work-life balance

What Work-Life Balance? It’s About Culture, Planning and Execution

In the last decade, the level of happiness in America has dropped significantly. The latest United Nations’ World Happiness Report ranks 156 countries, wherein the U.S. fell to the 18th spot, having ranked third a decade ago. One of the strongest contributing factors to each country’s place on the list is work-life balance. As technology permeates into every aspect of our personal and professional lives, we are ever more “connected” and plugged in, especially when it comes to our work.

The world of startups, however, is pioneering change by offering flexible working arrangements, unlimited vacation policies, and incentivizing paid time off, or PTO, with a vacation stipend. But does that mean entrepreneurs are thoroughly relishing their time off from work and feeling empowered to take time as and when needed? Or is the promise of unplugging from work after hours or during holidays nothing more than lip service?

Vacation shaming affects 1 in 3 workers

A survey by TSheets reveals that 1 in 3 entrepreneurs feels pressured to not take time off because of workplace culture. And like many American workers, Shannon Kuykendall, the CEO of Up Automation, knows about vacation shaming firsthand. The PTO-unfriendly work environment is often the result of the culture that perpetuates the behavior.

Kuykendall previously worked on a team that was averaging 60-hour workweeks, where everyone was overworked and in desperate need of a break. When she was due for her first week of vacation after a year of service, her manager simply shook his head.

Now that she is her own boss, Kuykendall makes sure vacation is an important part of her company’s culture.

“Every three months, I take a week to myself and digitally detox. All I know is that when I take care of myself, I can better take care of my clients and my team,” she said.

Related: What is Working (and Living) Life Like for Digital Nomads?

Work hard, play harder? Prove it

As one of the hallmarks in startup culture, concerned employers decided PTO policies must come with an additional “complete disconnect or else” clause. FullContact did just that, telling its employees to unplug from work completely or lose out on the $7,500 vacation stipend.

Bart Lorang, FullContact’s CEO and co-founder, has so much faith in the power of a proper vacation that he made a presentation deck about his “paid, PAID vacation” policy. His rationale is simple: The hero syndrome has to go. All it does it fuel the “only-I-can-do-this” mentality.

“That’s not heroic. That’s a single point of failure,” he concludes. “It’s not good for the employee or the company. No one should bear the burden as the last line of defense in an organization.”

Complete disconnect? Plan, plan and plan

Understandably, for a startup with a small team, every employee is critical. An inability to share the workload is perhaps the reason why 60 percent of those surveyed continue to work even when they’re supposed to be on vacation.

Take Alex Trumbull, the CEO and co-founder of Groove, for example. He recalls the challenges of making vacations work in the early days of starting up his business.

“When our only designer leaves for a week, well, nothing is getting designed that week,” he said. “We can’t simply step into each other’s shoes.”

But Trumbull also knew having one person make or break business would not be sustainable. So Groove started doing two things to ensure employees could take time off and truly disconnect without bringing the company to a halt.

  1. He included time off in a project. When time off was included in the planning of any task, the team could avoid stalls and the frustration of missed milestones.
  2. He front loaded the work. Once time off has been included, a budget for less work was set before a vacation. This way, the soon-to-be-on-PTO employee could ensure the work was done, thus freeing him or her to disconnect completely without pushing leftover tasks on other teammates.

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A nation playing catch-up

As the only advanced economy without a federal leave policy, the U.S. trails behind her global peers when it comes to paid vacation days. As a result, many work-life balance policies are also lagging. Startups, however, have always been at the forefront of PTO disruption.

In 2001, with 120 employees, Netflix began exploring and implementing unconventional vacation policies. Today, the company continues to prove that the same startup ethos can be applied to HR policies, as long as the company walks the talk in granting employees their much-deserved breaks for a happier and healthier workplace.

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