Don’t Just Talk Work/Life Balance, Live It

With studies finding two-thirds of all full-time workers in the US experience some form of workplace “burnout,” companies can’t afford to treat the concept of work-life balance as a buzzword. And the high-pressure, fast-paced nature of startup life means rapidly growing companies need to actively prioritize workplace wellness — especially in highly competitive industries like software development and ad tech.

While implementing policies for benefits like parental leave, sabbaticals and gym memberships is important, building a culture that actually respects work-life balance requires more than just perks. Workplaces that really support wellness do so from the inside out — and it starts with the founders and other senior leaders.

Yet factors like the industry, sales cycle, time of year, or even specific personality traits can make getting the C-suite to embody a concept as subjective as “wellness” far easier said than done.

The senior leadership team here at Tatari, for example, takes the notion of wellness seriously, but overtly encouraging them to “show how they make work-life balance a priority” wouldn’t be a worthwhile use of my time. In my experience, I’ve uncovered a few subtle tactics that can go a long way toward reinforcing a culture that respects work-life balance.

Develop relationships

It can’t be said enough — the function of HR is not just about policy — it’s about encouraging, managing and fostering genuine interactions between human beings. Prioritizing wellness then, starts with encouraging senior leaders and managers to actually get to know their employees so they can recognize when they’re stressed, unfocused, or look like they just need a break.

This works both ways though, as it’s just as important for the HR or People team to have real relationships with the C-suite that go outside of filing new hire paperwork or managing benefits. So the same advice applies to us: establish a genuine relationship with the C-suite. Observe how the CMO acts when he might be having a bad day, or how the head of product acts when she’s stressed out at the tail end of a sprint.

What’s important is that the interactions are good and genuine. Whether it’s the Chief People Officer addressing the CEO, or a senior sales leader sitting down with a new account executive, the person in question will be more receptive to inquiries about wellness or suggestions about taking time off if a healthy interpersonal relationship has already been established.

Tell and show

In most corporate or startup environments, we spend so much time in meetings and phone calls that people take the art of conversation for granted. But talking reveals so much about our lives — how we’re feeling, what our habits are — that casual conversations can serve as fertile ground for establishing the company’s norms around work-life balance.

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For example, during a team lunch, someone asked our CEO about his recent vacation, and he shared a funny story. While that may not seem like much, it reinforces that the CEO actually takes vacations (so maybe a stressed out software developer can, too). Or once, he even shared a life hack about how to spend the least amount of time at the DMV by showing up at 4 pm. Subtle, but it showed that taking care of life’s necessities during work hours wasn’t something the company frowned on (within reason).

While every company’s anecdotes and policies will be different, encouraging C-suite leaders to be open about when they leave early to pick their kids up from school, whether it’s OK to work from home in the morning, or congratulating someone for carving out time during the day to get to the gym helps to set the tone for the broader team.

Encourage executive participation

Cultivating wellness in the workplace isn’t just about work-life balance and taking time off — there’s also the environment in the workplace itself. Most companies plan structured team-building events and celebrations like holiday parties, but encouraging the C-suite to participate in more casual activities like lunches and happy hours can help establish a healthy workplace culture.

For example, one of our founders attended a company-sanctioned volunteer soccer event that had been suggested by an employee. His participation showed the team he was able to step away from his desk. That means other, more junior employees will recognize that senior leaders don’t skip out on more casual, community building activities in order to do more work. That may help them model their own behavior accordingly.

Ultimately, what I’ve learned about cultivating a company culture that truly supports wellness and work-life balance is that it’s not just about formal programs and activities. They’re important, but it’s equally important to remind senior leaders their actions, along with a combination of smaller, behavioral and interpersonal factors, are what really helps employees feel like they can prioritize having balanced lives as well.

Müller Luo is VP of Operations at Tatari, where she heads up finance, accounting, legal and HR. After 10 years of working in finance, she opened a bakery in San Francisco's Mission District and parlayed that experience into an HR role at Tastemaker. She's been helping innovative startups like Prynt and Tatari grow their teams ever since. 

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