Improving your work-life balance can make you a more effective leader at work

April 30, 2023

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Improving your work-life balance can make you a more effective leader at work

Silencing your notifications and ignoring your email at the end of the workday could make you a better leader at your job, according to new research.

Managers who disconnected from their jobs at home felt more refreshed the next day, identified as effective leaders and helped their employees stay on target better than bosses who spent their off hours worrying about work. Less-experienced leaders were especially prone to becoming ineffective if they spent their time focusing on their jobs at home.

The upshot is that the key to effective leadership in the office might be a better work-life balance. The new study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

What the researchers say: “The simple message of this study is that if you want to be an effective leader at work, leave work at work,” the lead researcher. “This is particularly important for inexperienced leaders, as they seem to benefit the most from recovery experiences when at home. Leaders have challenging jobs as they juggle their own role responsibilities with the needs of their followers, and they need to recover from the demands of the leadership role.”

The study surveyed managers and their employees at U.S. businesses in 2019 and 2022. The researchers assessed leaders’ ability to disconnect from work when at home the night before and their level of energy and how strongly they identified as a leader in the morning at work. Employees rated their bosses on their ability to lead their teams.

“What we found is that on nights when leaders were able to completely turn off and not think about work, they were more energized the next day, and they felt better connected to their leadership role at work. On those same days, their followers reported that these leaders were more effective in motivating them and in guiding their work,” the researchers said.

“But on nights when leaders reported that they were thinking about the negative aspects of work, they couldn’t really recuperate their energy by the morning,” they continued. “They saw themselves as less leader-like and they weren’t as effective, as rated by their followers.”

So how can leaders – and businesses – promote this kind of work-life balance to build effective leaders?

“My hope is that this study will give managers data to support their decision to be present at home and to disconnect from work,” said the lead author.

While the present study didn’t ask managers how they relaxed at home, other research points to well-known ways to unwind and reset: Exercise, socialize with friends, spend quality time with family, or engage with TV shows, books or hobbies. What helps one person leave work at the office might not help another. The key, she said, is to find the methods that let you decompress from work as much as possible.

And businesses that want the best out of their leaders on the job should help them recharge at home. Reducing after-hours emailing and expectations for on-call work is one way to do that.

“You can start small,” she explained. “Say, ‘After this time in the evening, I won’t check my work email.’ See where that takes you.”

So, what? Working “after hours” is a relatively recent phenomenon, although the hours people were expected to work had been growing shorter until technology reversed the trend.

Humans are designed to work about 10 hours a week max, after that we tend to become stressed. Working hours can be extended without undue harm to the individual if they perceive the work to be “fun,” “play,” engaging, or part of socializing.

However, I expect that a lot of after-hours working–either at the office or at home is a form of escape from dysfunctional family life. We weren’t designed for nuclear families any more than we were for long hours. A study I did many years ago asked people: would they like to spend extra time with their families or spend that extra time at work?

The overwhelming majority declared they would rather spend more time with their families. When they were given the opportunity by their employers to do so, we found that the majority actually chose to spend more time at the office.

During the Covid restrictions when most work was done from home, the rate of child and spousal abuse escalated hugely and suicides increased. I find it difficult to believe that the “switch-off” from work is a universal key to better leadership. To many—if not most—leaders, life at home may not be a switch-off at all but just a series of more problematic encounters.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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