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  • Heather Polivka


For the past couple of decades, there has been a lot of conversation around healthy work environments with a great deal of focus on balance. Whether you call it work-life balance, work-life flexibility, life-work boundaries, or other variations, it is about people being able to show up as their best selves at work because they have space to live their best life outside of work.

I’ve seen companies grappling with this over the past decade as I’ve worked with them in defining, shaping, and evolving their cultures to support a shift in business strategy, secure and retain the people they need for their business, and respond to the business ecosystem impact of multi-generational teams and flexible work.

In doing this work, I’ve seen some tactics employed with the best of intentions, only to have the opposite impact. Take unlimited Personal Time Off (PTO). Sounds great! Unfortunately, many companies have needed to circle back to employees with a requirement for employees to take a minimum number of days of PTO. “No Meetings Mondays” have resulted in the remaining four workdays being packed with back-to-back meetings from start to finish. Slack channels implemented with the intent of making it easier to collaborate during business hours have ended up with employees feeling like they have to be accessible 24/7.

As I reflected on why these tactics and others, implemented with good intent, could have the opposite of their intended effect. Several factors include mistrust of management, what behaviors employees see being rewarded, and fear in the work environment, just to name a few. While I could explore all of those with great support and validity, my thoughts instead turned toward my past behavior as an employee, leader, and business owner.

Company after company, I consistently found it challenging to maintain flexibility and balance. In fact, it was well known that every winter I would get a case of bronchitis and lose my voice because I would push too hard, not get enough sleep, and run myself into the ground. The to-do list never ended. The work expectations only seemed to grow. I was more productive, efficient, and effective than most. But it came at a cost. I was always the last priority on my list of things to do and people to care for.

After burning myself out, I decided the only way to create flexibility and balance was to work for myself. Guess what? I was still last on my priority list.

Then life smacked me upside the head. I received health news that rocked my world. I thought I was going to die. Until I decided I wouldn’t. I decided that I was going to do everything in my power to change the predictable trajectory of my diagnosis. Suddenly, being at the top of my priority list was non-negotiable.

Sixteen months later, I’m in a much healthier place. It wasn’t an easy journey, but one I’m grateful for now and wouldn’t change. I learned a lot. About myself, life, and work.

I learned that getting quality sleep is the most important thing I can do for my health. I eat better. I have the energy to move. I feel better in my body. To get that sleep, I pushed the start of my workday out an hour. I hold firm to that, with one exception each week. The world didn’t stop, my business didn’t die, and clients were still well served even with not taking 7 a.m. meetings. Who knew?

I learned my workouts and moving my body helps my brain. I am sharper on the days I move in the morning. My mind is clear. I have energy. It is good for my business and clients that I prioritize exercise in the morning. So, I pushed my workday out another hour to accommodate. Again, it wasn’t a problem.

I learned I don’t function well with plans every night of the workweek. I now limit how many nights in total, and nights in a row, I make plans.

I could go on with all the lessons, but here is the most important one of all: A healthy work environment and work/life balance starts at home, with ourselves. It starts with setting boundaries and holding true to them. When I set and honor my boundaries, I show up as my best self. My clients, friends, and family all get the best version of me. It’s like they say on the airlines: Put your own oxygen mask on first.

So often, in the conversation about life/work balance or work/life flexibility, it is about what companies and leaders need to do.

Yes, we need companies that value the well-being of their employees, don’t reward and reinforce behaviors that result in burnout, employ enough staff to get the work done, and have low tolerance for toxic people.

And yes, we also need leaders who are emotionally intelligent, inclusive, and trained on how to cultivate healthy work environments. Leaders, and business owners like myself, can create a healthy framework for how their teams operate, collaborate, make decisions, and more. We determine what behaviors to reward, recognize, punish, and tolerate. How we respond and interact with people either builds trust and psychological safety or diminishes it.

I’m not letting companies or leaders off the hook. I’m saying the conversation, for me, around a healthy work environment was missing the biggest component of all, Me. As it turns out, a comprehensive review of research on the topic of Work Life Balance (WLB) in 2021 discovered that there were very few studies that focused on the individuals’ ability to maintain a WLB, regardless of the company and leaders. So let's explore this aspect further.

A company can have a healthy culture, and leaders can reinforce and support a flexible and balanced work life, but it is up to us to operate within that framework in a way that works for us. When we do this, we reinforce the culture and work environment for ourselves and everyone around us at work. When we don’t, we undermine it to the detriment of all.

Companies cannot sustain (or create) healthy work environments unless, as individuals, we are prioritizing and setting boundaries to sustain and create healthy lives. You know that saying about the sum being greater than its parts? We are the parts. The sum cannot be achieved without us.

When I prioritize my sleep and movement in the morning, it makes it okay for those I work with to do the same. When I show up with a clear mind, I’m able to focus and be present with others, more attuned to what is going on. We collaborate more effectively and produce a better work product. When I schedule meetings to end five minutes early, it allows myself and others to breathe, stretch, and hydrate. When I am self-aware and reflective enough to know when I’m not at my best, and am willing to be vulnerable about it, it acknowledges our shared humanity and creates space for others.

If we want to create a healthy work environment where people can collectively thrive, it starts with each of us ensuring that we are thriving…mentally, physically, emotionally, financially, and spiritually. We need to understand how we work best individually and in the community, create structures that support us, ask for what we need, establish our boundaries, and model the behaviors. Consistently. For ourselves. And subsequently, for the benefit of others.

As a leader or business owner, ensuring we are thriving is our highest priority to providing that for others. If fact, it is only then that we can provide that for others.

A healthy work environment starts at home, with us, with boundaries, and without apology. When we do that for ourselves, we walk the talk for everyone we work with and perpetuate the healthy work environments we all deserve. If you want to walk the talk, let’s talk. I can show you how. From someone who learned the hard way.

Interested in exploring this topic further?

Work-life balance -a systematic review - XIMB Journal of Management, 2021

Work-Life Balance Is a Cycle, Not an Achievement – Harvard Business Review, 2021

Work–Life Balance: Weighing the Importance of Work–Family and Work–Health Balance – National Institutes of Health, 2020 Empowering women at work – Deloitte, 2023

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