Is Lack of Work-Life Balance Contagious?

In an era during which “contagion” and “spread” are intimate parts of our vocabularies and anxieties, there is a sickness other than COVID-19 on my mind: lack of work-life balance. It’s a psychological, rather than a physical, sickness, but a sickness nonetheless that causes mental distress that can take a physical toll.

The question is whether lack of work-life balance is a self-contained problem, or one we can catch from others. Consider the scenario of a mostly balanced and relaxed work group that brings on a person who is not balanced or relaxed. This is the person who calls at 8 p.m. on a Friday night because a video isn’t loading properly on a company Website, or tells you she will text you during your vacation if information your work group has been waiting for arrives. On the one hand, the employee’s dedication to her job is admirable, but on the other hand, it is dangerous to the culture of the employee’s work group. That one person is forcing the balance between work and life to be thrown off—not just for herself, but for everyone she collaborates with.

I found an article online on emotional contagion, and I believe the emotions behind lack of work-life balance are capable of spreading. Ali Pattillo notes how easily emotions can spread from one person to another in an article on the site, Inverse: “Across the board, human beings are a roller coaster of emotions, feelings, and moods. According to 25 years of data, these emotions spread like wildfire person to person. Often, they influence a group or organization’s collective mood in positive or negative ways… This social phenomenon, called ‘emotional contagion,’ permeates all human interactions, influencing not only how people feel, but how they think and behave. Emotional contagion is constant and pervasive, yet most of the time we have no idea it’s going on.”

The emotions Pattillo focuses on are negativity versus positivity. My own hypothesis is that, in addition to general high-energy/happy versus low energy/grumpy, the emotions of anxiety and compulsion also can be passed from one to others. The work-fixated, compulsive individual who has joined a group of mostly balanced employees starts messaging her colleagues at night and during their time off, pressing them to finish work by inflexible due dates. She drops constant hints about how hard she’s working, noting (without anyone asking) that she works until 10 p.m. every night. Some of us would have no problem responding, “Oh, that’s too bad,” and leaving it at that. Many others, however, would feel obligated to start mirroring her behavior, even if she isn’t their boss. “Well, I guess working at night, on the weekends, and during vacations, is the new standard, so I’ll have to start doing that,” many will say to themselves.

How do you stop this from happening in your organization? It starts with the hiring process. You want responsible, productive people. You don’t want anxious, compulsive people. During the hiring process, it’s helpful to add questions that tease out a person’s ability to maintain work-life balance, regardless of workload. Here are essential questions to ask in one of the interviews leading to candidate selection:

  • “What do you do outside of work to unwind?”
  • “What do you most like about that activity?” (This allows you to gauge whether this is an activity that is really a part of the person’s life or whether it’s just something the person made up or does only once or twice every few years.)
  • “What is your typical work schedule from your past jobs? At what time did you usually find yourself packing up and going home, or shutting off your computer (if working from home)?”
  • “How important do you consider it to maintain a balance between work and leisure, including time with friends and family?”

Like all job interview questions, the candidate may not answer truthfully, but asking all of those questions will give you a sense of whether this is a person who can consistently deliver high-quality work on time while maintaining regular hours, or whether this a high-anxiety, compulsive person, who will not be able to shut off her computer and put her work away within reasonable hours.

It’s also up to the manager of each work group to monitor work-life balance in the same way she monitors productivity. If she notices an employee sending e-mails at night or on the weekends, the manager has a responsibility to find out why this is happening: “Shirley, I noticed that you often send e-mails late at night and on the weekends. Let’s work together to figure out a schedule and workflow, so you never have to do that. Evenings and weekends are your time to relax and do things for fun. When you take time for yourself, you come back to work the next day and on Mondays refreshed and better able to focus.”

When employees understand that the manager does not approve of them working at night, on weekends, and during vacations—that they’re not going to win extra points for doing it—relaxing suddenly might not seem so hard.

Does your company prioritize creating a culture that encourages work-life balance? If so, how do you do it? If not, why not, and what are the downfalls of enabling a high-anxiety, compulsive work environment?