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Work Hard Play Hard

The phrase ‘work/life balance’ doesn’t really exist if you’re a business owner, especially if you’re trying to get your business off the ground in challenging economic times (and having to take into account the requirements of successive Governments which seem Hell-bent on smothering enterprise rather than encouraging it).

We all tend to get bogged down with our workloads occasionally, but if you’re a business owner it just never seems to ease off. There’s always something that needs doing, and if you only worked 35 hours a week, the chances are your business would quickly sink without trace. Don’t get me wrong, we’d all like to finish work at half past three on a Friday, have a relaxing weekend where you avoid everything that’s business-related, and roll into the office at 10am on a Monday having had a leisurely lie-in. In order to be successful, you have to be committed and that often means forfeiting certain elements of your social life.

That is part and parcel of being a business owner, but expecting your employees to put in the same amount of excessive hours and commitment regularly isn’t likely to be met with the same enthusiasm. A recent survey of 2,000 workers across the UK has found that seven out of ten workers have worked extra hours beyond their stipulated contract in the past 12 months, and 55% of employees have missed a vital family celebration due to work commitments. The largest number of extra-curricular hours were worked by Londoners who worked an extra 12 hours a week. Liverpool employees topped up an average of 11.5 hours and Birmingham workers worked in excess of ten hours a week.

Provided that the contract allows for it, there’s nothing wrong with requiring your workers to work in excess of their normal hours, as and when the business requires it. As HR consultants, our working hours are nominally 9am-5pm but the nature of the job requires us to be flexible. I talk to clients early morning, noon and night (and weekends sometimes too). They’ll be occasions where we’ll have to attend early morning meetings and the fact that we have clients all over the country means that there’s absolutely no guarantee that we’ll be back in the office at 5pm if a meeting is scheduled for the afternoon. That’s just the nature of the job. It’s surprising how many actually love the lack of routine; variety is the spice of life after all!

However, you can start to fall into dangerous territory when you start expecting your employees to work excessive extra hours every day. It might be that your employees don’t seem to care about staying behind, but you should think about what’s best for them in the long-term. Long hours can result in increased stress. It’s not automatic, by the way. Some of us thrive on challenge!

Psychologist Corinne Sweet advises people to “switch off their gadgets and get away from the clutter, pressure and stress of working life”. Whilst this might be possible for some, for others it’s not easy to switch off from work. Ordinary hard work never killed anyone, but it is important for employees to have a life outside work to spend some enjoyable down-time with friends and family. Overworked employees are more likely to become sick and have high absence rates.

It’s important to encourage your workers to get away from the office when you know it’s needed and I have been known to pack employees off home when I think they’re over-doing it and need a rest. If you work in an industry where an excessive amount of overtime is required in order to meet a deadline or there is an extremely busy seasonal period looming on the horizon, it might be possible to reward your employees with a day off afterwards to show your appreciation and to give them chance to recharge their batteries.

Employers who can offer flexible work options can have the competitive edge when it comes to recruitment, though flexible working isn't possible in every workplace.

Promote a culture of openness about workload and time constraints. We are always looking for smarter and better ways of working. If you keep an eye on technical developments there are some amazingly helpful gadgets and gizmos.

Encourage activities that promote good mental health, for example relaxation classes and exercise. I tell my team to get away from their workstations at lunchtime and ideally to go outside for a little amble round to get some air and a leg stretch. When we moved into our new offices, I had a shower installed so that those who want to go for a quick burst of exercise – a run or cycle ride – can do so.

Audit your work environment to identify elements of practice, policy or culture which may be detrimental to a healthy work/life balance.

You’ll never be in a position to satisfy all of your workers when it comes to achieving a work/life balance. Some employees still wouldn't be happy if you decided to regularly give them two days off a week; they’d be questioning why it wasn't three. The reality is, employees have to work – that’s what they’re there for – and it’s good for them. Humans thrive on having a meaningful routine and regular interaction with others. Being stuck at home with no-one but Richard and Judy (or whatever the 2013 equivalent is) is just as likely to lead to stress symptoms as doing too much Taking steps to establish a culture which nurtures this expectation and encourages mental and physical health will benefit everybody.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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