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What Leaders Need To Do To Fix Broken Work-Life Balance

You can say that you value work-life balance, but your actions speak louder than your words.

What Leaders Need To Do To Fix Broken Work-Life Balance
[Photo: Flickr user cinnamon_girl]

Melinda Lehman was busy. As one of the founding partners at Happen, a global innovation strategy agency, she was in the midst of expanding its North American presence. Lehman tells Fast Company she was “going 150%” to build on a profitable first year, adding to the team, and managing a growing client roster that included Hewlett-Packard, Starbucks, and Live Nation, among others.

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Long hours were the norm, but the two-time Ironman triathlete persisted. “I knew, mentally, it was not sustainable without some sort of a break,” Lehman says, but she continued to push herself, even when her immune system started to shut down. A conversation with her doctor ended in a warning to get serious about cutting back her hours. Lehman says she tricked herself into thinking if she stepped away, everything she’d worked to build would come crashing down. The thought of taking a break, she says, “was untenable.”

And then she started to bleed internally. “When you don’t listen to your mind, your body has a way of making you listen,” she recalls. Still conflicted but clearly in no position to keep up her pace, Lehman reluctantly told her partners about her health. “They had no idea,” she says. “I felt incredibly vulnerable.”

Lehman isn’t alone. A recent study by PGi, a provider of collaboration software and services, found that 87% of knowledge workers admit they work beyond the 40-hour workweek, and nearly a quarter (23.4%) say they log in an excess of 50 hours a week. Not many are whistling while they work. Seventy-one percent reported that they don’t like putting in the extra time.

Part of the problem is that even though 21% are stuck in their office chairs, more workers are blurring the boundaries between labor and leisure. As many as 15% of respondents said they work on weekends, and a little over 18% regularly take home work at least one day a week. More than half (58%) don’t take a lunch break away from their desks. Part of the problem is that managers and their staff have wildly different ideas about work-life balance.

For Lehman, the perception that she couldn’t step off the work treadmill was self-imposed. Her partners were supportive and encouraging of her taking the time she needed to heal. In fact, Lehman points out, care is Happen’s first core value. “It was a 360-degree view,” Lehman explains, which they communicate to the team and across the leadership in this way: “Taking care of ourselves, our clients, our suppliers, and everyone whom we touch.”

It’s part of what helped the company endure. Despite the roller coaster of the recession, the self-funded company has come out with double-digit growth every year as well as create $2.8 billion in incremental revenue for Happen’s clients.

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Lehman eventually took three months off–not without committing to take on another Ironman challenge next year, she notes, laughing. And while she wouldn’t hesitate to encourage another client or team member to care for themselves (one partner just lost his father, and another team member is dealing with an ailing parent, and each was given time and space), Lehman admits she also had a lesson to learn about how care as a value fit into her image of herself as a leader.

“It is about starting with yourself and then moving outward,” she says. “I didn’t recognize how important that is, but looking back, it drives how we grow, not too quickly, with the time and space to find a groove and make mistakes.” That includes allowing team members to manage their own workloads with a realistic timeline and keep communicating so everyone knows what to expect. It’s about taking ownership, but also allowing the team to take care of each other. It’s why Happen doesn’t have offices; they have hubs for people to work in when they choose, and be able to balance their lives with their jobs.

Lehman also confesses that stepping back allowed others to step into leadership roles that were transformational for them and for the company. She maintains the break actually made her and the team stronger. Now, says Lehman, she takes the reins in a more conscious capacity. “It’s a different level of leadership.”

Related: How To Achieve Work-Life Balance In 5 Steps

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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