3 Lessons On Promoting Work-Life Balance


By Lena Weiner

The job of HR and leadership is not to drive employees, says the manager of Vanderbilt University Medical Center's EAP; it's to support them and enforce work/life balance so employees can focus on what matters: patient quality and safety.

Emails sent after midnight with the expectation of an immediate response. Marathon conference calls on Thanksgiving Day and Easter Sunday. Employees crying at their desks from the relentless pressure. It's not a scene from a sensationalistic movie about Wall Street; it's day-to-day life in one of America's most beloved companies.

Last month, the New York Times exposed Amazon.com's grueling work environment, where employees are routinely pushed to their limits. Amazon's leadership defended its culture, saying it encourages innovation. But in healthcare, the Amazon approach would do much more harm than good, says Jim Kendall, manager of Work/Life Connections, Vanderbilt University Medical Center's Employee Assistance Program.

"When I read that article, it made me feel like that was the kind of place I wouldn't want to work," says Kendall. He believes an Amazon-like environment would be detrimental to getting a job done right just about anywhere, but would be especially toxic in a healthcare organization, where patient quality and safety is paramount, even as the needs of patients could easily keep a dedicated physician or nurse on duty 24 hours a day.

Vanderbilt's approach toward work/life balance has been to create a "culture of resilience," says Kendall. His department focuses on helping employees find solutions to problems (including some problems outside work), being emotionally fulfilled, and remaining healthy. The idea is to create a workforce that is relaxed, engaged, and emotionally ready for the challenges they might face at work each day.

Here are three lessons to take from Vanderbilt's model.

1. What Can We Do For You?

Anything administration can do to simplify its employees' lives will have a huge impact on morale and resiliency, says Kendall.

Vanderbilt offers on-site early childhood education services on its Nashville campus for the children of employees and faculty. It also offers a concierge service that helps connect workers with many different needs, including elder care, banking, and financial services. Kendall once got a referral from the concierge to have his wedding ring resized.

Vanderbilt's concierge also maintains a collection of gift cards to pass out to hospital staff if they forget a birthday or otherwise need a gift on short notice. Target, Walmart, and popular chain restaurants are all well represented in the gift card supply.

"It may not sound significant, but for some of these workers, knowing that they have somewhere [on campus] to go when they have a last-minute need like a gift card can be a really big deal," Kendall says.

Another service Vanderbilt offers its employees is an odd job board where students and staff who are willing to run errands, babysit, or walk pets, can offer help, or those who need services can create a post requesting them. Frequently, Kendall says, he refers stressed-out workers to the board when they begin talking about having too much on their plates.

The idea, Kendall says, is helping these busy workers to streamline their lives so they can focus on what matters.

2. Vacation is Sacred

In the New York Times article, numerous former Amazonians recalled feeling pressured to work remotely during their vacations. That wouldn't fly at Vanderbilt—and should be a complete no-no everywhere, says Kendall.

"It's very important to make it clear that [healthcare workers] need time away from the hospital, away from their patients, and away from their cell phones and laptop computers… Healthcare workers will enjoy time off much more when they're really off."

Recently, Vanderbilt changed its PTO policy to feature a "use it or lose it" clause, which prohibits rolling over more than a certain amount of time to the next year. While controversial with workers, this policy actually encourages them to take vacation, says Kendall.

"We all know the guys who save up vacation, year after year," he says. "They have a bunch of time on reserve, but they never actually go on vacation." The new policy discourages hoarding vacation time.

HR and managers should intervene when a worker refuses to go on vacation, says Kendall. "Find out what's going on—they should be taking their vacation time," he says.

3. Staging an Intervention

Some organizations are happy to watch their workers become workaholics, but in healthcare that can negatively impact quality of care, says Kendall.

"People become more irritable. They become less effective but spend more time at work. They start spinning their wheels and forget that living is what we do."

If an employee seems to be losing productivity while spending more time online or at the workplace or answering emails, managers should say something, says Kendall. "Sometimes it takes manager to give the worker a nudge to take day off."

Leaders should model the behavior they hope to see in workers, such as taking time off, not responding to emails sent after hours, and actually leaving their desks for lunch, suggests Kendall.

HR's role is to remind workers that work-life balance is "about life. It's about not compartmentalizing, and not segmenting your life," he says.

Workers aren't truly living when they can't take a vacation without worrying whether they will be able to find a Wi-Fi connection "just in case" they have to sign on and get work done; they aren't truly living if they're competing to see who logs more hours on-duty, says Kendall. "We need to grant our employees permission to set boundaries."


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