Three ways to identify a company where you'll find a healthy work-life balance

The following question hit my inbox today:

One of the challenges I see in the developer world in Ruby seems to be companies with a bunch of young guys that are either unmarried, married without children, or ‘workaholics’. I don’t want to be a guy who is unavailable to his wife and kids, or just tired / stressed out chronically. For me work should serve Life not the other way around. How do you identify companies that truly have work-life balance?

“Work should serve Life, not the other way around.” I agree wholeheartedly. I find a lot of joy in my work – but only as long as I take care of non-work things that are important to me, like spending time with family and friends, volunteering, getting outdoors with my dogs, messing around with my hobbies, and even relaxing from time to time.

In a world of 80-hour workweeks, never-ending urgent TODOs, and daily firefights, is there a place for the person who wants to have a life?

Yep. And you can find your place. Here are the top three things I look for in an organization, to determine whether I could achieve a healthy work-life balance there:

The business is profitable

Profitable businesses are systems that make money. They look for ways to improve that system. They recognize how critical their employees are to the success of that system, and treat them well.

Unprofitable companies are systems that lose money. The best way to describe them is that they’re a ship that’s taking on water. When the ship is going down, everything is an emergency. Teams bond together as martyrs in the company’s story. This is unhealthy.

In short, with a profitable business, the goal is to win more. In an unprofitable company, the goal is to lose less. These two goals have a massive impact on the expectations they have of their employees.

Leadership is generous with their time

C-level execs are busy people. But they understand the role that everyone plays in their organization.

Some execs work hard to keep people happy and effective, to best support the company’s mission. These execs – despite being busy – are willing to schedule time with employees to teach them about the business, field ideas, and answer questions. They won’t come to you, unless they need something. You have to go to them. But when you do, you’re able to get some one-on-one face time because they have an open door policy, or they’re able to work you into their schedule.

The #1 way someone demonstrates they value your time, is to share some of their time with you. An exec who shares time with you clearly values your time at work – and is likely to value your time at home.

But if they’re never accessible to you – because they’re always too busy, or you’re always too busy, or the whole organization is too busy – then they don’t value your time at work. And if they don’t value your time at work, what hope is there of them valuing your time away from work?

People work together on a daily basis

Do they like each other, or at least respect one another? Do they seem fresh, energized, and engaged? Do they seem happy at their jobs?

When people truly work together, conflict can’t last for long. Working together exposes conflict, and gives people an opportunity to work through it. Conflict is a natural part of working collaboratively – it’s how people handle conflict that makes all the difference. Truly collaborative teams experience a virtuous cycle where conflict leads to deeper understanding of their work and their teammates. When teams work together, they feel responsible for one another. Nobody wants to be the person who kept everyone else from having dinner with their family that night. Social pressure works in everyone’s favor.

When people work separately from one another, conflict can fester and worsen without being addressed until it’s too late. It’s a vicious cycle – people separate themselves further because they don’t want to face conflict. They hold onto resentments rather than dealing with them head-on. When people work separately from one another, they don’t have to look out for anyone else but themselves. They just have to make sure that they look better than as many other people as they can.

Take a look around. Honestly ask yourself whether the people in the organization appear to have the kind of work-life balance you’re looking for. Yours will most likely mirror theirs, unless you put in serious effort to break the mold.

What to do if you already have an unhealthy work-life balance

It’s up to you to change it, if you want to. You are solely responsible for your own work-life balance. People within your company can help you achieve it, or make it more difficult… but it’s your job to find that balance – nobody else’s.

Start by looking at your employment contract. It should state the hours you’re obligated to work. Get to work 5 minutes before the start time, and start preparing to leave 15 minutes before the end time so you can get out the door on time. Set a standing personal appointment 30 minutes after work ends, so you have somewhere to be every day. This will likely violate workplace expectations. But the truth is, if nobody is able to get their work done in the normal workday, the place is being mismanaged. If they give you grief about your new choices, it might be time to look for another job.

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