[Podcast] Promoting a Culture of Work Life Balance within an Organisation

Posted in : HR Updates on 2 August 2019
Hugh McPoland
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered:

In this latest Podcast Mairead and Hugh discuss the role of Line Managers in encouraging and promoting a culture of work/life balance. They discuss, for example, how technology can be used to help control the timing of emails to avoid an employee responding after normal work hours; how explicit statements regarding work/life balance can give ‘permission’ for employee’s to separate work time from personal time, etc.


Lynsey: Welcome to HR Bitesize Podcast and conversation with Mairéad Regan and Hugh McPoland from Clarendon Executive. Clarendon Executive works with companies across NI to help maximise their leadership capabilities across all aspects of the employment lifecycle, from executive search through to organisational and staff development.

Clarendon's expertise spans the private, public, and third sectors. The firm focuses on identifying talent at board and senior executive level across the management disciplines, including general management, commercial marketing, and digital, and operational effectiveness leadership roles, such as operations, finance, risk, compliance, technology, and HR.

Clarendon have recently been joined by Hugh McPoland and Mairéad Regan as associate consultants. Hugh is previously director of HR at BSO. Hugh has a considerable track record in organisational change, along with considerable knowledge and experience in assessing the leadership credentials of directors across the public sector. Mairéad also joins Clarendon as an associate consultant, supporting both post-hire executive development and senior executive performance and progression. Previously Group HR Director at UTV Media plc, Mairéad has more than 25 years’ experience in HR at a senior level.

This podcast is a must-have listen for any HR manager or director, covering hot topics such as work-life balance, authentic selection, stepping up to director level, change management, and the importance of employer brands. Our easy-to-digest format makes these short but informative podcasts perfect for listening to at leisure, in the car, or during your lunch break.

Okay. Moving on then to work-life balance, talking about self-care, use of technology, awareness of the impact of 24-7 emails, diversity styles. So maybe if we talk a wee bit first about work-life balance and self-care. 

Who is Responsible for Work Life Balance?

Mairéad:Yeah. I think this is a topic that gets an awful lot of discussion, and there's a lot of articles and a lot of things posted in social media with regard to work-life balance. And I think upfront it's really important to say that the work-life balance issue is an issue for both parties. So it's an issue for employees, and there are things that employees can do for their own self-care. But it's also, I suppose, in the past, the onus has almost been put on the employee to sort out their work-life balance in terms of their priorities, etc., etc. But if that's the case, it frees the employer of their word. You know, they're not responsible.

But, actually, it's absolutely . . . There are so many things the employer can do to set the tone, to set the culture. Because if they don't proactively do something, companies can pretend it's voluntary. They can subtly encourage people to work 24-7 simply by never discouraging it. So, I think it is a discussion that organisations need to have. They need to decide what their policy and process is about it, and then proactively communicate it, do something about it. Because I say it's both for the individual and for the workplace to set the standards to produce the policies. But not only produce the policies. I mean, policies are easy to write and easy to issue. But it's the consistent application of those and ensuring that the company honours what it says in the policy, but also sets the example.

Fundamental to this podcast is that the work needs to be done. People have been employed to do certain tasks and activities. There are deadlines that do need to be met. But it is a two-way process. What can the individual do? What can the company do to ensure that they work together to, yes, achieve that outcome, but maintaining the mental health and the physical health of the individuals involved, both the managers and the employees working?

Role of  Managers in Setting an Example For Work Life Balance

Hugh:  I think that's absolutely right, because I'd be surprised if there are very many medium to large organisations who don't have a policy on work-life balance. But the difficulty, I think, always is the example that's provided by senior managers and supervisors.

If I could give you an example where I was never great at managing my work-life balance. I always had this habit of working on a Sunday evening, quite happily catching up with my emails the week before and distributing to my staff, who occasionally, frequently were replying within minutes on a Sunday evening.

And there was one of those sessions, our annual session, where I say to my staff, "Tell me three things you want me to stop doing, start doing, continue doing." The first one of those sessions was, "Please stop sending emails on a Sunday evening." I went, "Right, well, how am I supposed to get my work done? Because Monday through Friday I'm in meetings. During the week I'm doing emails," very  selfish, probably, of myself.  But we came up with a solution, because the younger staff who knew more about Microsoft Office than I did pointed out that I could do my emails, but if I just delayed issue until 8:00 the next morning, they'd be quite happy with that. That was a very simple solution to something which I didn't recognise as a manager that I was providing that bad example, because I, at one point, was saying, "Oh, these people are working. That's dedication. That's really great to see. They're committed to the organisation." It made me really happy.

But then the conversation we had with them, they were quite often young people with families, trying to get ready for school the next day. They were hearing their phones going off, beep, beep, beep, with me merrily emailing away to them.

So I think there is something about the policy is one thing, the example is another. And, in many ways, work-life balance really does work well when there's that level of trust between supervisors, managers, and staff, and a clear understanding of what can get the best out of people. There will be people, and it's a variable thing, some people say it's generational that people will work 40, 60 hours, and then there's other people who say, "I can't do that and won't do that." Perhaps that's something which needs to be taken account of. 

We talked in a previous podcast about recruitment, and who people are, and what you really need to do for your organisation and being clear about it. But it is such a variable. Policy development is one thing, but it's the actioning and the consistency with staff about that they can be treated fairly. And it can range from those simple things of, "I worked late last night. Can I come in late the next morning?" or, "I need to go to school to look after a PTA meeting," or something like that. Managers can do that.

But, again, sometimes I worry about work-life balance in a conversation, because it's easier to do in an office environment, in a production area, or a 24-7 service area. It's more difficult, because you need bodies in the place to treat. Like in a healthcare setting, you need people there to treat. But that doesn't mean you can't have that work-life balance. It's harder in a production environment. It's harder in a 24-7 service, but there's lots of solutions to do that. It's about, in many ways, engaging with staff to get them to give the solutions as to how you can get a better work-life balance.

Again, it goes back to organisational culture. Develop the policy, but the quality of your line managers and their ability to adjust and be consistent in the application of those flexibilities is really important.

Encouraging a Culture of Work Life Balance

Mairéad: If I can pick up just before we leave the track in terms of the very practical things that you can do. Hugh mentioned the delaying of emails, which can be set up in the email system, where the emails don't go out until whatever time the following morning. I mean, simply, you can draft them, keep them in your draft folder and send them out in the morning. As a manager or whoever's sending, you still get the benefit of the work having been done, but you're not impacting on the other individual in terms of what their Sunday evening, Monday morning feels like.

I worked with a manager, and I remember the first time experiencing it and thinking, "Gosh, that's very brave." And he actually, when he went off on his two weeks leave . . . So he ran a particular part of the business. When he went off on two weeks leave, he sent an email saying, "I will not be looking at my emails for the two weeks of my holiday. Here is the contact person. If it's an emergency, they will contact me, but I will not be looking." And he genuinely did not look at his emails for those two weeks.

And I remember the first time seeing that and thinking, "Oh, my goodness. Is that the right thing to do?" But having thought about it, absolutely it is, because, yes, if there's an emergency, he will be involved. But for his own mental health, his own recharging of his batteries, that is really good. He knows that if you've got good managers around you, they will know how to prioritise and how to filter and to contact you when something important comes up. But it means that everybody's getting a break, and I think that's really important.

We also know of other organisations where and, again, it depends on what the industry is and what the service is, but where they have said to staff that they're not to be issuing emails beyond a certain time in the evening. So for example, 6:00, half 6 or 7, and no emails to come out again until the morning, unless there's an emergency. And that gives people permission. We're in an era, I think, where people feel an obligation to be available 24-7, even if it's not explicitly stated. It's that culture, because now social media, everything is so readily accessible. So it actually needs to be explicitly said.

And I think where organisations set out that policy and say, "We do not expect, we do not want emails to be issued outside of these hours or before a certain time in the morning," that gives people the freedom. And I think the individuals then come into work genuinely recharged, feel that they can focus on work, because they're not trying to balance the things that they wanted to do on the Sunday night but they ended up trying to do two or three things at one time, reply to emails and get the kids ready for school, or look after elderly parents, or whatever. So I think those organisations are setting a really good example.

Hugh: Yeah. I think what we're probably trying to convey here is that there's two elements to this. One, the work element where employers need to do their best to take some of those pressures off their staff about responding to emails or doing work out of hours. Most of us live on that goodwill. I think we just need to make sure that that is goodwill, and we need to foster that, but not let it overwhelm people. But there's also the other bit in terms of the life side of it, that people do have to have a life outside, but that equally has to sort of balance where it is. And sometimes it's difficult to actually get where that boundary is as to what interferes with what.

If I could maybe just share a little story in terms of, in 2017, we in BSO had done some work about stress in the workplace. We found that the highest levels of stress happens not as people would sometimes expect, at the executive and managerial level, but were at our lower grades and particularly in departments which were driven by timetables and technology. I'm thinking particularly of our payroll teams, and our warehouse teams, and even our recruitment teams, because we have a shared service in those three areas. And those staff are sitting at computers, driven by timelines quite often set outside their control. They have no control over those timelines, because people need paid the third working day of each month, if you're monthly paid. They need paid. It just has to be done.

And when we talked to staff about that, there was, one, that sense of lack of control about their workday, which we've tried, and certainly the manager have done some good work in trying to involve staff in creating some of the new rules around it. It's an important part of trying to get that work-life balance. But we also invested a little bit of time and give them some wearable tech, where the results of that were really quite illuminating. It started to change the conversation with our staff, because at that time they were saying, "We're highly stressed. We're chronically stressed." And when you looked at the physiological measurements coming from that wearable tech, that indicated to them that they weren't as stressed as they felt they were. And then we started to have that conversation about how we could fix that.

The key, anecdotally, of some of the greatest stressors were as people were coming out of work and going home. They were going home to try and make dinner for their family or their elderly relatives, getting ready for school the next day, and the normal day-to-day things that happen in day-to-day life.

But having that information, it goes back to the self-care thing, which is a fundamental. You'll hear more of it in healthcare generally is that if you can take control of your own care, you can be in a better place. But employers, because most of us spend most of our day in a traditional contract working, I think employers do have an obligation, from a societal perspective, to actually help people manage the impact that work has on their normal life. Work-life balance or just flexitime, career breaks, part-time working, working at home is great. It minimises office space.

But there's other things about engagement with people, about allowing them the opportunity to create some of the rules, the procedures, and how the work is done so they aren't driven simply by systems which say, "You do this. You must do this. You must do that." That takes the control away from people, and people like to have some sense of control around them. So I think it's wider than just work-life balance policies. It's about that engagement with the workforce, about trying to create how the work is done.

Engaging with Staff to Achieve Work Life Balance

Mairéad: And you gave a lovely example of that, where you actually said you asked your team members: What are the things you should continue to do? What are the things you should change? Because they got involved in that process, they changed how you work, and that actually benefited how they felt about work.

The other very crucial point that you touched on there, Hugh, is the feeling of control. And that was about systems and procedures, but I think that also links into individuals and the element of control that they feel, and that's about mindset.

And I think organisations have a lot to do and particularly us as HR practitioners, and the Legal-Island subscribers tend to come from that area of expertise. There's a lot of work going on at the moment about individuals believe that they are their thoughts. So, if they think they're chronically stressed, then they are chronically stressed. If they don't believe that they can do something, they won't do it, because that's their thought process.

I think organisations now have a role to play in terms of supporting individuals, be it through things as simple as lunchtime classes, or meditation, or mindfulness, or yoga, the sorts of support that can be provided to encourage people to actually look at their own mindset and the thoughts that they are thinking.

It's about an awareness of those thoughts. If we're not aware of how we're thinking and feeling about things, if we're not aware, we don't have the capacity to change. Once you become aware of those thoughts and how you're thinking, you then feel you have an element of control, and you have an element where you can actually change that thought process. So, where Hugh was saying individuals were saying they were very stressed or chronically stressed, even though the equipment was showing that they were moderately stressed, if they were feeling that they were chronically stressed, then that was having a huge impact on them. So, I think there's a piece of work there that organisations who genuinely want to support their employees will invest in support for individuals, where they can understand their own mindset.

Because the reality is, years ago, time management used to be the buzzword. The reality is we all have the same amount of time. It's not about time management. It's about energy management. How do we employ our energy to do certain things? What are our priorities? And it's providing the individuals with the tools and techniques that they can take back control and they can decide. As Hugh said, I think, at the start, some individuals thrive on working at the extra hours, and that's where they get their buzz. Other individuals will do the bare necessity to get the work done, but still achieve what's expected of them. And it's allowing and supporting those individuals to become self-aware and then using the tools that they learn to be able to apply it. And also, even in choosing the organisations they work for, because they will know what their mindset is, and they will know the culture that appeals, which, again, links to our employer brand and all of that.

So, all of these topics are sort of so linked that sometimes it's quite difficult to separate them. In summary, I think what I'm saying is that, yes, as well as the policies, the procedures, the encouraging people to take their leave, the flexitime, the term time working, all of it, the HR processes and practices, I think employers have a key duty now, now that we are aware of how important mental health is, to support individuals in whatever way they can. And because people have busy lives outside of work, if we can accommodate that during the working day, during the lunchtimes or whatever, then that's a good thing.

Hugh: Can I pick up the point about the likes of mindfulness and meditation? When I first came across this thought, I thought, "Oh, goodness me. What are we doing? This can't possibly work." But my colleagues in the public health agency actually went out on their own on this, because they'd probably got impatient with me thinking about, "Why would this make a difference?" They'd gone through quite a difficult term in terms of organisational change. They had led a little bit of workplace improvement, health and well-being improvement in the workplace, and they did exactly that.

And if you walked into the public health agency at times, you'd go, "What's that smell?" It was the candles during the lunchtime session. And there was a small number of people who went to that, but the fact that it was done, people actually said, "You know, we care enough to do something different about this." It was immense. Now it isn't for everybody. The people who went felt really valued. People who didn't go felt, "These people are trying to do something. It's not my cup of tea, but at least they're trying." And the payback for our public health agency the next year or two was really quite immense. The accountants asked me to quantify it. I couldn't. But you could sense the difference, because they had gone through quite a difficult time with the press on a couple of issues, and they were feeling quite beleaguered. They took the lead in that, whilst the cynic in me was going, "This isn't going to work." It did. It really did make a difference.

I think some of those things, the danger is, however, employers need to keep refreshing that. We ran mindfulness courses in BSO for 18 months, and Mind Your Health At Work for 18 months, and the numbers started to go down over the 18 months. We felt, "Right, we need to do something different." That's why we went with the wearable tech, because we wanted to re-energise the whole process. The people who were sitting down with us, having successful conversations about workplace stress, we were showing the information. Particularly, the trade unions was an interesting conversation, the trade unions who were constantly asking about the stress in the organisation. We said, "Well, look. Here's the information." They went, "Oh, it's not about stress. It's perhaps about morale."

And that conversation started to change completely the dynamics in our organisation. I tend to be quite information driven. I like data. But once you start collecting information off the likes of wearable tech, you can actually target where your problem areas are. The key message is, "Don't just do what everybody else is doing. Find out what it is that your staff are suffering from," and experiencing is probably a better word, "and deal with them and create a bespoke solution to your own problems." Because copying a work-life balance policy from a civil service, a health service, Bombardier, or other organisations isn't going to work for you. It's your own people you have to work for, and you need to have a conversation with them.

Mairéad: I think, if you're listening to the podcast, I think one tip is just, "What am I doing? What example am I setting?" Yes, you could be following the policies of the organisation you're working with. But just genuinely think, "What do I do across the week? What example do I set to people who are working alongside me?" And I think everybody could do something.

Hugh:  Absolutely.

This article is correct at 02/08/2019

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Hugh McPoland
Clarendon Executive

The main content of this article was provided by Hugh McPoland. Contact telephone number is 028 9072 5750 or email hugh.mcpoland@clarendonexecutive.com

View all articles by Hugh McPoland