The Problem Isn’t How Much We Work – It’s How We Work, Period.

The corporate wellness market is booming. Valued at $56.6 billion in 2022, it’s expected to exceed $100 billion in ten years. Meanwhile, 40 percent of workers aren’t satisfied with their level of work-life balance, and 42 percent of workers are experiencing symptoms of burnout. So what’s causing such a significant gap?

Some might argue it’s a volume problem, that the amount of work we’re being asked to do simply doesn’t fit into the workday. I would argue that how we’re working, rather than how much, is the root cause of the issue. There are three ways that knowledge workers spend their time:

  • Working together in meetings
  • Working independently on individual outputs (e.g., the product strategy, communications plan, etc.)
  • Working sequentially to advance collaborative work asynchronously (e.g. editing a first draft, giving feedback to a team member, etc.)

In our experience, these three are often out of balance. Here’s a common scenario: First thing (probably while you’re still in bed), you check your email. You migrate to the office, home or otherwise, and answer email. Then you attend your first meeting. Then you catch up on emails. Then two more meetings. Then some more emails. And so on, and so on, until you check your email one last time before going to sleep.

If your first thoughts are a) well that sounds terrible and b) that also sounds like most of my workdays, you aren’t alone. Knowledge workers spend more than 25 percent of their workweek in meetings. For executives, this jumps to more than half. Layer on the nearly 30 percent of the day we spend reading and answering emails, and 55–80 percent of your week is gone. Factor in quick questions over IM, the cognitive load of task-switching, and putting out fires, and you’ll find that there isn’t much time left for your actual work.

This is why so many work-life balance initiatives are set up to fail – because it’s not a problem that can be solved with a yoga class. (Although those are great too!) In my work with clients facing this very real issue, here’s where I recommend to start:

Understand where your time is going

Time is money, and chances are you’re wasting a lot of it. Whether you’re looking at your own productivity or that of your team or organization, the calendar is a good place to start. How much time are you and your team spending in meetings each week? Look at the total number of hours, and consider that 35 percent of meeting time is typically wasted due to unnecessary or poorly planned meetings. Now, think about that wasted time in terms of employee cost (compensation) and missed opportunity. Suddenly, bad meetings go from “just how things are” to an expensive, and fortunately fixable, problem.

Explore the possibilities

Tactics for collaborating more effectively abound. Solicit the expertise of your HR department or external consultants to envision what’s possible, how to make it happen within your unique context, and – most importantly – how to make the change stick. Typically, a more purposeful approach to meetings – when and why they happen, the preparation required, and how decisions / next steps are captured and shared – as well as norms for blocking, protecting, and utilizing focus time will be key parts of this plan.

Start at the top

The signals that leaders send about what matters and how to behave are the single greatest influence on organizational behavior. Whatever norms and practices you decide to adopt, be sure that leaders are aligned and equipped to model them right from the start. Continually reinforce new behaviors at the individual, team, and organizational level, and ensure that your overall culture is keeping up with the change.

Changing the ways a team or an organization works is undoubtedly more difficult – and less flashy – than most corporate wellness initiatives. But the return on investment – in terms of recaptured time, sustainable productivity, and team satisfaction – is exponentially higher.