Annette Phung

Working from home during the coronavirus pandemic has made work-life balance tricky for many Australians this year, and has wreaked havoc on our mental well-being. Recent studies have shown that on average, Australians are doing 4-5 hours of unpaid overtime work each week. With the rise of virtual conferencing, instant messaging and remote working, the boundaries between our professional and personal lives have never been so blurry. These developments have placed many people at an increased risk of stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, and complex mental illnesses such as psychosis.

From an employer’s perspective, any benefits derived from unpaid overtime work are vastly outweighed by the costs of well-being issues and a loss of team morale. Research has consistently shown that happy team members are up to 20% more productive than unhappy team members. Mental illness costs Australian businesses over $10 billion every year.

So, how can employers approach strategies for well-being and work-life balance in a year that has seen so many people transform their homes into offices? In the past, discourse around work-life balance has focused on a single, simplified question: do you live to work, or work to live

Living to work means that you are highly motivated and driven by your professional achievements, at the risk of setting aside other aspects of your life (such as your family, relationships, self-care, and personal interests). Working to live means that you only think of your work as a means to get by financially, and support what you consider to be personally enjoyable and important (i.e. not work).

Common advice encourages us to find a healthy middle ground between these two ends of the spectrum, where we can feel engaged in our work without sacrificing our well-being and social connections. But in 2020, the idea of achieving work-life balance has been complicated by the fact that many of us are now working in the same place where we are meant to be living. Employers and team members are grappling with new well-being issues that they’ve never faced before.

The answer lies in workplace culture and training. Instead of living to work or working to live, we should be telling our team members to work to work and live to live. This is a strategy rooted in mindfulness, gratitude, and awareness.

What does ‘work to work’ mean?

In an ideal situation, work shouldn’t be something we have to endure for 8 hours a day. Instead, work should give us a unique sense of fulfilment, achievement, and satisfaction. It shouldn’t detract from our well-being, nor should it impose on our enjoyment of other parts of our lives. If our work ticks these boxes, then we are much more willing to focus on it and give it everything we’ve got during the work day — not because we owe it to our bosses, but because we are intrinsically motivated to deliver something that is valuable. If Team Member A takes immense pride in their work, and Team Member B just wants to get the day over with, who do you think will bring more value to the business? And who will be a better team player?

As an employer, you might think the solution is to employ more A-type team members and less B-type team members, but it’s not that simple. The truth is that in a poor workplace culture, even a hardworking team member with the best intentions could find themselves losing their energy and positivity. Similarly, in a wonderful workplace culture, a team member who previously lacked motivation could be nurtured to the point of discovering their full potential.

What does ‘live to live’ mean?

More and more employers are beginning to recognise the importance of giving team members enough time for their personal lives. In July of 2018, Australian digital marketing company Versa began allowing all team members to take Wednesdays off, provided they could get their work done in a four-day work week. Within a year, the company’s revenue grew by 46%, and staff were healthier, happier, and less likely to take sick days or resign. Other companies have quickly followed suit; Melbourne company Inventium trialled a four day work week amid the lockdown this year, and within three months they’ve noticed a 25% increase in productivity and much lower rates of stress. This September, Google gave its team members an extra day of paid leave on a Friday so they could all enjoy a long weekend for well-being. 

Employers need to understand that the number of hours worked by their team members does not necessarily correlate with work quality (or even quantity!) Pressuring team members to stay online throughout the evening is often at odds with a company’s long term goals. Let your team members have time to live their lives, rest, recuperate, and come back to work with renewed energy and focus. Not only will this help your bottom line, but it’ll also help build loyalty and trust. 

Opportunities for promoting mental well-being in 2020

COVID-19 has truly transformed our way of working. While this has been undeniably challenging, it has also given us an opportunity to really focus on well-being as something that is essential — not only to business objectives and profitability, but to the very fabric of our interconnected lives. 

Christine Morgani (CEO of the National Mental Health Commission) says, “We’ve had almost a legitimisation that [life in the year 2020 is] stressful and difficult. The silver lining for this is that it is an opportunity for us to look at each other with slightly gentler eyes — to recognise that our mental health and well-being is critical.” Similarly, Peter Joseph (Chair of the Black Dog Institute) notices that this year, “There’s a much greater embrace of the need to help people.”

With well-being at the forefront of everyone’s mind, there is no better time for employers to actively develop a strong workplace culture in which people feel safe, secure, and supported. Well-being conversations (both formal and informal) should become a regular part of the work week. Every team member, at every level of seniority, should have an opportunity to talk about what they are going through. They should be made aware of the resources available to them, and they should understand that it’s okay to ask for help. 

Discover how your business can support team member well-being by creating an interactive wellness eLearning series.