The sun never sets on the English Empire, nor does it set on yours.

October 8, 2013

Life Balance50% of leaders believe that they had to ignore life balance to achieve success.

In the 19th and early 20th century, the sun never set on the British Empire.  Today, the same could be said for many companies. Clients of mine wake up for a call with their boss who is based in China, while another client calls me from Moscow for our early morning Skype, and I get to have afternoon tea with my client in Melbourne while he wakes up for a very early morning coffee. Like them, you may find your smart phone plugged in beside your bed so you don’t miss an urgent call, e-mail, or text. And when you can’t sleep, you are only a turn of the head and a quiet fumble (or not so quiet) from your phone. You try not to disturb your partner’s sleep, but often one of you crawls out of bed and goes to the guest room down the hall so the glow and the pings don’t mess up both of your sleep patterns.

You have it in your schedule to workout in the morning, but if you haven’t slept well you find it easy to avoid this important activity. Even if you slept fine,  you feel an ever-present pressure to accomplish, complete, or achieve, so you disregard the advice your doctor gave you last month and head into work. Your mind and presence are so important to the company that you let your body suffer.

To achieve what I have accomplished in my life, did I need to let go of work / life balance?

When I recently asked this question to a group of Twin Cities CEOs, the opinions were split right down the middle. Those who grew up with European backgrounds or sensibilities stressed the importance of rest and exercise, of life balance. The American contingent had a myopic focus on careers. They had the sense that if they let up on the career front just a little bit, someone would take their spot in line.

I asked the same group, “Are healthy and happy employees important for the bottom line?” 100% of these CEOs agreed.

How is it that so many American executives believe that exercise and balance are important for others, but not themselves?

Maybe it’s because Americans hold the notion that anything is possible so long as we work a little harder. I remember hearing from a board member that if you add just one extra hour to your day, you will have a two-month advantage on the competition (Do the math: 1 hour x 300 days = 300 hours / 40 hour work week = 7 1/2 weeks of additional time). This is only wisdom if you believe the old adage, “The harder you work, the luckier you get” (Gary Player).

Recent research, however, suggests that the more you work, the worse the results–both in terms of productivity and health.

On the Clock, but Checked Out

A Gallup survey reported that only 26% percent of workers in the US and Canada are engaged in their workplace, leaving 57%% not engaged, while 18% are actively disengaged. That’s a lot of paid time for not a lot of actual work. “That’s not happening at my company,” you might be thinking. And you might be right, but you’re probably less right than you think. The survey was large enough that this is clearly a significant and widespread problem. You can’t stick your head in the kangaroo pouch and pretend it is not happening.

The Many Costs of Sleep Deprivation

In a Harvard study of four companies, sleep deprivation cost between $3,156 and $2,500 a year in lost productivity per employee.

More sleep, on the other hand, produces better results. The Stanford Sleep Disorder Clinic found that in athletes “extended sleep beyond one’s habitual nightly sleep likely contributes to improved athletic performance, reaction time, daytime sleepiness, and mood. Improvements in shooting percentage, sprint times, reaction time, mood, fatigue, and vigor were all observed with increased total sleep time. These improvements following sleep extension suggest that peak performance can only occur when an athlete’s overall sleep and sleep habits are optimal.”

Of course, sleep doesn’t just benefit athletes. NASA studied sleep decades ago and found that pilots who rotated sleep cycles during the cruising part of the flight performed better during landings. The same research has led air-traffic control executives to provide naps to the controllers while on duty.

Boston Consulting Group took a bold move to test performance against time off. What they found was predictable time off lowered turnover, improved employee moral, and increased client performance and satisfaction. They actually undertook this study during a recession and found it so effective they rolled out the plan globally. If you want to get more details, check out this article in HBR.


In a study of 20,000 employees at three large U.S. companies, the Chicago Daily Herald found that “‘presenteeism’–showing up for work but performing at subpar levels because of physical or emotional health reasons–accounted for about 63 percent of wasted worker productivity, and absenteeism explains the rest.” Service, clerical and other office occupations showed a particularly high degree of presenteeism. The biggest cause of presenteeism, however, was having too much to do and not enough time to do it. Next in line were personal problems, technology issues, and financial stress.

The Sun Is Setting on Workaholism

If you’re a leader and you believe that long workdays are going to lead to a strong, sustainable organization, think again. If you want employees to be present, engaged, and productive, they need to be healthy, happy, and rested. And so do you.

Let the sun set, and watch it. Sleep so that you don’t see it rise. Stop the glow from under the sheets so that you can shine the entire next day.

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