The Evolving Definition Of Work-Life Balance
By Alan Kohll, Forbes Contributor
The term “work-life balance” has yet to lose its buzz in the last few years. This is partially due to the dominating presence of millennials in the workforce. Employers have been putting in a tremendous effort trying to determine the best way to appeal to millennial workers. With the millennial generation of workers projected to take up 75% of the workforce by 2025, many leaders think it’s time to redefine what work-life balance looks like.
Work-life balance is an important aspect of a healthy work environment. Maintaining work-life balance helps reduce stress and helps prevent burnout in the workplace. Chronic stress is one of the most common health issues in the workplace. It can lead to physical consequences such as hypertension, digestive troubles, chronic aches and pains and heart problems. Chronic stress can also negatively impact mental health because it’s linked to a higher risk of depression, anxiety and insomnia.
Too much stress over a long period of time leads to workplace burnout. Employees who work tons of overtime hours are at a high risk of burnout. Burnout can cause fatigue, mood swings, irritability and a decrease in work performance. This is bad news for employers because according to Harvard Business Review, the psychological and physical problems of burned-out employees cost an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion a year in healthcare spending in the United States.
By creating a work environment that prioritizes work-life balance, employers can save money and maintain a healthier, more productive workforce. But what exactly does work-life balance look like? Well, that’s where things can get a bit complicated. Work-life balance means something a little different to everyone. Over the years, the knowledge and approach of work-life balance has been constantly evolving, and it might be helpful for employers to identify the difference in opinions among the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials.
Baby Boomers and Work-Life Balance
Born between 1945 and 1960, around the time of World War II, this generation was exposed to a lot of hardships at a very young age. Making a decent living was no small task, and in turn, this generation craved stability in the workplace and valued the opportunity for employment. Because of this, work-life balance wasn’t a main priority or concern. Baby Boomers tended to stay at companies for longer periods of time than following generations. Many of these employees are currently in senior or director level positions that require a high degree of responsibility. As a result, 80% of Baby Boomers report moderate to high levels of stress.
Gen X and Work-Life Balance
As the children of the Baby Boomers, Gen Xers (typically born around the years of 1961 and 1980) grew up witnessing the long hours and poor work-life balance of their parents. Many Gen Xers were exposed to the effect such a relationship with work had on the family unit. As a result, this generation put more emphasis on creating work-life balance in their own lives. Many of these employees prioritize spending time with their family and are more likely to utilize their PTO than the Baby Boomers. Because of this, Gen Xers tend to think of work-life balance as a necessary prerequisite to a company of employment. They look for perks such as telecommuting, extended maternity/paternity time and adequate vacation time.
Millennials and Work-Life Balance
Being a millennial comes with its fair share of stereotypes. Generally, for those born between the years of 1981 and 2000, work ethic is thought to be secondary, or ‘just a part of life.’ But for the generation born into the harshest student loan burden in history, finding stable employment to pay for the higher education of both themselves and their children – as well as soaring housing costs – remains amongst the highest of priorities. With this generation growing to over a quarter of the U.S. population and in their prime-working years, figuring out what attracts millennials remains one of the biggest HR decisions at any major company.
To satisfy the assumed desires of millennial employees, many employers overcompensate by adding game rooms and beanbags to spruce up the work environment. An entire industry has popped up surrounding making workspaces more “millennial-friendly.” WeWork, one of the most well-known of this new breed of property managers, recently made headlines by leasing an entire Manhattan office to IBM, an over 100-year old company that houses multiple generations of employees.
However, many millennials report that they don’t care for these types of perks. Instead, they are more interested in finding a career path that will support their “lifestyle”, which in this context means their life outside of work. While Ping-Pong tables and free coffee aren’t necessarily scoffed at in this generation, it’s important for employers to understand that the same factors that have pushed prior generations to choose which company to work for (pay, career trajectory, job location, etc.) are still the major differentiating factors to the largest working generation in the U.S. Unfortunately for millennials, the 2017 Workplace Benefits Report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch found that 59% of millennials report feeling worried about finding a career path that will support the lifestyle they’ve envisioned for themselves.
Going Past Generations – Creating a Flexible and Happy Work Environment for All
For an employer, promoting work-life balance can seem a daunting challenge. How can a company promote a healthy lifestyle, both physically and emotionally, without sacrificing employee productivity?
While employers can look to studies about what work-life balance means to millennials to gain some insight, it’s important to remember that work-life balance will always mean something a little different to everyone. Just because an employee fits into a specific generation, this doesn’t always mean that they will want the same things as another employee of the same generation. This is where flexibility and workplace happiness comes into play.
Creating a flexible work environment is one of the best ways to satisfy the work-life balance needs of most employees – no matter which generation they belong to. A flexible work environment has been shown to decrease stress, boost levels of job satisfaction and help employees maintain healthier habits. Employers should offer flexible work hours, the ability to work from home and unlimited PTO to create a more flexible work environment that appeals across generations of workers.
It’s important for employers to realize that work-life balance is about more than just hours. Besides promoting flexibility, employers should also strive to improve the overall workplace experience for their employees. Prioritizing a healthy culture and cultivating a happy workplace environment promotes work-life balance. When employees are happy in their roles, work will feel more like a second home, and less like working for a paycheck. Employers should prioritize competitive compensation, comfortable office conditions, opportunities for professional growth and opportunities for social connections.
Attitudes on work-life balance will continue to evolve with cultural, generational and economic changes. Flexible leaders can update or reinvent their workplace culture to try something new if employees report poor work-life balance. While maximizing employee productivity will always remain a constant goal, ensuring employees have the time they desire away from the office and enjoy their time spent in the office is the best way to retain talented employees and make them lifers, regardless of perceived generational differences.
Article originally appeared on Forbes.