Every employee’s personal life has a real and often measurable impact on his or her work life.
When employees have a rich, fulfilling life outside of work that often impacts their work positively. They’re more productive, more thoughtful, more collaborative and more motivated to help strengthen your company’s culture.
But there are limits to how far a company can go to influence someone’s personal life, and for good reason. Personal lives are just that: Personal.
Therefore, it takes a little work to explore the specific limits of your ability to help an employee enjoy a life outside of work. The trick is to communicate frequently and transparently, and to think holistically about any employer involvement in someone’s life outside of work.
A Holistic View of Work Lives and Personal Lives
Workplace consultant Susan LaMotte writes at HBR that when human resource departments and managers try to gauge how engaged or productive employees are, they concentrate on the work experience and tend to ignore external influences.
“That’s the core problem,” she says. “When we only try to understand and affect what happens at work, we ignore the most basic tenet of person-organization fit: employees bring their whole selves to work. What happens after the workday may be just as important as what happens during it.”
In her work, LaMotte takes a more holistic view of each person by considering their work, their relationships, their internal selves and their external selves. This model can deliver powerful insights for company leaders. A few examples from LaMotte’s piece:
- Long commutes can affect how engaged employees are during early morning or late afternoon meetings.
- Employees with young children might be hesitant to take vacation days because they want to save that time for personal days when childcare might be necessary.
From this perspective, we can quickly come up with a list of places in employees’ personal lives that affect their work:
- Health and wellness
- Stress from financial concerns
- Their commutes (or their ability to avoid that commute by working from home)
- Vacation time
- Work creep
You can make a convincing business case for getting involved with any of these parts of an employee’s life. The question is how far should a company go. That’s really a three-part question: How much time and money should be invested, how beneficial are your efforts as an employer, and what legal and ethical limits are there?
Let’s try to answer these for each relevant dimension of an employee’s personal life.
Health and Wellness
This is probably the thorniest issue because, as some companies are learning right now, there is a fine line between trying to promote wellness at work and discrimination.
If you were to just approach employee health as a dollars-and-cents issue, you would find some real financial incentives to have healthy employees. The Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate puts business owners on the hook to some extent for an employee’s health, and as Dan Cook at BenefitsPro points out, most businesses see a direct correlation between how healthy people are and how productively they work.
For these reasons, employee health programs tend to show a solid return on investment. Legally, a company cannot demand that an employee participate in a wellness program, nor can it encroach on right-to-privacy laws by asking for data from a person’s health app or FitBit. But a company can incentivize participation in a health and wellness program through financial rewards, and this is where ethical lines blur quickly.
The New York Times‘ Tara Siegel Bernard reported in October on a program at New Jersey’s Honeywell, which doles out health insurance penalties to employees who don’t report their weight, cholesterol levels and other health data. “Federal regulations require that such wellness programs be voluntary,” Bernard wrote. “But for some workers, it may not feel that way.”
Courts are deciding right now how legal these practices are, as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed a lawsuit against Honeywell.
But to focus on those details misses the bigger issue: Thinking of employee wellness in financial terms is an impoverished viewpoint for any leader to have. Micromanaging your team’s health is sure to undercut any positive aspects of company culture you’ve built.
Instead, you should talk to your team and find out what wellness programs they want. “Health care and wellness is an employee benefit,” the Society for Human Resource Management’s Nancy Hammer tells NPR News. “So you’ve got to do something that is attractive to your employees.”
Dave Rietsema at HR Payroll Systems has a few tips for rolling out such a program:
- First, make sure it feels like a perk rather than some tacit obligation.
- Make those perks enticing. He suggests wellness-specific paid time off or discounted gym memberships as perks that would be attractive to potential hires.
- Be lean with the program’s implementation. Get feedback quickly, and make changes when necessary. “The rate of employee participation in the program, the productivity of participating employees versus non-participating employees, and worker satisfaction with the program should be used to determine success,” Rietsema says. “After a long period of time, employee retention, overall company productivity, and return on investment may also be used to evaluate program success.”
Financial stress can be just as disruptive at work as health issues. In fact, nearly half of the people State Street Global Advisors surveyed for a 2015 report on financial wellness programs indicated some emotional stress due to finances, and a quarter of people indicated some physical stress due to their finances.
And employees seem to overwhelmingly want financial planning help from their employers, that survey found. More than two-thirds of employees reported taking advantage of banking services, financial planning tools, one-on-one financial advising and financial management education when their employers provided it.
Unlike health issues, it can feel much less disruptive for an employer to discuss financial planning with an employee because so much of that relationship is already financial.
Still, as Dan Kadlec writes at Money: “Employers don’t relish this role. It comes with lots of questions about fiduciary duty and liabilities related to the advice that is proffered. Yet legal obstacles are slowly being cleared away to encourage more employer involvement, which is coming in part out of self interest.
“Financially fit workers are more productive and more engaged, research shows.”
The business case for financial wellness programs is there, too, according to the State Street Global Advisors report. Early evidence shows that for every dollar spent on such programs, employers save between $1 and $3 via reduced absenteeism and increased productivity.
Again, the question then becomes how interested your own team is in financial advice. When offering such a perk, seek feedback early and often.
Kin is already on board with letting all of our team members work from wherever they like. The benefits for the company are numerous:
- Most companies report greater productivity among those who work from home.
- Remote workers overwhelmingly report lower stress levels.
- Remote work arrangements help most companies reduce overhead costs.
Additionally, remote work can alleviate financial strain on an employee, particularly someone who has a long commute. “Each case is different, but ditching that daily commute alone can save commuters more than $100 monthly,” Darren Murph writes at Remote.co. Murph is offering a conservative estimate, too. Someone with a long commute — say, an hour each way — could easily end up spending several hundred dollars per month just to get to work.
We also stand by our belief in the importance of taking a vacation. The harder question is figuring out how to incentivize people to actually take their vacation days.
Unlimited time off did a bad job of that in our experience. That sounds like an attractive job perk when attracting candidates, but in practice it made people wary of leaving the office.
More than a few companies have publicly introduced vacation stipends. Having a company pay for your vacation sounds like a killer perk, right?
Well, maybe not.
Bloomberg‘s Rebecca Greenfield reports that some companies appear to be trying to get an extra return on those stipends. She mentions two California companies specifically that require anyone who takes advantage of the stipend to update the company’s social media with vacation posts.
That sounds like work creep, but Greenfield says most people were OK with that arrangement. “That these trips come with strings attached didn’t bother any of the employees who spoke with Bloomberg,” she writes. “Even those who had to use up their paid vacation time didn’t see it as an imposition, and free money tends to push the vacations in a more adventurous direction.”
Still, if you’re serious about encouraging employees to get out of the office, our data suggests having a generous, finite amount of vacation time works best. A $1,000 vacation stipend looks good on paper, but in practice you are probably better off just giving each employee a $1,000 bonus.
Dedicated Efforts to Keep Work at Work
This is the flipside of remote work: The tools that make working from home possible for so many people also make it easy for work to intrude on your personal time.
A widely cited 2015 study from WorkplaceTrends.com found that 1 in 5 employees spends at least 20 hours of personal time on work tasks each week. It also found that nearly two-thirds of workers report that they feel their managers expect them to be reachable outside the office.
Obviously, there are situations in which it is necessary to reach someone outside of work hours, but if that expectation looms too large, or if team members are putting in an additional half week of work on their own time, people are going to get burned out.
Sometimes, team leaders and managers simply don’t realize they set these expectations so it’s up to them to develop internal intelligence to avoid putting unnecessary stress on people.
Nicole Fallon at Business New Daily has a few tips for building this awareness into day-to-day operations:
- When catching up on emails toward the end of the day, explicitly write out whether a message is urgent or whether it can wait until the next work day.
- Speak with team members about how much work they take home with them.
- Set the tone by providing information about activities outside of work. Doing so can help communicate the fact that you want your team members to develop rich lives outside of work.