Food & Drink

Work-Life Balance? Now, It’s All About Work-Life Integration

Some experts say it's the real key to happy, healthy and committed employees.

By Sheila Mickool January 1, 2018

father and son using laptop in office

This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Seattle magazine.

It’s midweek on a glorious day in Michigan, and Joe Decker, a strategic account executive for Bellevue-based Limeade, an employee engagement company, has just finished a client meeting. Despite a full calendar and imminent deadlines, Decker decides to take time to visit his grandparents, who live in Michigan, instead of hopping on the first plane back to Seattle. 

“I don’t get to see my grandparents very often,” Decker says. “This was a great opportunity to spend some quality time with them.” Taking the opportunity is a decision fully supported by his employer, and it didn’t require that he take vacation days or ask for permission. “At Limeade, we have the flexibility to work from anywhere and are trusted to manage our workflows and meet deadlines. That’s huge,” Decker says. 

In recent years, technology has made it easy for work to intrude on what used to be personal time. And for many workers, leaving the office doesn’t mean leaving work behind; in fact, home—or the car, or even the sidelines of the kids’ soccer field—has just become an extension of the office. It’s made finding that work-life balance elusive. 

But a new trend is emerging, thanks to progressive companies like Limeade, an employee engagement company that works with companies to develop strategic programs that help them establish cultures that foster the well-being of the whole person (think mind, body, career and personal life health). It’s no surprise that the company practices what it preaches with its own employees. 

In this type of work culture, companies recognize that employees need to attend to personal business during the day—like being at a child’s after-school game, participating in a conference call with a home remodeling contractor or even inviting an accountant to the office for a meeting to review taxes—and the time, flexibility and resources (such as private rooms with phones) are made available so they can, no guilt included. 

A variety of technology tools provided by companies help employees get their work done, where it works best for them. Limeade isn’t alone in giving its employees a choice of tools—from PCs to Macs, to laptops and handhelds—and robust IT support to enable remote work. 

Companies have also learned that employees who are physically and emotionally healthy feel more involved and perform better. That’s why more and more are implementing onsite and online programs for fitness, financial health and other programs in support of the overall health their employees, and are offering benefits that contribute to employee well-being.   

Strategic account executive Joe Decker enjoys the Limeade culture which offers employees the flexibility they need to work at home, and to deal with home issues at work. Photo by Hayley Young.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, provides postsurgical back-up care for employees, their children and related adults, and has a primary and acute care clinic on site at the Seattle campus. Puget Sound Energy implemented an online financial wellness program to alleviate employee stress about finances. In the first year, 68 percent of PSE employees utilized the program, according to Michele Ritala, health benefits program manager.

One of the most difficult things for new employees when they first join Limeade is becoming comfortable not asking for permission, says Laura Hamill, Ph.D., Limeade’s chief people officer and managing director of the Limeade Institute, which does extensive research into the science of well-being in the workplace. A former Microsoft executive, Hamill was instrumental in developing the groundbreaking Limeade Holistic Well-Being Assessment (patent pending) that serves as the basis for much of the work Limeade does with clients.

“To improve well-being, you have to treat your people like people,” Hamill says. Part of that is acknowledging that work and life are not separate from each other. “You may be at the office, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t worried about the sick toddler you left at the sitter’s,” Hamill explains.

Empowering employees to take care of things in their personal life is one way to reduce employee stress and create better balance. “Stress increases the more that people perceive their plates are getting full,” says Mehri Moore, MD, a psychiatrist in Bellevue, “and can lead to physical ailments and illnesses, such as an increased rate of addiction, sleep disorders, anxiety, serious depression and eating disorders.”

A well-being model recognizes the liability in stress and the importance of taking care of the whole person, Hamill says. It requires an intentional move away from a controlling management style to one of mutual trust and respect. Rather than holding employees accountable by requiring face time in the office, a trust model measures performance by the tasks they complete and the deadlines they meet. In other words, employee and employer behave more like equals than subordinate and boss. 

Fred Safstrom, CEO of Housing Hope in Everett, can attest to the power of trust. Three years ago, Safstrom and human resource director Todd Fast embarked on a mission to transform the culture at Housing Hope, even though they had a limited budget to do so. Their goal: establish the nonprofit as one of the best places to work in the region, with employees who felt valued and thrived at work. 

They surveyed employees to identify what was working right and what needed attention, and then established a process for continuous improvement. “Based on what we learned,” Fast says, “we dumped traditional employee reviews in favor of providing regular, ongoing feedback affirming what’s going right and addressing what could be better.”  

The effort has paid off, says Safstrom. “We learned how important it is to show [employees] that we trust them—and we now understand that we need to support them both personally and professionally at the office.”

This cultural shift is driven in large part by millennials. Research shows that millennials place a higher value on life balance and flexibility than previous generations, and they want to do things that make a difference, says Hamill. “When they find the right environment, it’s magic,” Hamill says. “Commitment to the company and engagement with the company’s mission soars.” 

Establishing a new culture or revamping an existing one to give employees work-life balance—or work-life integration—is hard work. Some companies set up a game table in the lunch room and think they’re done. “Workplace culture is not a pingpong table or margaritas on Fridays,” Hamill says. “That’s fun, but it’s superficial.”

Real change begins with articulating what the culture objective is and why it matters to all levels of the organization. “A culture of caring needs to be authentic; employees know when it’s not,” Hamill says.

So, what does that look like for employees? Decker is a good example. He loves his job and brims with energy when he’s talking about it. “In 20 years, when I look back on my time here, I have a feeling I’ll identify my decision to join Limeade as one of the huge turning points in my life,” Decker says. “I think I’ll be glad I chose to drink the Limeade.” 

Check out the rest of Seattle’s Best Places to Work from our January issue.

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