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This is what leaders need to do to prevent work-life stress from taking over

Lead by example, but make it clear that work-life flexibility shouldn’t come at the expense of good performance.

This is what leaders need to do to prevent work-life stress from taking over
[Photo: Gary Edmonstone/Unsplash]

Leaders have a huge responsibility in contributing to work-life fulfillment, but they often forget what they can do to help employees achieve that. In a lot of work-life recommendations, we empower ourselves to balance brilliantly (despite problems with the idea of ‘balance’), find fulfillment, and seek satisfaction. This is all good. After all, it’s essential to be empowered and make things happen for ourselves. But, in addition to individual empowerment, leaders also have a crucial role to play in creating the conditions for work-life satisfaction in their place of work.

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As a leader, you should make sure that you’re fulfilled in your personal and professional life. But you also have a lot of influence to create an environment that allows for work-life fulfillment and stop work stress from taking over. Here’s how.

Model the way

The first step in leading for work-life satisfaction is finding your own fulfillment and being transparent about it. Social science research tells us that humans learn through watching and emulating others. We do this both consciously and unconsciously. That means how you act and the choices you make have a powerful effect on those around you—even if that’s not your intention. Be transparent about the choices you’re making. If you’re leaving the office early to catch your daughter’s soccer game, mention it to others. If you’ll be late to the office because you have to take your new puppy to the vet, be open about your timing and the reason behind it. When you’re open and transparent about your life outside of work—and that it’s okay to have one—you’ll empower others to do the same.

Hold people accountable

While you’re making room for the rest of your life—and for others to have a life outside of work as well—be sure you’re holding people accountable. Work-life fulfillment is never about slacking and should always come along with reliable performance. Be clear about objectives, and provide people with regular feedback and coaching. You also need to provide the greatest levels of flexibility to those who perform best. It’s not about seeing work-life flexibility as a reward. Everyone deserves it, but you need to set the expectation (and show) that it shouldn’t cost them their performance.

Demonstrate empathy

Challenges with our lives outside of work will come and go. Be the kind of leader with whom people can share problems with even if they’re in the middle of solving them. If their parent is in the hospital or if their childcare provider has just quit, listen, and empathize as they work through their challenges. Don’t pry, but it is vital to be a sounding board. You don’t have to solve employees’ problems, but you should be someone they can confide in and who may be able to help them work through solutions.

Provide flexibility

As much as possible based on the nature of the work, provide flexible options for people in terms of where they work, when they work, and how they get their jobs done. When you focus on performance and outcomes, it won’t matter as much where people work or when they work, as long as they’re delivering stellar results. If they’re not getting things done, manage performance accordingly. A leader I worked with previously used to say, “You should trust the people who work for you; if you don’t, they shouldn’t work for you.”

Be fair

While it’s essential to be flexible, make sure you’re also demonstrating fairness among team members. No matter what their life circumstance (married, single, kids, no kids, etc.), all employees need support for their work and their lives. Work-life fulfillment applies to everyone. Employees will perform best when they have satisfaction outside of work as well as within the workplace.

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Bring your team together

The best, most effective teams are present together as much as possible. Sometimes this is virtual presence based on time zone and location differences. However, nothing beats physical presence, so do your best to make sure that this happens as much as possible. Foster a culture of openness, trust, and respect, so the workplace is where people want to be. Provide choice and flexibility about where and when people work. This puts you in a better footing to create a work environment that is people’s top choice for where they can do their best work.

Build the team

Build team members’ relationships with each other by creating an open, trusting, and respectful culture. Encourage team members to recognize and support each other. When any member of the team faces a work-life issue, the rest of the team will be in an excellent place to help them if they have a solid relationship with the rest of the group.

Exert your influence

As a leader, you can create situations that make work-life fulfillment easier for your team members but learn to think beyond your team. Use your influence to shape the company’s policies, practices, and social norms. Realize and express your authority as you advocate for work-life satisfaction and positive employee experiences across the company and with other leaders.

Being a great leader isn’t just about delivering results—it’s also about empowering your team and the people you manage to find work-life fulfillment. Employees who are satisfied in their personal lives will be more likely to be productive at work. When you cultivate an environment that prevents work-life stress and prioritizes work-life fulfillment, everyone benefits.


Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.

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