July 30, 2019 Practice Points

Our Work-Life Balance Needs an Overhaul

Every lawyer has a different threshold where happiness and productivity merge, and firms should capitalize on those differences to better their practice as a whole.

By Gabrielle Pelura

The idea of a work-life balance drives professionals of the twenty-first century, referring to the attempt to find an equilibrium between work and personal time to better employees’ mental and emotional health. As Forbes relates, happy employees show 20 percent more productivity than unhappy ones, highlighting that organizations thrive when employees are happy.

But is this balance attainable with the high stress and long hours that are common in corporate America and even more prevalent in the legal profession? Indeed, the United States reigns as the most overworked developed nation in the world. In a recent article entitled “The Long Hours Game,” author Aimee Hansen discusses this apparently American phenomenon of idolizing the “singular devotion to work” and viewing number of hours worked as a status symbol.

Perhaps Americans need to take more vacations.

As detailed in the article, studies have found that productivity actually declines when the work week increases above 50 hours, with an additional finding that a mere 2 to 3 hours of real work is completed in the average 9.4 hour work day. Hansen further points out that there are also health concerns specific to women. An Ohio State University study found that a 60 hour plus work week triples the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart trouble, and arthritis for women. The risks increase after 40 hours and again after 50 hours a week. These increased health risks were not apparent in men. Quite the opposite. Men who worked more than 40 hours a week actually had a lower risk of heart disease, lung disease, and depression when compared to that of men working under 40 hours a week. Researchers hypothesize that the increased health risks for women were the result of the multiple roles women juggle and disproportionate pressure at home as compared to that felt by men.

So perhaps it is female Americans who really need more time off.

Long story short, Hansen advocates for the “smart hours game” in lieu of the long hours game. She puts the onus on companies, stressing the value of improvement over productivity and presenteeism. Valuing the wrong thing, according to Hansen, inevitably ends in burning out, and a balance between work and play must be prioritized. This leaves the open question of how to achieve this balance.  

In her article “Forget Work-Life Balance—Try Work-Life Harmony Instead,” Roe Steinbach suggests the answer. She has reimagined the phrase “work-life balance,” defining it as a harmony instead of an equilibrium. Steinbach discusses that as we have become more technologically connected to the workplace, we have begun to blur the line between work and play, creating an inequality in the time spent between the two. These blurred lines necessitate a harmony instead of an equilibrium. Something, in my opinion, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Steinbach stresses the importance in prioritizing fluidity and interconnectivity between the traditionally adverse concepts of professional and personal life. For instance, allowing a morning or a lunch exercise break may benefit overall productivity by refocusing and sharpening employees for a day at the office. Responding to emails and creating to-do lists at home after dinner can likewise achieve this clarity. Or, these breaks and the ability to do what makes them happy does just that: it makes employees happy and, therefore, productive.

Steinbach’s “harmony” seems to make a lot of sense—especially for lawyers—considering their often demanding schedules and heavy workloads. This concept also seems to be gaining traction, demonstrated by more and more employers allowing employees to work remotely or simply take time out of their day for any activities known to increase productivity. Some women, however, find such breaks to detract from their work and would rather remain in the office for the long haul. Because each employee maximizes efficiency in different ways, employers should give employees the latitude to construct their perfect workday, provided they succeed and meet their quotas without the “burn-out” discussed by Hansen.

The prioritization on meeting goals and remaining fulfilled should achieve the tri-fold goal of keeping (1) employees healthy and productive, (2) employers satisfied with project-completion, and (3) clients pleased with the ability to maintain contact. Each lawyer has their own threshold where happiness and productivity merge; law firms should capitalize on such differences to maximize their firm’s potential as a whole.

Gabrielle Pelura is a law clerk at Bressler, Amery & Ross, P.C. in New York, New York.

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