Help Your Team Achieve Work-Life Balance — Even When You Can’t

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Originally published by Harvard Business Review.

You block time on your calendar for a yoga class, lunch with a friend, or even a tech Shabbat. But how often do you cancel it due to what seems a more urgent work demand? Recent research from Boston University and Harvard Business School faculty shows that with the unrelenting pace and volume of work, setting and keeping boundaries has never been more challenging — or more important.

As a leader, you have an opportunity to model behavior in a meaningful way and facilitate appropriate boundary setting for your team members and your organizations’ employees. This is necessary even if setting and keeping boundaries is an area you struggle with yourself.

I understand the challenge. As an investment banker at Goldman Sachs in the 90s, work came before everything else. To the firm, I was the “ideal worker” — a phrase sociologists use to describe a problematic archetype of a fully committed employee with no personal “entanglements.” I was single with no children, and had almost unlimited capacity for all things related to work. But so did my peers, whether or not they had children, partners, or aging parents. It was just the industry and firm norm.

It wasn’t until I moved to Paris in 1997 to become Finance Manager for Disney Consumer Products Europe, Middle East, and Africa that I experienced someone setting a non-negotiable boundary for herself.

We received a request from Disney headquarters in Burbank, California, for a financial analysis. I told our controller she needed to work late that night.


Stunned by her immediate response, I didn’t recall posing it as a question, nor did I even know that this response was an option.

She was a single parent who needed to pick up her child at daycare. She was also French; when she told me, she’d just shrugged her shoulders, seemingly not feeling any sense of conflict like her American colleagues might in the same situation.

I remember feeling both tremendous respect and envy for the boundary my colleague had set. She gave me the data I needed to complete the task, and the world didn’t fall apart when she left at 6 p.m.

Twenty years later, as an executive coach, work-life sustainability is a prominent issue that my clients grapple with, as they face the ever-higher work demands that have come with advances in technology. One client in San Francisco who works with a fast-growing tech company shared that she gets up at 4 a.m. to work. She has anxiety about the possibility of missing an email at midnight. “Is this normal?” she asked me. I responded that even if it is the norm for this company’s culture — and potentially many others — it is not acceptable universally, nor should it be.

A classic 1998 Stanford University study accurately predicted that by 2020 advances in technology will have eliminated many lower to mid-level jobs. These advances will have also significantly increased the workload of more senior managers, keeping them working around the clock.

A 2017 survey by Kronos and Future Workplace, reveals that the restructuring of work has resulted in significant burnout. Nearly half, or 46% of the human resource leaders surveyed, reported that employee burnout accounts for 20-50% of their companies’ annual employee turnover.

The irony is that HR leaders themselves are too overworked to address the vicious cycle of high burnout, low employee engagement, and low retention. Eighty-seven percent of HR leaders cited improved retention as a critical or high priority over the next five years, but 20% said they had too many competing priorities to focus on fixing the problem in 2017.

Here are six strategies to help you and your team members achieve better work-life sustainability through setting and keeping boundaries.

Communicate that the organization’s success is based on a marathon, not a sprint.

While there will still be high-stakes, time-sensitive issues like beating a competitor to market with a new product, acknowledge that endurance is the goal, and speed is not the best or only metric of long-term success.  You can verbally communicate this with your team, role model it, and create organizational operating principles around it. Consistency between what you say and do is essential. In the book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout and Thrive with the New Science of Success, authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness studied elite athletes and showed that rest periods allowed these athletes to go “full throttle” when they needed to, letting them perform at their best when it counted the most. Another study from the University of York and the University of Florida, showed that more than 40% of our creative ideas come when we are taking breaks or allowing our minds to wander. Tell your team to rest when they need to, and remind them that they can’t be at their best if they’re not taking time to decompress.

Hire enough staff, and take turns taking time off.

People get sick, need to care for family members, or go on vacation. Childcare falls through. You have urgent personal matters to address. If your team would be seriously incapacitated if one person was out, you have a personnel problem. Neither you nor anyone on your team should feel truly indispensable. Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School Professor, describes in Sleeping with Your Smartphone, how an experiment with one team at Boston Consulting Group, successfully took hold and was eventually expanded to 900 teams across 30 countries. Teams worked together to create a shared goal around each person having time off, with team members covering for the person who elected to spend with family, go to a movie or whatever. By allowing your team to have a breather without feeling as if things would fall apart, it reinforces trust, collaboration, and efficiency on teams and can lead to better work satisfaction and greater perceived value addition to clients. They’ll also likely feel better about themselves and their work.

Remind people that we are all human and have physical limitations.

Doing too much can result in sleep deprivation that is not only damaging to our health, but as a 2016 McKinsey study highlighted, also negatively affects the executive functions of our brain like problem solving, reasoning and organizing. This affects work performance, organizational health, and financial performance. People who work long hours are more likely to drink more and have other physical health problems, according to several studies; conversely, making time for regular exercise seems to confer a host of mental health benefits that improve on-the-job performance. Encouraging your team to set regular, reasonable hours supports a healthy lifestyle, which in turn supports better teamwork.

Redistribute work more evenly. 

Research by a team from Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado in 2015 found that managers underestimate how much time it takes to get something done and assign more work to those who are seen as more competent and responsible. So the only reward for doing good work is the addition of more work. High-performers reported feeling “burdened” and were unhappy about others’ over-reliance on them. Reassigning work to others on the team can help prevent burnout and turnover. It also provides much-needed learning opportunities for others on the team.

Set and keep your own boundaries.

Take the opportunity to model healthier behavior. This will make a difference. Setting and keeping your own reasonable boundaries will give others permission to do so. One leader I worked with said she did her best thinking outside the office. She’d spend Monday mornings thinking at home or in a café with her email shut off. Others looked up to her for the example she set. Communicating this option for flexibility gave her team members implicit permission to do what they needed to do their best work.

Debunk your own limiting beliefs and assumptions. 

You can get in your own way when it comes to setting and keeping boundaries perhaps as a result of your own limiting beliefs and assumptions. Sue, a partner at a global professional services firm, desperately wanted to carve out a life for herself outside of work. After unpacking what was really holding her back, she realized her belief was that if she did not work so intensely, she would not be successful. She conferred with other professionals she viewed as successful about how they saw their ability to set and keep boundaries and have a life outside work. She saw that their boundary-setting behaviors actually fueled their success, rather than serving as an obstacle. This helped her see the flaws in her underlying beliefs and assumptions. She re-calibrated to add in less work and more personal time.

Certainly there will be times when boundaries slip, or when it is more effective to make an exception. Negotiate the boundaries with your team as needed. Know that these boundaries will result in better overall outcomes for you and your team.



Harnessing the Superpowers of Divergent Thinkers


How a Systems Approach to Coaching Yields a Change Strategy

Subscribe for
Leadership Updates