The First Step to Achieving Work-Life Balance? Stop Calling It That.
Not too long ago, the mere mention of "work-life balance" would have raised a few eyebrows in the coiffed, stuffy corners of the c-suite of most Fortune 500 companies. It might’ve been touted as something "new age-y" for laid-back Californians, but certainly not something for corporate America.
However, a shift has occurred: Today,the term work-life balance has become ingrained in many company cultures.
In my opinion, though, there is a caveat here: We need to stop referring to work-life balance and switch to “work-life integration.”
The reason is that "c-suite" is synonymous with corner offices, high salaries and big responsibilities. It implies pressure to perform constantly and fears about not delivering, plus financial pressures and constant public and private scrutiny. These things take their toll. CEOs may appear superhuman, but the reality is, they’re as fallible as anyone else and not immune to bouts of mental illnesses like depression.
According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, depressive disorders affect approximately 15 million Americans, or 6.7 percent of the U.S. population over 18. The National Institute of Mental Health says that one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. Other studies suggest that the rate of depression among CEOs could be double that of the national population.
So, as tough as we entrepreneurs think we are (or need to be), this is nothing to scoff at. Mental illness still carries a heavy stigma, and while it has become a more acceptable topic to talk about, in the c-suite it remains one of the last taboo topics.
The life of a CEO, whether he or she heads a huge corporation or an entrepreneurial company, can be an isolated one, with pressure to deliver. Recently, we heard the news about two seemingly successful people, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, taking their own lives.
It's not true, then, that successful people have it all nor is it true that anyone knows what’s going on with a person living with mental illness, except that person (and perhaps his or her partner). What's more, this is not just a health issue, it’s an economic one: Depression causes an estimated 200 million lost work days each year, costing employers up to $44 million annually, report the Centers for Disease Control. The American Institute of Stress estimates the loss from one million workers missing work each day as $602 per employee, per year.
So, what can corporate America do to create a better culture and destigmatize the struggles of many, including CEOs? Focus on integation, not balance, with the following strategies:
Limit email time after work hours.
It’s tempting to reach for your phone every time you hear that “ding” while you’re home. It’s even more tempting to answer emails, to take things off your task list the next day. STOP!
Or at least set some parameters for your team to follow. For example, if you’re emailing me to say “thank you” or answer with a smiley face, don’t. I’ve told my team to avoid flooding my inbox with politeness. I appreciate the good intentions behind such emails but they clog my inbox and cut into my "at home" time.
C-suite executive Jake Bennett, CTO of POP, told me that for something time sensitive, employees may call him his cell phone. However, for non-urgent matters, he has them send an email with the understanding that he’ll reply in the morning.
Some of us agree with that directive because we believe that work time is work time and personal time should remain so. The two should never cross paths unless there's a dire emergency.
Take time off.
Taking vacation time is something that not just CEOs or c-suite executives find difficult to do. American workers who work 50 hours or more per week don’t take all or most of the vacation time they’ve accrued, according to a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard University. The poll also found that of those who do take vacations, 30 percent said they still work while away.
Recently, my wife and I went to Ireland for two weeks. I had to disconnect for a few days (wife’s orders), but eventually, I was able to check on email for a few hours in the morning. After that, it was back to exploring and connecting with relatives overseas.
Remember, the work you’ve done may have gotten you to where you are, but it won’t keep you there forever. So, take your vacation. Disconnect. Go off the grid. The world won’t stop spinning if you don’t check your emails for a few days.
And if there’s an emergency, designate someone to be in charge. If you’re worried about the bottom line, not taking some time off to decompress can end up affecting that same bottom line.
Allow for flexible schedules.
Many companies have adapted in order to have their employees work from home part-time and have reported a number of gains as a result. According to a FlexJobs study, almost 3 percent of the workforce work from home at least half the time. Lightning Bolt Solutions CEO Suvas Vajracharya says his employees work from home two days a week and come to the office the rest of the week. That balance has created a more cohesive company culture, reduces commuting times and has even helped forge better employee relationships, Vajracharya says.
This works for the c-suite, too.
These executives should be taking advantage of every piece of technology that allows for more flexibility. Technology makes it easier to connect from anywhere at any time. If it exists, it seems a waste not to use it. CEOs need a shift in mentality that revolves less around the clock and more around productivity. Flexibility increases engagement in the work that needs to get done. I think it’s a fair exchange.
Have some “me” time.
Many people have trouble with this concept. CEO and entrepreneurs are adrenaline junkies by nature, so finding “me” time can be one of the biggest challenges they face. Some think it’s selfish, but the truth is, if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else. In order for “me” time to be successful, block some time on your calendar to read, relax, exercise or simply enjoy the view.
Personally speaking, my “me” time involves fishing and hunting in my home state of South Dakota. Every year, I take my business partner, my son and a friend or two to on a trip; and my team knows when I’ll be out of reach, since it’s on my calendar. That’s my “me” time. That’s how I decompress, find balance, recharge for the next leg of my entrepreneurial journey.
While the c-suite won't likely ever be confused with a hip, laid-back environment, changes are taking place to ensure that our nation's workforce finds the balance it needs to stay as healthy and productive as possible, not to mention the ability to successfully integrate our work and home lives to improve our overall mental health.
CEOs are human beings too; and human beings can suffer from depression. So, let’s do all we can to normalize a culture of wellness.