced to take a predetermined night off per week. While the experiments were met with initial resistance, the anxiety gradually wore off and the work/life benefits shined through.

Of the reasons the experiment was ultimately a success for BCG, number one was the fact that it was not a suggestion to go enjoy all the fruits of life outside of work—it was an unquestionable demand. And not only that: it was a demand placed upon everyone, which reduced the potential feelings of ‘falling behind’:

…the feasibility of taking time off and the potential value of time off must first be recognized. Initially, everyone must take off the same type of time. Otherwise inequity (or the perception of it) can creep in. For example, is an hour in the morning the same as an hour at night? Is a Friday night off the same as a weeknight off? It quickly becomes quite complicated to assess the relative value of time off when it is freely selected… Team members will also be more attuned to protecting their own and their teammates’ time off.”

In this experiment, the natural competitive instincts that keep us obsessing over work—and in constant deference to our managers—suddenly came off the table. Even managers weren’t immune: their role was to be as transparent as possible about when they were taking personal time in order to foster better communication around when time off was acceptable.

‘It was helpful to know that the reason the partner missed a meeting was that he was taking his daughter on a college tour,’ one consultant noted. ‘That helped me see that these issues are important to him.’ Another consultant added that at a kickoff meeting, the senior partner said that work was very important to him but not the most important thing in his life, and he didn’t want to have to be embarrassed to say so. The consultant reported, ‘I had never heard a partner talk like that before. My work is really important to me, too, but it is not the most important thing in my life. [His openness] made me comfortable to admit that.’”

Imagine a workplace like this:

Rather than an office full of overworked employees united in their vague pursuit of some goal—a promotion, a raise, just not getting screamed at—every employee had balance and clarity in their lives. Nobody wondered or worried about how much vacation or personal time was reasonable, they just took exactly what was permitted and expected.

Having a kid? See you in three months, no questions asked. Going on vacation for one and a half weeks? Take two. And for the love of god, stop replying to emails after 6 PM.

Codified as a set of strict policies and not a competitive guessing game, just think of the mental energy freed up to focus on not only better work, but actually fulfilled personal time.

It could be what gives us the work-life balance we’ve been looking for.


-Lead image: Bully

-1902 Miner Punch: Today in Labor History

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