When Carmella Sebastian was in medical school in the 1980s, the focus was on treating illnesses rather than prevention or health promotion. But early this century, she became interested in workplace wellness, and now establishes such programs as a senior medical director with Florida Blue, in Tampa.
The morning we talked, she was working with a client and ran headlong into a mistake companies typically make with wellness programs. The boss told his underlings that he expected them to lead a balanced life, but added that if he sent them an e-mail on the weekend he expected them to answer it before Monday.
"That's a bad message," she said in an interview. "They now need to watch all weekend for e-mails, as there is no other way to know if one has been sent."
If you're serious about helping your employees to achieve a healthier work-life balance, you have to be willing to set the example. "Employees watch what a supervisor does and will mimic it. To get the entire workplace to follow, managers must exhibit balance," she said.
She offered seven tips to help them do that.
1. Encourage employees to take those unused vacation days.
Employees are leaving a lot of vacation days unused, sometimes because they don't feel they have the time for a vacation and sometimes because they want to cash them in for money. Either way, it's a bad precedent, as they aren't getting the time away from work they need so they can prosper. She blames our workaholic culture. She recalls considering an Italian vacation and being told not to take it in August because the country essentially shuts down as everyone heads for the beach. "Other countries have figured it out better than us," she said.
2. Specify that the beach is not a sandy office.
When people arrive at the beach – as folks routinely do at the vacation retreats near her Florida home – you don't want them reaching for their devices. "They have to unplug. They'll have a clearer mind and lower blood pressure," she said. Suggest a cruise, which can limit their lifeline to work.
3. Teach time management.
While you might not be able to guarantee that your employees can leave work at the office every single day, she said you can help them gain the skills that will reduce their amount of "homework." Many of them have poor productivity habits and rather than just accepting that state of affairs, you should teach better time management practices. They won't ask for help, as they don't know there is a problem. Although online training is available – her firm supplies it to clients – she says you should do the training yourself. "This is a leader's responsibility. You know your people. You are with them every day. If they are struggling, you need to help them," she says.
4. Teach stress management techniques, as well.
No workplace is stress-free and so you should teach stress-management techniques, as well as urge employees to get lots of sleep. Companies are more willing to be involved here, she says, than in time management, but still have a long way to go. Her book, Sex and Spaghetti Sauce, offers tips to individuals on stress and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle.
5. Help them understand the business cycle
We can't work at peak levels forever, but fortunately all operations tend to have seasons of lower activity. Take advantage of that for allowing your employees to obtain some balance. Her busiest period, owing to the sales cycle, is February to June, followed by a quieter summer – so she takes her vacations then – and a hectic fall. Make sure your new employees know that cycle. She recently took on two people who were frazzled by the pace until she advised that the summer slowdown would come soon. "Everyone can weather a storm if they know the sun will shine at some point," she said.
6. Include exercise in the workday
We don't move enough during the day, so employers need to encourage exercise through the workday – lunch time strolls, walking meetings, and gym breaks. If you have a wellness program, give reward points for exercise.
7. Be flexible about where and when work happens (and help with the housework):
Unless it's absolutely necessary that someone be at a desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., allow them to work from home, on their own schedule, from time to time. That allows them to live their lives while also doing their work, allowing for better balance. As well, if you can afford it, consider reducing their housework through laundry services and on-site dry cleaning pickup and delivery; free housecleaning services; or take-home meals.
"The toughest is the first one, walking the walk yourself," she says of her pointers. "And that's where you get your biggest bang for your buck."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter