My first “job” out of college was more of an adventure: I took a 10-month contract to live and work in the champagne region of France. As I was living, learning, and working, there were many cultural differences I came to know and appreciate, one of which being their approach to work-life balance. The French, in general, have a culture squarely rooted in la joie de vivre, “the joy of living”, in other words—they enjoy life in its present tense to the fullest. This is why they prioritize simple things, such as food and dining, and craft them into enjoyable experiences.
This joie de vivre places them uniquely in the present tense, living life to its fullest in the moment they are in. Americans, on the other hand, tend to focus more on what’s next, ever driving toward the future, rather than what’s right in front of us.
The French have developed their culture and their systems to support this enjoyment of life by normalizing:
- at least an hour lunch break (often 1.5 or 2)
- a legally mandated 35-hour maximum work week, where working overtime is remarkably rare
- and a guarantee of 25 days of paid leave each year plus 11 National Bank Holidays, when most employers are closed or reduce hours. This is their law; compared to the United States, where there are no laws requiring paid leave.
Even without comparing the amount of time spent working, it is easy to see that in America we are so often defined by “what we do”, while in France they are more defined by “what they enjoy.”
The Balance Myth
I believe that our work can be redeemed and should eventually fulfill part of our calling. Truett Cathy (and others) have been known for saying “love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” If you love your work and it is fulfilling, there is nothing wrong with occasionally spending some extra time at work to accomplish something great. The problem is when we allow our work-life boundaries to become blurred.
I’ve heard Dave Ramsey say more than once that if you want to stand out at work, one of the first things to do is “work while you’re at work!” Put the phone away, don’t multitask, don’t take personal calls at work, etc.: simply build boundaries to protect your time at work from unnecessary life intrusions. This works the other way around as well: be off when you are off. If you’ve left the office, leave your work at work!
Your family and friends deserve your full attention, and you deserve the freedom to live a full life outside of your office, store, or job site.
These boundaries may not be strictly fixed, and that’s understandable. Craig Groeschel shares an amazing perspective on his leadership podcast where he addresses this very subject. Work-life balance is a myth: there is no balance. There is only tension and faithfulness to the work or life season you are in.
There are and should be seasons: busy work seasons and busy life seasons. If your goal is to find balance, you will always be frustrated, therefore, you should strive to be faithful in the season you’re in. You aren’t a bad employee or a bad spouse for having seasons- the problem is when “a season” lasts for several quarters or a year.
There may be seasons where you need to limit weeknight life activities so that you can spend intentional time with family, then unwind and get to bed early so you wake up refreshed and rested the next day. You wouldn’t want your surgeon coming in at 8am, groggy-eyed and sluggish, only to find out he stayed up until 1am drinking and playing Call of Duty. Your work may demand your best effort for a time, and you can give it that. There are seasons where the boundary set needs to protect work, and that’s ok.
There are also seasons where you need to prioritize your family and friends. Proper “balance” looks like more of our time spent prioritizing our family: those who will be with us on vacations, at weddings, and at our eventual funeral—while our employer(s) will not.
Leaving at 5pm when the meeting was scheduled to end at 5pm (but has yet to finish) should be acceptable. That is a healthy boundary. When I worked part-time here at WinShape and coached CrossFit in the evenings, there were numerous occasions where I had to excuse myself right when our day was scheduled to end, even while others were still discussing or cleaning up. I didn’t do this because I have no respect for my coworkers or because I’m lazy, but I was honoring the agreement I made with all parties: that I would end work at WinShape at 5pm and be to the next role before 5:30pm.
If I have any life obligation with kids or family or myself, it is a healthy boundary to leave when the day is scheduled to end. If I am leading the day, I should do everything I can to end on time or early in respect of my time and everyone else’s. My ability to stay after may vary depending on the season, but in general I should make a habit of defending my time and my family’s time, by leaving work on time, and leaving work at work.
The French do this well, and the law ensures it is so. And while there are things we can learn and appreciate from other cultures, we know that we don’t live in that culture or that system, but there are some ways we can act which would help us to create healthier work-life boundaries.
Seven Ways to Create Healthier Work-Life Boundaries
1. Establish the “Right to Disconnect”
France recently introduced a new law requiring organizations to forbid employees from using email after certain hours. Make it a norm for your team to silence all emails and messaging after 5pm. Hold them accountable when you see a late time stamp on an email and encourage the team to hold themselves accountable as well.
2. Treat overwork as a performance issue
If an employee hasn’t taken any vacation in a given year, address it at their performance review. There’s a good chance they aren’t resting and refreshing themselves, therefore aren’t able to give their best to the company, which affects their performance. Work alongside them to develop a plan to take some time off for themselves.
3. End meetings on time or early
Just as you would expect others to arrive on time to a meeting, they have the expectation for you to end on time. You wouldn’t excuse someone from being 15 minutes late to work, so why should you be excused for running a meeting 15 minutes over? At the very least, recognize time has expired for the meeting and give teammates the chance to leave if they need to, and then wrap up the meeting quickly with anyone willing to spare some time.
4. Be prepared, early, and on-time
Come prepared and ready to go! Do what you can to help things end on time. It could be that things are starting late, which causes them to end late. You could, as one of our teammates beautifully says, always be closing. Always look for things that you can do that would help the end of day or clean-up process be more efficient.
5. Lead by example
Defend your time and mental space. Give your work your full attention when you’re there, then turn off all notifications on your email or messaging apps when the workday is over. Especially in our current hybrid work environment, defending your time off work is more important than ever. Create physical boundaries if needed between working space and living space. If you have been in a habit of over-working and you are determined to set new boundaries, communicate that with your supervisor or coworkers and kindly ask them to respect your new boundaries, or at least inform that you will no longer be responding at night.
6. Take the time off
If you know a busy season at work starts around a certain time, work with your leaders to plan some time off to refresh and reset before entering that heavy season of work. You know what you need to refresh yourself physically and mentally—do those things.
If you have life boundaries to set, be clear and upfront about them. Tell your leader beforehand, “on Tuesday I need to leave right at 5pm.” Then gently remind them as that time approaches: “Hey boss, just a reminder, I have to leave right at 5pm.” If they aren’t finished at 5pm, you’ve done what you can, so let them know you’re out and leave. This is a healthy way of setting a boundary, while saying nothing and just disappearing at 4:55pm is not.
If we want to build a healthier work-life culture in our organizations, or even in our nation, it starts with us.
Lead by example and do what’s best for you, your family, and ultimately your organization. As a leader and an organization, strive to be known for building up the people around you in all aspects of your life. Be known for better than the status quo. And challenge your people to be better for themselves.