Work-life balance has always been a struggle.

We answer work emails at midnight … and feel exhausted the next day. We miss a meeting to care for a sick child or tend to an aging parent … and feel guilty about it later.

We’re constantly torn between life at work and life at home, feeling like we’re always letting something drop.

That feeling hasn’t gone away—in fact, it’s gotten worse. Modern life, modern technology and modern problems (like a pandemic) have completely blurred the lines between work and home. The result? Many employees feel everything is demanding their time and attention 24/7, so they have little distinction or boundaries to even enjoy a life outside of work or home.

Employees’ lives are so out of balance, it’s making them sick and tired … and in some cases, ready to quit.

How can your employees bring better equilibrium into their lives? And what can your corporate wellness program do to support their efforts? In this updated version of our Work-Life Integration ebook, we’ll answer that question for 2022 and beyond.

  • We’ll examine the factors that have blurred the barriers between home and office.
  • We’ll share insights from members of the WellRight team and other industry experts.
  • And we’ll introduce a new concept—work-life integration—which may provide a path back to a healthy equilibrium for you and your employees.

If one thing has become abundantly clear over the last few years, it’s that our work lives and our home lives have transformed. Let’s start by looking at what both look like as we navigate through the pandemic and look towards the future.

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In March 2020, we published a blog about keeping remote employees healthy and engaged. It was a few weeks into the pandemic in the U.S. when the “two weeks” of staying at home was beginning to look more like two months.

But no one could have predicted how long the pandemic, the lockdowns and the social distancing would continue. Nor did they predict how those factors would change work and life as we knew it.

Change No. 1: The Shift to Remote Workspaces

The Shift to Remote WorkspacesNot long afterward, employers across the U.S. sent as many employees as they could home to work remotely.

Those companies with a remote option already in place or a contingency plan in the works were able to transition with minimal disruption.

Setting aside those who couldn’t work remotely, employers who failed to plan for the idea of remote work—whether from aversion to the idea or simple complacency—found themselves scrambling to adapt. So did their employees, with no technology plan and no structure for ongoing remote communication.

“The way they work changed drastically overnight,” says Mari Ryan, workplace well-being expert and CEO of AdvancingWellness.

“Employees still showed up at work, but it was at the kitchen table, the dining room table, the couch or wherever they could find a space. All the while, their children were running around or attending remote school.”
– Mari Ryan, CEO, AdvancingWellness

Remote work was a bit of a bumpy road for some. Business meetings were interrupted daily by cats walking across keyboards, dogs barking in the background, and children sitting on their parent’s laps or needing help with their online schooling.

Employees’ home lives in all their messy, inconvenient glory were on display for co-workers to see and even interact with. Work and life had become a single, fluid, deeply human experience—for better and for worse.

Change No. 2: The Breaking Point

The Breaking PointMental Health America’s Mind the Workplace 2021 Report measured the perceptions of over 5,000 employees in the US between February and September 2020, and found some perhaps not-so-surprising takeaways:

  • Most employees are experiencing signs of burnout.
  • Employees are not receiving the support they need to manage stress.
  • Workplace stress is severely impacting employees' mental health.

And the hits kept on coming.

By the third quarter of 2020, approximately 9.6 million adults lost their jobs, putting many into dire financial circumstances. Others (such as health care workers and other essential service workers) were being overworked to exhaustion.

The result? A sharp increase in burnout, especially among sandwich-generation Gen-Xers, who were trying to keep their children and aging parents safe in a pandemic while also handling increased responsibilities at work.

Burnout among US Employees Pre-COVID

Signs of Employee Burnout

feeling-stressedThe World Health Organization defines burnout as a result of chronic workplace stress characterized by feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion, negativity or cynicism related to a job, and reduced professional efficacy.

In the workplace, burnout can also manifest as increased absenteeism, isolation, defensiveness and even physical symptoms such as panic attacks, chest pains, increased heart rate, nausea and headaches.

As the pandemic continued into 2021, lockdowns were slowly lifting and some employers began suggesting that their employees would eventually be expected to return to the office—another stressor to add to the pile. All the while, employees were still drowning in the demands of work and home life.

Something had to give. And boy, did it.

Change No. 3: The Shift to an Employees’ Job Market

Employees' Job MarketReferred to as “the Great Resignation,” employees began quitting their jobs in record numbers—4 million in July 2021 alone.

Some employees went to work for a competitor, while others entered the gig economy and became their own bosses. Other companies, sadly, lost employees to COVID-19 itself: According to CDC data as of March 16, 2022, over 246,000 adults in the U.S. aged 18-65 have died of the virus since the start of the pandemic.

Ultimately, many companies found themselves critically short-handed—with barely a trickle of applicants for open job postings.

Employees suddenly had the upper hand in choosing where they wanted to work, and companies were trying everything to fill the mass vacancies in their workforce: From extraordinarily large signing bonuses to promises of extra perks, companies were desperate.

That phenomenon has continued into 2022 with no sign of slowing down. On March 9, 2022, Daniel Zhao, a senior economist at the career site Glassdoor tweeted:

“Quits fell to 4.3 million in January, coming off of record highs in Nov. The Great Resignation is still in full swing even if quits are moderating somewhat. Quits are still up 23 percent above pre-pandemic levels.”

Originally, companies believed the reasons for the Great Resignation were financially based (thus the wildly extravagant bonuses). But as it turns out, newly published research points to factors that go much deeper than money.

Change No. 4: The Shift in Employee Priorities (or, Money Isn’t Enough Anymore)

Shift in Employee Priorities

In a January 2022 MIT Sloan Management Review article entitled “Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation,” authors Donald Sull, Charles Sull and Ben Zweig took a quantitative approach to understanding the phenomenon.

The results were startling: They found that compensation is actually ranked 16th among the reasons employees have been leaving their jobs.

As it turns out, even if you pay competitively, there are certain workplace characteristics that will send your employees fleeing to the door (or the job boards). According to the study authors, the top predictors of workplace attrition are, in order of influence:

1. Toxic Culture

Specifically, a "failure to promote diversity, equity and inclusion." This predictor was far and away the most influential on employees’ decisions and 10 times more important than compensation. The pandemic—and our institutional response to it—has shone an even brighter spotlight on bias and injustice, and employees refuse to stay where they (or their co-workers) are discriminated against or abused.

Even if you pay competitively, there are certain workplace characteristics that will send your employees fleeing to the door (or the job boards).

2. Job Insecurity and Reorganization

This was to be expected, given the topsy-turvy nature of the pandemic. In many industries, employees were laid off and brought back repeatedly, often with little warning. It’s unsurprising that many employees would tire of such an unpredictable income stream.

3. High Levels of Innovation

Innovation as a predictor of attrition? On the surface, this might seem puzzling. But not so much when you consider the authors’ assessment:

“Staying at the bleeding edge of innovation typically requires employees to put in longer hours, work at a faster pace, and endure more stress than they would in a slower-moving company. The work may be exciting and satisfying but also difficult to sustain in the long term. When employees rate their company’s innovation positively, they are more likely to speak negatively about work-life balance and a manageable workload. During the Great Resignation, employees may be reconsidering the personal toll that relentless innovation takes.

4. Failure to Recognize Performance

Employees want to be seen and valued in meaningful ways when they go above and beyond to produce results. If a company doesn’t distinguish between the leaders and the laggards with recognition and rewards, their high performers are more likely to leave.

5. Poor Policies Protecting Health and Well-Being (Including Response to COVID-19)

The authors found employees who negatively reviewed or talked about their company’s approach to health and well-being were more likely to quit (specifically, when they referred to the company’s pandemic response or overall approach to corporate wellness).

Those are a lot of changes in a couple of years.

And employees are tired. They’re juggling everything they possibly can at all hours of the day, and are at the end of their rope from stress. They want—and need—their employer to treat them as a human being, not just a headcount.

In the past, well-meaning companies have focused on helping employees attain a better work-life balance, addressing their competing priorities and responsibilities. But that assumes there is a strict delineation between work and life that can be separated and scheduled in a more effective manner.

We know those days are gone, even when people go back to the office; with digital technology making both work and home life accessible 24/7, employees still find themselves dealing with constant interruptions, no matter what they’re trying to focus on.

In that way, work-life balance is unrealistic with how employees live in the post-pandemic era.

But, what can make a difference is better work-life integration.

Work-life IntegrationEmployees need a sustainable model that allows both work and life to coexist harmoniously. Instead of trying to forcibly separate those entities, work-life integration works with how people live today.

But what is work-life integration? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce defines it as “… blending both personal and professional responsibilities. Rather than viewing work and personal time as separate entities, busy professionals can find areas of compromise. This might look like completing household chores while on a conference call or bringing children into the office when schools are closed.”

In other words, it’s not “work life” and “personal life” anymore. Work-life integration is people being empowered to manage their whole lives in a way that allows them to best fulfill their responsibilities while optimizing their well-being.

And making it happen requires some willingness from company leadership to embrace this change.

The Key to Work-Life Integration: Flexibility

Work-life integration is people being empowered to manage their whole lives in a way that allows them to best fulfill their responsibilities while optimizing their well-being.

Mari Ryan recently led a series of workshops where she asked attendees what they thought would be most important in the workplace of the future. The No. 1 response: flexibility.

“I think employers really need to think about how they create structures of flexibility,” Ryan says. “People need the flexibility to manage the elements of their lives they deem important.”

That flexibility is key to work-life integration. Empowering employees to manage their work and life responsibilities as they need to leads to higher employee satisfaction and productivity.

“Integration needs to be at the forefront of business planning when it comes to an organization’s ‘people strategy’ as well as meeting their corporate objectives,” says Courtney Schroeder, MS, WellRight Well-being Strategy Consultant.

“The opportunity for more fluid schedules and work environments, autonomy in executing work responsibilities, and empowering employees to take more ownership of both their work and home lives has become the new standard.”
Courtney Schroeder
– Courtney Schroeder, Well-being Strategy Consultant, WellRight

Work-Life Integration Is Personal

work-life-integration-personalEvery employee works differently—whether that relates to what time of day they’re most productive or the type of workspace that makes them most comfortable.

Employee work-life integration is inherently flexible, to reasonably accommodate what each employee needs to make them satisfied and successful in their job and life.

For an employee that may mean carving out time midday to fit in a workout because that’s when they’re most motivated, and then catching up on work after dinner. Or, they might kill two birds with one stone and listen in on a conference call from the walking trail or exercise bike.

Working parents often toggle between wishing they were spending more time with their children and wishing they had time to work without interruptions from their children. For those employees, work-life integration might look like one parent taking their toddler to the park to blow off steam while the other has a meeting or focus time, with the favor returned later in the day.

“Employees should be encouraged to speak about home and how their work is integrating with their home,” says Alice Raflores, PHR, SHRM-CP, WellRight Director of Human Resources. “This creates a human element that we may not have seen before the pandemic.”

There are a multitude of ways to integrate work and life. But for any of it to be successful, there’s something that has to be put in place first: Employees must be able to set clear, healthy boundaries.

Work-life BalanceWe all have those friends who are excellent at setting boundaries. You always know where they stand on things, and they have no problem saying “no.”

It’s a gift, really.

But not everyone is comfortable with boundaries. Many people, due to their nature or upbringing, would rather undermine their own happiness and well-being than risk displeasing people by saying no. So, they take on everything that’s passed their way, no matter the cost to their well-being. They may find it difficult to sign off at night, or step away from their computer for walk breaks or even lunch … that is, if there is a pause at all in between Zoom calls.

How can employees attain a healthier, happier, more productive integration of their work and life duties? It starts with healthy boundaries.

Here are some high-impact ways in which employees can set healthy boundaries that protect their well-being:

Stick to Realistic Working Hours

It once was a badge of honor to be the last person to leave the office—proof that those employees were the hardest workers and the worthiest of promotion.

But when the office is oftentimes at home (or at the park, a coffee shop, or in the car), some employees are on the clock at all hours of the day and night.

Flexible work hours are important for employees who are managing it all at home, but it’s critical for them to disconnect from work sometimes—otherwise, they run the risk of burnout.

“The culture of working excessively long hours still exists, but at what cost to employees? And, if they’re exhausted and burned out, what is the cost to their employers?”
Mari Ryan
– Mari Ryan, CEO, AdvancingWellness

Employees should carve out time to physically and mentally get out of work mode and take time to process their day and shift gears.

Ryan says they can even end their day with something unexpected: a fake commute. “Whenever you would have normally left the office, go for a walk or do something that signals the end of your workday,” she says.

Take Breaks to Recharge

Employees who feel like they have to be available nonstop end up running themselves ragged until they burn out. Daily breaks are essential to maintaining well-being and staying at the top of your game.

Keep in mind that taking breaks is a habit employees will need to practice, so again, encourage them to carve out the time right on their calendar if they need to. A midday break for meditation, cuddle time with a pet, or even a little journaling is an excellent way to practice self-care while letting the “work” mind rest and recharge.

Make Use of Vacation Time

Similarly, employees need to take time off, even if they're busy. 

How many times do we hear and read about people who have to roll over months of vacation time? Or they lament not being able to take all of their vacation time because “the work never ends.” Taking the full allocation of vacation time is setting a clear boundary … and reminds employees to prioritize their own well-being and leisure time. This is something that should be modeled by company leadership, to show that it really is OK to not only use vacation time, but to truly disconnect during their time away.

Remind Employees to Be Patient With Themselves

As we mentioned, setting boundaries can be a challenge for people—especially for people-pleasers or employees who stay busy as a mechanism for dealing with stress (yes, people do react to burnout by creating more burnout).

It’s critical that employees be kind to themselves if they struggle to maintain those boundaries. Wanting to show up as our best selves in life can cause employees to put too much pressure on themselves and make them feel like they are “doing it wrong.”

Setting boundaries isn’t always easy … will your company’s efforts support employees or sabotage them? Read on to discover how to put all of this into practice.

The success of your work-life integration efforts depends quite a bit on your company culture, how your leaders act as role models and your corporate wellness offerings.

ERG-group-sqCorporate Culture Plays a Vital Role

We said in the first section that a toxic culture is the most influential factor in employee attrition. If you haven’t assessed your company culture, there’s no better time than the present.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Focus on the diversity of your workforce, the equity of pay and representation, and whether employees feel like they belong. To measure how robust your DEI program is, ask questions like:

Respect for Boundaries

The tricky thing with boundaries is they can crumble when met with resistance—especially resistance by an authority figure.

For example, are requests for paid time off approved easily (assuming they don’t interfere with important deadlines)? Do managers call team members on vacation or Slack them at midnight to ask work-related questions?

Leadership should expect that there will be times when business needs or wants conflict with employees’ boundaries, and develop strategies to handle them with mutual professionalism, consideration and respect.

Lead By Example

Company leaders need to role model the behavior they expect from employees. Any type of hypocrisy can negatively impact employee morale.

That means managers need to set the same boundaries and integrate work and life.

Mari Ryan uses the example of what happened when Queen Elizabeth contracted COVID. “The Royal Palace announced that she was working right through it,” Ryan points out. “What does that say to everyone who works there? Is that the type of example your organization wants to set?”

Be “Family-Friendly” Where it Really Counts

Saying your company is “family-friendly” isn’t enough. Corporate policies and leadership attitudes need to walk the walk. 

Your company culture should accommodate children or pets who sporadically appear on Zoom calls, offer benefits that make health care affordable for everyone in the family, and encourage parents who need flexible hours to make a schedule that works for them.

Be Proactive With Manageable Workloads

Managers may not realize how much of a workload their team members are shouldering because employees may be hesitant to report it. After all, no one wants to be seen as a complainer.

As such, managers need to be proactive in monitoring how much is on each employee’s plate. Ryan says supervisors should keep the lines of communication open and approach their teams with empathy and compassion, letting their employees know it’s OK to speak up when they’re stretched past the breaking point.

“If somebody seems overwhelmed or frazzled,” states Ryan, “management should notice that and take the initiative to say, ‘Gee, you’ve got a lot on your plate right now. Can we talk about that? Because I’m worried you might feel like you can’t get this all done.’”

Even with that encouragement, some employees would still rather collapse than speak up about their workload, so managers should proactively check in on workloads on a regular basis, just to make sure nobody is suffering in silence.

Make Communication a Priority

Make Communication a PriorityTwo core elements within employee wellness programs are awareness and education.

That includes helping employees recognize the behaviors that benefit them and those that work against them. From there, HR teams and wellness coordinators can recommend corporate wellness offerings specific to employees’ unique needs.

When we look at employers with high wellness program engagement, one of the contributing factors is communication. Communication about wellness program offerings that is targeted—meaning specific messaging and channels that appeal to subgroups with different needs and interests—tends to be the most successful.

For example, if you’re in the transportation industry and your workforce is primarily truck drivers, you're not going to have much success with email communications. The same goes for a hospital system where doctors, nurses and technicians spend most of their day with patients. In both cases, you may be better served to send texts or time your communication when your employees will have access to a PC or laptop.

The goal is to give employees the most information in the most efficient way possible so they can make the most use of it.

Your wellness program offerings can play an important role in work-life integration … if they are adapted to employee needs.

How Wellness Programs Can Support Work-Life Integration

Supporting Work-Life IntegrationIn the struggle to juggle work with raising a family, maintaining a home or caring for parents, one of the first things to fall by the wayside is self-care. Employees focus on making the boss happy and keeping their kids healthy before they think about nourishing their own bodies and minds.

It’s completely understandable, completely common ... and completely self-sabotaging. Employees who give 100% to everything else but 0% to themselves are on the fast-track to burnout.

Your company wellness program can be a critical resource your employees turn to when they can’t find the time or space to practice healthy habits, or when they need help devising strategies to manage their hectic lives.

There are several ways your wellness program can support employees in their quest for work-life integration:

Make Resources More Accessible

It’s wonderful to offer employees helpful workshops and training sessions to improve their well-being. What’s not so wonderful? When employees miss out on a much-needed session, just because the schedule didn’t work for them.

“Understanding the needs and interests of your workforce is just so fundamental to how we design these wellness programs,” explains Ryan.

Offer program options at different times of the day, so employees can choose what works best for them. And wherever possible, offer classes on-demand. For example, create a library of yoga flows that employees can work through during a midday break on their own. You can also offer a live yoga class at different times of the day, a few days each week. Employees should be able to find at least one option that works for them.

Offer Helpful Educational Sessions

Work-life integration, time management, mindfulness and other self-care issues are all hot topics in the corporate world. There is no shortage of speakers, instructors and coaches willing to lend their expertise toward helping your employees to get their lives in order.

Consider launching a regular speaker series—and make it fun, so it doesn’t feel like a chore. How about a class on cooking quick weeknight meals? Or a demonstration on grabbing quick moments for meditation throughout the day?

Promote Your Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

Employees sometimes need someone to talk to, but they may feel as if they can’t truly open up to managers or human resources representatives.

An employee assistance program (EAP) can provide that sympathetic ear, along with helpful guidance on challenges ranging from legal confusion, to marital difficulties, to work-life conflicts. EAPs serve employees by allowing them to speak confidentially, by phone, with certified counselors. Your EAP may also be able to refer experienced speakers on subjects such as juggling caregiving with work.

Those in leadership positions should speak freely about using your company’s EAP, modeling to employees that it is perfectly normal and encouraged to make use of company resources.

Health Coaching

Health coaching is a fantastic service to offer employees who are striving for work-life integration. It’s what health coaches do: work with employees to create meaningful personal goals and help them take steps to achieve those goals.

A health coach will also serve as a resource for self-care ideas, and with some programs, can even provide coaching for family members.

For employees struggling with work-life integration but afraid to approach their manager about it, a health coach can be a safe third party to help employees identify steps to establish better boundaries and practice self-care.

Work-Life Integration Is Everyone’s Concern

Work-Life Integration Is Everyone’s ConcernFor many employees, life is a lot … messier these days. They’ve got the usual sources of adulthood stress, like caring for children and aging parents, financial matters and their relationships. But they have also been dealing with a global pandemic and a lot of societal unrest, and the effects those two things have had on every aspect of their lives.

All of this while being expected to be always available, to everybody, at all hours.

Employees aren’t just burning the candle at both ends, they’re burning out.

Ultimately, it’s up to everyone to build a culture where work duties, personal obligations and self-care are blended and integrated so employees feel supported and empowered to manage—and live—their best lives.

From setting boundaries to promoting a healthy corporate culture to adapting your wellness program, you can make work-life integration a priority within your company.

The result? Employees have more job satisfaction, less burnout and a healthier lifestyle … and you have a healthier, stronger company.

If you’re interested in learning more about designing a wellness program that supports work-life integration, contact us today. At WellRight, we’re here to help.

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