MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

Companies and employees still struggle with work-life balance

This post is the first in a series designed to help our readers achieve a more productive, healthy, and less stressful 2016. 

work-life balance

Work-life balance seems an ongoing struggle for both organizations and individuals. In fact, it's such a pervasive issue that Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit worldwide leader in medical care, research, and education, offers tips to reclaim work-life balance control.

On the one hand, there are organizations like Amazon that seem to shun the idea of work-life balance. A recent New York Times piece "Inside Amazon: Wrestling big ideas in a bruising workplace," described the company as one at which "culture stoked their [employees’] willingness to erode work-life boundaries." The exposé detailed a business that rewards employees toiling long and late and subjects employees to "marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation, and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends." The New York Times piece even quoted (on record) an Amazon employee who stated, "One time I didn’t sleep for four days straight." 

On the other hand, you have companies like Treehouse, a Portland, Oregon-based company that seeks to bring "affordable technology education to people everywhere, in order to help them achieve their dreams and change the world." Treehouse and its CEO Ryan Carson were recently profiled by The Atlantic in "Making a case for the 32-hour workweek." In this video and accompanying article, Carson explains, "There's no rule that you have to work 40 hours or that you have to work more to be successful [sic]." Carson came to that conclusion when his children were small, realizing that he could "never buy back moments with my kids...[I'm] not going be at my keyboard at 9 p.m. on a Friday night." While it might be easy to dismiss Treehouse as a mission-based organization that may not be as driven as Amazon, Carson points out that his company competes against Google and Facebook for talent. His company wants its employees to have a "more balanced total life."

Somewhere in the middle is Yahoo. Yahoo's official parental leave policy allows new mothers to take up to 16 weeks paid time off and new fathers to take up to eight weeks paid time off. Yet Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took only two weeks after the birth of her son and announced that she'd take "limited time away" from the office after the early December 2015 birth of her twin daughters. This sends a mixed message to employees about what is allowed and what is expected. As Gina Crosley-Corcoran wrote in The Broad Side shortly after Mayer's first maternity leave, "While Mayer can't legally require her FMLA-qualified employees to return to work before their 12-week unpaid [at the time] maternity leave expires, executive leadership sets the tone for what is considered acceptable in an organization." If the most powerful person in the company doesn't pause after the birth of a child, how are less senior employees supposed to feel comfortable taking the full 12 weeks they're entitled to?

Each business has justifiable reasons for its organizational approach to work-life balance. In the case of Amazon and Treehouse, both businesses claim their policies and perspective are supported by the empirical performance and success of the organization. But business success aside, a lack of work-life balance likely has negative implications that are subtle and not fully realized. For example, according to neuroscientist and MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Tara Swart, it is scientifically proven that nearly everyone performs at a lower IQ when they do not get enough sleep (read more in our previous post, The leadership skill you're neglecting? Sleep). This is one reason Brian Halligan, CEO of Hubspot, promotes naps at his company's headquarters. His oft-quoted resolution to "work less and think more" is rooted in his belief that his most brilliant inspirations have come in moments of rest and solitude--not during all-nighter grinds.

As the New Year approaches, many individuals will start to think about their own resolutions. Will you be making a resolution regarding your work-life balance? Will your organization?

Look for upcoming posts dedicated to the topics of work-life balance, productivity, and stress management. 


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