Beyond work-life balance: Creating a workplace culture that works for everyone

Beyond work-life balance: Creating a workplace culture that works for everyone

Irrefutable evidence shows many are working longer hours for diminishing returns for the individual and the business. This can have a drastic impact on your work-life balance or, as explored in this article, work-life integration. What is at the root of this issue? Leadership coach John Williams shows how building trust between colleagues through authenticity, vulnerability and integrity is the only way to rehabilitate unsustainable work culture.

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Mar 01, 2022

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6 mins read

Building a business or a career requires resilience, and one of the major components of resilience is work-life integration. Notice that I said integration, not balance. The reality is you don’t have two lives. The question is not about balance. It’s about how to have a great life achieving your higher purpose, loving and being loved, without experiencing burnout.

You can achieve work-life integration when you recognise that everyone in the workplace is a human being. Relationships between people depend on trust, which in turn depends on authenticity, vulnerability and integrity. Without trust, the entire conversation about work-life integration will fall on deaf ears.

Working smarter, not harder

The idea of work-life balance has been around for a very long time. In 1908, Dr Ernst Abbe conducted an experiment on the working hours of his factory workers. He found that reducing workers’ shifts from nine to eight hours actually increased output! In 1914, the Ford Motor Company doubled workers’ salaries and reduced their working day from nine to eight hours. Then in 1926, they introduced a five-day working week. This was a huge success, which is perhaps why it became standard around the world.

In September 2021, Shangguan et al. published an article called “This is how shorter working hours can affect your productivity” on the World Economic Forum website. Their study illustrated how working less overtime increased productivity. They found that asking workers to work longer was the problem, not the solution. The data is in and has been for a century or more. Yet articles on this subject continue to be written, alerting readers to the need for change.

Who’s responsible for our culture of overwork? 

Should we blame the unions, who happily claim to have brought about the 40-hour working week, for abandoning ‘their’ invention? What about governments? Surely they have a role to play, especially as there is a direct link between hours worked and workplace health and safety. Have they abandoned the workers? Or perhaps the blame lies with the capitalists.  After all, they’re the ones who reap the rewards; however, as mentioned, there are no rewards! 

If it’s none of these, then who’s at fault?  The answer may surprise you: the humble manager and the human need for peer approval. In other words, you are responsible, and so is your supervisor and theirs, and so on up the line. Overwork is not driven by capital in search of profits (because there are none); it is a matter of impression management. You worry about how your boss and your peers will view you if you say no. The point is, they are asking you because they feel under the pump from their boss, who in turn should be expecting to be told if more staff are needed. It’s a game of tag-team where reality gets lost in favour of groupthink: ‘If we work harder or longer, we’ll produce better results’.

The science says the best thing an employer can do is send an employee home after they’ve worked a maximum of 40 hours. In fact, recent studies show that five- or even three-hour days and four-day weeks may be even more productive.

Dealing with reality

I am not blind to the reality of skill shortages and the time-lapse needed to eradicate them; this is where we can and should hold businesses and government to account for short-term thinking or wilful blindness. Setting aside exceptional peaks of demand, in a world awash with census data, there is nothing unpredictable about long-term systemic skill shortages. Nor is there any shortage of data on the damage these long working hours and overwork do to individuals, their families, the community, and the health and productivity of the nation.  

Building trust and creating a workplace culture that works for everyone

The problem of overwork must be the discussion we all take up today; it can’t wait. At the core of resolving this problem is trust between employer and employee. Trust can only be built on a foundation of authenticity, vulnerability, and integrity. 

Authenticity is much more than merely being honest about who you are and what you think. It’s having the courage to believe that who and what you are is enough and not trying to add to or embellish your credentials. It’s getting to a place where your non-verbal communications are totally in sync with what you’re saying.

Vulnerability must be accompanied by responsibility. It’s about being vulnerable in a responsible way. Think of a bell curve: at one end you have a human doormat unable to organise themselves out of a wet paper bag; at the other end lies Attila the Hun, the invulnerable dictator. Neither way of approaching vulnerability is going to be effective. In my opinion, Paralympic gold-medalists Dylan Alcott, 2022 Australian of the Year, and Kurt Fearnley, NSW Australian of the Year in 2019, both embody how a man should be with vulnerability. They accept the realities they must live with while not allowing them to be used as an excuse or a weapon. Authentic communication requires both parties to be vulnerable because both parties need to be prepared to be open and honest about their wants and needs. 

Finally, without integrity, even the best-laid plans fail. If you don’t build integrity into your relationships and discussions, it would be like building a bridge with insufficient steel. That can only lead to disaster.

Dictionary.com gives three definitions for integrity: 

  1. Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
  2. The state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: ‘to preserve the integrity of the empire’.
  3. A sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: ‘the integrity of a ship's hull’.

The integrity I refer to here, and that which most closely aligns with that referred to in the Being Framework™, relates to the third definition: ‘a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition’. I’d like to add another provision to this: ‘as judged as fit for purpose’. If you are the CEO of an organisation, to have integrity by this definition, you must have the right level of education and/or experience that enables you to do the job expected of you. This may seem obvious, but business history is littered with examples where the old boys network or nepotism have created monumental disasters by stepping over this fundamental need. You simply cannot succeed in discussions with parties who lack the necessary integrity to address the problem at hand.  

By bringing healthy doses of authenticity, vulnerability and integrity to the table, you can develop the trust required to allow genuine communication to take place. The boss can say, ‘Go home’, at the end of the work day and know the job will be done within a reasonable time, and you'll be able to leave the coalface and head home knowing you’re not at risk of attack tomorrow. 


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