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An employee enjoying work-life balance by doing yoga on the beach

Help your team achieve work-life balance—even when you can’t

Rebecca Zucker

You schedule a yoga class, lunch with a friend, or happy hour. But how often do you cancel for what seems like an 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 in order to achieve work-life balance has never been more challenging — or more important.

As a leader, you can model behavior in a meaningful way and facilitate appropriate boundary setting for your team and organization.

I understand the challenge. As an investment banker at Goldman Sachs in the ‘90s, work came first. To the firm, I was the “ideal worker”—a fully committed employee with no personal “entanglements.” I was single with no children, and had almost unlimited capacity for work. But so did my peers, whether or not they had children, partners or aging parents. It was just the industry and the company culture.

It wasn’t until I moved to Paris in 1997 to become a finance manager for Disney that I experienced someone setting a nonnegotiable boundary.

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


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

She was a single parent who needed to pick up her child at day care. She was also French. When she told me, she just shrugged her shoulders, seemingly not feeling any sense of conflict around work-life balance like her American colleagues might in the same situation.

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

Twenty years later, I now work as an executive coach, and work-life balance is an issue that my clients frequently grapple with, as they face the new work demands that come with technological advances. For example, one client in San Francisco who works for 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. I responded that even if it is the norm at this company—and potentially many others—it is not acceptable universally, nor should it be.

Nearly half of human resource leaders reported that employee burnout accounts for 20-50 percent of their companies’ annual turnover.

An employee enjoying work-life balance jogs along a waterfront

A recent survey revealed that the restructuring of work has resulted in significant burnout. Nearly half of the human resource leaders surveyed reported that employee burnout accounts for 20-50 percent of their companies’ annual turnover. Eighty-seven percent of HR leaders cited improved retention as a critical or high priority over the next five years, but 20 percent said they had too many competing priorities to focus on fixing the problem this year.

Here are six strategies to help you and your team achieve better work-life balance:

1: 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 metric for long-term success. You can communicate this to your team, model it and create organizational 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 percent 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.

2: Hire enough staff, and take turns taking time off

People get sick, need to care for family members or go on vacation. Child care falls through. If your team would be seriously incapacitated by one person’s absence, you have a personnel problem. No one should feel 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.

3: Remind people that we all have physical limitations

Doing too much can result in sleep deprivation that not only damages our health, but also negatively affects our brains’ executive functions 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 excessively and have health issues. Conversely, making time for regular exercise confers a host of mental health benefits that improves on-the-job performance. Encouraging your team to set regular, reasonable hours supports a healthy lifestyle and work-life balance, which in turn supports better teamwork.

4: Distribute 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.

5: Set and keep your boundaries

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 at home or in a cafe with her email closed. Communicating this option for flexibility gave her team members implicit permission to do what they needed to achieve their best work.

6: Debunk limiting beliefs and assumptions

You can get in your own way when it comes to setting and keeping boundaries. Sue, a partner at a global professional services firm, desperately wanted to carve out a life for herself outside of work. 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 set and kept boundaries to have a life outside work. She saw that their boundary-setting behaviors fueled their success, rather than obstructing it. This helped her to see the flaws in her underlying assumptions. She recalibrated to have 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.

This article was originally published in Harvard Business Review in August 2017.


Employee Experience
Portrait of Rebecca Zucker

Rebecca Zucker

Rebecca Zucker is an executive coach and a founding partner of Next Step Partners, a leadership development firm.