We live in an age where leaders and employees alike are expected to be high performers, constantly connected to work and exceeding ever-increasing demands. However, a recent survey of employees in the Washington, D.C. area found that work-life balance is the most important factor in defining overall professional satisfaction, ranking ahead of both job security and compensation. Further research shows work-life programs do more than drive employee engagement and happiness; a supportive culture can increase talent retention by 33 percent, driving higher productivity and resulting in fewer company dollars spent to onboard and train new employees.
How can corporate leaders create workplace environments that encourage the work-life balance that is so critical to both employee happiness and the business’ bottom line? Avoca Group CEO Patricia Leuchten and Elligo Health Research CEO and Co-Founder John Potthoff are two leaders with strong track records of growing successful companies by putting work-life balance at the forefront. We asked both about their own strategies, and learned three principles leaders can use to balance the demands of the job with their personal health and wellbeing — for themselves and their employees.
Practice Agility Rather than Balance
Both CEOs have cultivated uniquely personal definitions of “success.” For Potthoff, it isn’t about being in balance or having equilibrium all the time; it is riding the peaks and valleys of work, resting in the down cycles, and fueling himself with meaningful work, self-care and family activities. This means constantly prioritizing. From a business perspective, he works to identify the core issues he needs to tackle each day, and to take advantage of his resources, delegating when necessary. He tries not to dwell on any particular issue, instead offering his best solution to the problem at hand, and then moving on. At a personal level, he carves out family time like the morning drive to school with his daughter, and personal time — perhaps an afternoon on the golf course — to fuel his health and mental clarity.
Potthoff knows the ebb and flow of his business responsibilities, and can appropriately optimize downtime in order to gear up for peak performance. Consistently riding those waves has enabled him to cultivate many successful businesses over the past 20 years.
Leuchten doesn’t use the word “balance,” either, preferring to visualize work-life negotiations as a fluid dance. Leuchten’s goal in building her business was twofold; she wanted to be the primary breadwinner while simultaneously putting her three children (then under five years of age) at the center of her life.
Though Leuchten acknowledged that, “the dynamics we work in have amped up even over the past ten years,” she does her best to keep her focus by staying “in the zone.”
“You know what it feels like to be in the zone. You are fulfilled at work, and in your family, and in yourself. You can feel it viscerally, mentally and emotionally when you are out of whack. When in this zone you can be proactive versus reactive to life’s challenges and demands.”
Pause and Reset When Necessary
Despite our best efforts to ride the wave or follow the dance, it’s inevitable that our personal and professional lives will occasionally spin out of balance. Both Potthoff and Leuchten are adept at noticing when this happens and making the adjustments they need to get back on track before their focus and productivity declines.
For Potthoff this means circling back to priorities. When he starts to feel overwhelmed with responsibilities, he takes inventory of which ones are the most important in both his personal and professional life, and focuses on those key items before tackling the next tasks.
Leuchten’s approach is different. For her, the biggest indicator something is out of whack is that she starts losing sleep. When this happens, she increases her self-care through yoga, meditation and creative activities such as cooking for her family. In so doing, she gets back in the zone of high productivity and sustainable leadership.
Lead by Example Encouraging Employees to Follow
Many executives and employees “put on an act” to fit into their professional roles, completely separating their “work selves” from their “home selves.” The resulting stress and extra exhaustion are difficult to navigate, and often result in adverse health effects.
Recognizing the importance of bringing our entire selves to work, leaders like Potthoff and Leuchten have become very responsive to their employees’ needs. Leuchten knows her staff is straddling two worlds just like she is, and she frequently helps her employees work through life challenges. This is part of the culture that has helped her company retain top talent in a competitive environment. “People don’t have to make excuses. They can take time for life.” She talks about how many people walk around with a mask and pretend that they do not need to take care of what is happening in their personal lives. At Avoca, she strives to create an authentic culture that is inclusive of both family and work.
A growing body of literature links job stress to poor health, lower productivity and slower economic growth. Conversely, healthy work environments are linked to more productive employees and lower turnover. Data from the National Study of the Changing Workforce reveals that 35 percent of employees who say their overall health is excellent are highly engaged on the job, compared to 23 percent of those who say they are in poor overall health. Similarly, 68 percent of employees who say they are in excellent health report that they are not at all likely to leave their job, compared to just 45 percent of employees who say they are in poor health.
As leaders, it’s up to CEOs like Leuchten and Potthoff to cultivate work environments that encourage health and productivity through personal and professional fulfillment. To do so, it’s critical that they define the values and processes that will enable their own success, and lead by example to help employees achieve the same.
Sheila Armitage, Ph.D., is the principal of The Windhorse Journey, a multi-disciplinary learning and coaching company working with youth, adults, business leaders, executives and organizations to strengthen leadership sustainability, performance, life satisfaction and health via resilience research and coaching.
Janel Joseph, M.S. is the principal of JE Joseph Consulting, an executive coaching company helping organizations and leaders define success and building high-trust productive environments. Her work includes neuroscience based behavioral techniques and the use of breathing, mindfulness and yoga to create sustainable change.