How To Help Your Staff Find Work/Life Balance

By Carmella Sebastian, MD

The line between work and personal life has become really blurred for most American workers. Thanks to evolving technology and an unforgiving economy, we are under constant pressure to perform. The result? Even when we are not at our desks, we are tethered to our devices. While we are helping kids with homework, we are also thinking about how to fine-tune that new membership initiative, and while we are watching TV, we are checking our email.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, smart leaders know that when staff has a healthy work/life balance they are better employees, period. The smartest executive directors don't just pay lip service to this idea; they actually take steps to make it happen.

As the executive director, you are in the best position to help staff turn the chaos in their lives into balance. You are the one who will benefit from their increased productivity; and frankly, you may be the main reason their lives are out of balance in the first place.

While very few employers overtly discourage vacations, mental health days, and sane work schedules, few take the initiative to make sure that their people are maintaining a healthy balance. In fact, the OECD Better Life Index, released yearly, concludes that the U.S. ranks 28th among advanced nations in the category of work-life balance, ninth from the bottom.

Here are some strategies to help your staff separate their work lives from their personal lives and enhance both in the process.

Walk the Walk Yourself
If you're serious about helping your staff achieve a healthier work/life balance, you have to be willing to set the example. This isn't negotiable. If you want your people to unplug from their devices, take time for themselves, de-stress, and more, you can't be sending them emails at 10 p.m., frantically making requests of others on their way out the door, and constantly calling in while you're on vacation.

Encourage Staff To Take Unused Vacation Days
According to Expedia's 2013 Vacation Deprivation Study, on average, Americans were given 14 vacation days but used only 10 of them. (That's twice as many unused vacation days as the previous year.) Let's not forget that this is paid time off we're talking about. So why do employees leave those four—or sometimes more—days on the table? In some cases, they're too busy. In others, they may feel that organizational culture discourages too much absence, or they may want to prove themselves indispensable. Of course, some people are workaholics or simply forget to plan.

Executive directors should let their staff know that it's okay, and even encouraged, to take the full amount of vacation. Tell them explicitly that you believe rest, relaxation, and outside adventures make them better workers. To put your money where your mouth is, you may even want to build ‘extra' vacation days that aren't calendar holidays into your schedule. Either the whole association office could close, or different departments could rotate having three-day weekends, for instance. You'll be surprised by the effect this has on morale and productivity.

Keep an especially close eye on your high performers and workaholics. If you see a particular staff member exhibiting signs of stress or burnout after burning the midnight oil on a tough project, step in and suggest taking a few days off. Even if they don't realize it themselves, these folks may need your freely offered permission in order to unclench.

Specify That the Beach Is Not a Sandy Office
You may not want to go as far as France, which recently passed a law specifying that workers in the digital and consulting industries must avoid email and switch off work phones before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m., but it's still a good idea to encourage your staff to back away from their devices when they're not at work. Fair warning: This might be an uphill battle. According to Expedia, 67 percent of Americans stay connected to the office (checking voicemail and email) while on vacation.

Staff should enjoy their evenings, weekends, and especially vacations. If difficulty unplugging is a part of your association's culture, that change will need to start at the top. If you don't practice what you preach, you can't fault your staff for feeling that they, too, need to stay connected outside of work hours.

Teach Time Management
Often, employees remain tethered to their devices in the evenings and on weekends because they're worried about unfinished tasks and loose ends that might require their attention. While you might not be able to guarantee that staff can leave work at work every single day, you can help them gain the skills that will reduce their amount of homework.

Training on time management, prioritization, organization, and the effective use of lists can be surprisingly effective. No doubt, some of your staff has unproductive work habits. By addressing them, you can help your team manage their workloads and be in a more comfortable place when it's time to go home each evening.

Teach Stress Management Techniques
There's no such thing as a stress-free workplace. That's not a bad thing; a small amount of anxiety keeps us alert and motivated. But too often, employees feel an unhealthy amount of stress that bleeds into and affects their personal lives, too. Believe it or not, stress costs American businesses around $300 billion each year!

Work-related stress contributes to health problems, absenteeism, burnout, and turnover. If you offer a short workshop that teaches stress management techniques like meditation, deep breathing, or yoga, for instance, your staff will reap the benefits, and just knowing that you're concerned about their mental health will also lift a weight from their shoulders.

It is also important to educate your staff about the benefits of getting enough sleep. Let them know that you want them to get an adequate amount of rest, which is seven to nine hours a night for adults. Point out that sleep is essential for focus, creativity, a positive attitude, and general health. This may discourage workaholism; after all, people can't work till 7 or 8 p.m., take care of all of their personal obligations, and get eight hours of sleep. It's just not possible.

Help Them Understand the Business Cycle
As the executive director, you know from years of experience that your association goes through (more or less) predictable cycles. For instance, September through December might be crunch time preparing for your annual meeting or convention, but you know that after the new year things will be more relaxed. Just don't take for granted that your staff shares this understanding.

Educate staff, especially newer hires, about your association's natural cycle. If things are hectic and overtime is mandatory, rookies might assume that it will always be like this and worry that they've bitten off more than they can chew. You can reduce their anxiety by pointing out that in a few weeks the pace will slow down. It's easier for people to push hard through crunch time if they know a lull is just around the corner.

Include Exercise in the Workday
Exercise is one of the most effective stress management tools available. It's also fantastic at increasing energy, improving focus, and boosting attitudes. Of course, it's also good for your health. Best of all, exercise can be both easy and inexpensive to integrate into the workday: Think lunchtime walks or even walking meetings. This is a great solution for staff who just can't find the time to stop at the gym in the midst of their hectic personal lives.

As an employer, you'll find that at-work exercise programs pay off. In the February 2010 issue of Health Affairs, several wellness program studies were published, revealing that medical costs fell $3.27 for every $1 spent on wellness. Furthermore, absenteeism costs fell $2.73 for every $1 spent. That is a 6:1 ROI! Harder to quantify, but just as impactful, is the fact that your investment in your staffs' well-being will jump-start their morale, loyalty, and engagement—all of which is good news for their productivity and your operating budget.

Be Flexible on When and Where Work Happens
Depending on your association, technological advances may mean that many staff are no longer tied to their desks. (And isn't that one of the reasons why our personal lives and professional lives have become so hopelessly enmeshed?) If possible, allow employees to take advantage of being able to do work from their homes or from the coffee shop down the street.

Unless it's absolutely necessary that someone be at a desk from 9 to 5, allow them to work from home, on their own schedule, from time to time. This will allow staff to live their lives while also doing their work. Think about it this way: You don't want a payroll full of clock punchers—you want people who are self-directed goal achievers. That's the message that offering flex time sends.

Dare To Get Personal
On a regular basis, try to connect with staff in a way that doesn't revolve around shop talk. Ask about their kids, what they're planning to do over the weekend, and whether they watched the latest episode of Mad Men, for example.

When you establish a personal connection with staff, you'll have a finger on the pulse of what's going on in their lives and how it might be affecting them at work. They'll also feel more comfortable coming to you with requests to attend an upcoming out-of-town wedding, a child's recital, or a relative's funeral. Working with employees so that they can attend to personal obligations without feeling guilty is a great way to gain their long-term loyalty.

Play Hard To Work Hard
Work doesn't have to be all, well, work. Consider integrating fun activities in the office environment: office scavenger hunts, trivia, darts, hall putt-putt, bring-your-pet-to-work days, ordering in pizza on a Friday afternoon. Use your imagination, and if you're lacking ideas, ask your staff what they'd like to do.

There are several benefits to scheduling fun time into the workday. For one thing, these activities give people a chance to get to know each other and become friendlier, which will streamline teamwork. They break up the monotony of the workday and counteract popular work is drudgery attitudes. Fun also boosts energy and creativity, so you'll probably find that the lost time is made up by subsequent spurts of productivity. Just don't schedule work fun outside of work hours! People don't like it when you cut into their time.

Help With the Housework
While corporate perks like laundry services, on-site drying cleaning pick-up and delivery, free housecleaning or take-home meals are expensive and simply aren't feasible for associations to offer, perhaps you could purchase and distribute coupons to a local dry cleaner or housecleaning service. You can also offer time: Close the office a few hours early one afternoon a month and encourage your staff to use that time to catch up on their personal to-do lists. Closing early on Fridays during the summer in New York City is a common occurrence at many offices.

Remember, anything you can do to show staff that you care about the quality of their lives outside of the office will earn the association goodwill and loyalty. The happier and less stressed staff is on and off the job, the more loyal and engaged they will be—and the more your bottom line will benefit.

At Florida Blue, Carmella Sebastian, MD, oversees the National Committee for Quality Assurance-accredited wellness program “Better You from Blue” and manages more than 100 client consultations per year. She recently published her first book, Sex and Spaghetti Sauce: My Italian Mother's Recipe for Getting Healthy and Getting Busy in Your 50s and Beyond. She can be reached through her website at