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Find a Happy Medium

Some people are career-oriented while others place greater value on time away from work. Practice leaders can support both.

Find a Happy Medium
When a practice collaborates with employees to help them maintain work-life integration, they are more likely to stay at the clinic.

We have all heard about work-life balance. Over the past few years, though, a new phrase has been tossed into the mix: work-life integration. Is there a difference, or has the old phrase been given a fresher name? The short answer is that the idea of work-life balance has evolved into the more holistic concept of integration. Here’s more.

Balance Versus Integration

Achieving work-life balance can be difficult when the time or energy spent on one activity takes away from the other. As a visual, imagine a double-pan scale. If you put weight on one side, the other side automatically goes up. So, in a work-life balance scenario, time spent at work comes at the expense of time spent with family and friends — and vice versa.

This concept does have value. It’s simple and straightforward. You’re working or you’re living life. Either-or. This concept began to be discussed in the 1970s and ’80s. It shined a spotlight on stressed and burned-out workers — initially baby boomers — and it acknowledged the need for personal time.

More recently, experts and human resources leaders have challenged the concept or at least pointed out flaws. For example, many millennials look at the work-life equation somewhat differently and in a way that doesn’t fit with the notion of balancing the two sides. These millennials envision what a meaningful life looks like and then seek jobs and pursue careers that allow it to happen. This is in contrast to the traditional approach of finding a job and then fitting in family and leisure activities.

So, in short, work-life integration replaces the either-or dynamic with a holistic one that has more fluidity and flexibility.

Which Combination Resonates?

An example of traditional work-life balance would be where a person works from, say, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — banker’s hours. Before and after work and on weekends, work is left behind and the person focuses on other aspects of life. (A work shift doesn’t have to be 9 to 5. I use it to illustrate the either-or nature of a work-life balance.)

Now picture a continuum.

On the far left are people whose career passion is so great that they largely prefer a work-work balance. Any free time they have might be spent finding more ways to contribute careerwise and advance in the workplace.

On the far right are people with a life-life balance, where they might work because they need the money, but their career is not the focus. Free time goes to friends, family, hobbies and so forth.

In this case, the middle of the continuum can represent work-life integration, a situation where the two aspects of life fuse satisfactorily. At this point in our illustration, the continuum image works symbolically but not literally because the combination of work and life that is good for one person isn’t good for another. Each person can have a different spot on the continuum.

How Your Practice Can Respond

What can you do as a practice leader? First, understand what each of your employees needs and values, and then brainstorm ways to contribute. The underlying philosophy is that the more your team members can take care of family commitments and participate in other meaningful events, the more they’ll be able to do their best work. After all, even employees with the highest levels of commitment can fall short when they feel burned out or worry that they can’t be present for important family moments.

Next, speak with each employee about how to cooperatively create and optimize work-life integration. A key component would be to see how flexible the work environment can be. For example, can employees switch shifts as long as it’s done equitably and won’t leave service gaps? Can an employee’s hours be tweaked on certain days? Are there circumstances in which an employee can work remotely? If employees struggle to fit in exercise with their work and family responsibilities, can someone in the practice lead lunchtime yoga sessions? If team members want or need continuing education credits but have difficulty earning them after work, can you incorporate opportunities during company lunch and learns?

Will such a system work perfectly every day? Of course not. Integration is ongoing. On some days a work schedule might be more demanding and on other days a personal emergency could arise. Plus, work-related needs and non-work needs can evolve, which means a process of continual assessment and adjustment will be required.

Practice managers should look after their own integration needs, too. This helps to prevent burnout and sets a good example.

Permit Some Freedom

It’s also important to not micromanage the flexibility given to employees. If, for example, they are allowed to switch shifts as long as gaps are covered, don’t hover over their shoulders when they’re figuring it out.

Establish reasonable processes and procedures, include them in your employee manual, communicate them clearly to employees, and then give team members breathing room during implementation. Encourage them to work out challenges as a team. You enter only when they have reached a stalemate.

How Practices Can Benefit

When a practice collaborates with employees to help them maintain work-life integration, they are more likely to stay at the clinic. This allows managers to recruit and retain quality professionals, which in turn reduces turnover costs.

Plus, when an employee is given opportunities to integrate their lives more fully, they likely will be happier and more committed to the practice, and that will show in the service they provide to clients and patients. It also will allow them to serve as better role models for new employees.

Work-Life Integration During COVID

The coronavirus pandemic changed lifestyles in numerous ways. Some people might be working fewer hours or have been laid off or furloughed, while others might be working more than ever. Some people were affected directly by the virus, perhaps because they needed to care for a loved one or recover from the disease. Although situations will vary, today’s realities can significantly impact how you view work-life integration.

In other words, you now have an opportunity to evaluate what you truly value through a new and unexpected lens. There are no right or wrong responses when it comes to your feelings about work-life integration during the pandemic, so analyze your unique reactions.

How would you (re)prioritize each aspect of your life? Which things that once seemed important can be set aside for later? What now feels crucial to you that you wouldn’t necessarily have prioritized so highly pre-COVID? What aspects of life do you now realize you are ready to eliminate from your lifestyle? What elements of self-care do you plan to implement?

HR Huddle columnist Kellie Olah is the practice management and human resources consultant at Veterinary Business Advisors. The company provides legal, human resources and practice management services to veterinarians nationwide. Olah is a certified veterinary practice manager, a certified veterinary business leader and a nationally certified senior professional in human resources.