Clocking Out

Work-life balance drives employee satisfaction, efficiency

by Denise Wrestler

To satisfy and retain employees, compensation may be losing its foothold as a driving factor. In a 2014 survey of U.S. employees, 67% said they would choose a job that offered more free time over one with higher pay.1

Offering competitive employee compensation is a battle for many industries, but so is improving the work environment in which employees spend the majority of their daylight hours. As organizations realize these new expectations, many are removing unrealistic, outdated and unspoken cultural traditions, such as: tracking the time employees spend away from their desks and counting it as a demerit in performance reviews, and managers’ expectations that employees remain connected to the office at home or even on vacation.

Stress is best?

At a recent ASQ Fort Worth Section meeting, author and professional speaker Elizabeth Lions mentioned the practice of clockwatching: a term used to describe an office environment in which your every move is monitored by someone at all times. This is a culture in which managers know exactly to the minute when each employee walks in the door, note any time someone came back from lunch at 1:15 p.m. and not 1 p.m., and silently judges staff members who leave on time instead of staying late.

Lions explained the key differences between clockwatching and high-performance cultures: In addition to tallying the instances you’re not in your chair, managers in clockwatching atmospheres often believe stress equals productivity, but high-performance organizations typically understand the importance of a work-life balance and only evaluate your work performance and output.

The stress-is-best style of manager wants you working weekends, to be the first one in the office and the last one to leave the building every day. If you aren’t guzzling 10 cups of coffee and have circles around your eyes, the manager assumes you’re just not working hard. In this situation, efficiency is measured in wrinkles and physical hours in the office. You’re expected to answer emails 24/7, and any work done outside the office is not considered actual work.

Conversely, managers who care more about work-life balance base your work performance on just that: your performance. They’re more concerned about answers to questions such as: How many reports did you put out last month? How detailed were they? Are you consistently updated on your projects?

These managers are usually upset to see employees working past 5 p.m. because they know they’ll hit that dreaded rush-hour traffic and that any extra time at work is being taken away from their families.

Organizations that insist on following clockwatching policies are discovering their cultures are deal breakers for many dedicated employees. They’re being traded in for high-performing cultures that expect a simple, 40-hour workweek in which you meet or exceed expectations, and your availability is expected only during normal business hours to answer emails and attend meetings.

If you’re putting in extraordinary effort to ensure your work performance consistently exceeds expectations and your manager still cares more about your physical time in the office, it’s a sign that it’s time to look for other job opportunities. If looking for another job isn’t an option, try being more proactive when voicing your concerns. Often, managers will respond well to criticism from their subordinates, especially when paired with reassurance that you have everything under control and taken care of.

Don’t wait for your boss to ask how things are going right after he or she asked how your two-hour lunch was. Communicate and identify your expectations up front by reassuring your manager that the report will be submitted this evening as planned, right after you step out of the office for a few hours. Until the concern is brought to their attention, many managers might not realize how much their clockwatching demeanor affects their employees.

Sent from vacation

There are employees who rarely take vacation, and when they do, it’s usually just to sneak under the organization’s 100-hour per year limit on rolling over paid time off (PTO). These employees usually have important job duties, and it goes without saying that when they’re not in the office, work just doesn’t get done. Unfortunately, this has become the norm not just for an organization’s key decision makers, but also for most employees at every level.

A 2015 survey revealed that 56% of Americans have not taken a vacation in the last year.2 What’s even more alarming is that 61% of employees admitted they check their work email on vacation,3 meaning even the few people who do take vacation aren’t actually on vacation.

Fortunately, workplace cultures have swayed, and now, large PTO balances may have a negative effect on an employee, as does checking your email when you’re supposed to be on vacation. People sometimes assume that not taking vacation or sick days improves their chance for promotions or raises, but a recent Oxford Economics study showed that employees who left 11 to 15 days of PTO were 6.5% less likely to earn raises or bonuses when compared to those who used all of their PTO.4

Organizations are now seeing disadvantages to "vacationless" vacations in efficiency, productivity, and employee health and well-being. Workers who deprive themselves of vacations have been linked to increases in mistakes and resentment toward co-workers.5 Organizations that expect employees to be "on" at all times are being left in the dust, creating high-stress environments and ultimately higher turnover rates.

The optimal solution to ensuring vacation time is spent actually vacationing is to completely unplug from the internet. Plan for some out-of-cell-range travel to an off-the-grid cabin or even a few hours in a Wi-Fi-free plane. If completely unplugging from the internet isn’t feasible, identify exactly how disconnected you can be, and draw a clear line between work and personal technology use. Schedule check-ins each day and limit them to 15 minutes. Share your game plan with your co-workers, and ensure they have the knowledge and resources available to manage without you for the day’s remaining 23 hours and 45 minutes.

A 2014 survey of millennials showed work-life balance was ranked third in what they find most important in a job.6 Today, many job candidates look for an organization that frowns on working past 5 p.m. because it means the workload is too high or priorities are misaligned.


  1. Hannah Morgan, "Three Work-Life Balance Perks Employees Crave," U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 3, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/balanceperks.
  2. Hugo Martin, "More Than Half of Americans Have Gone 12 Months Without a Vacation," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 13, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/novacationinayear.
  3. Lydia Dishman, "Why Not Using All of Your Vacation Time Is Hazardous to Your Health," Fastcompany.com, April 15, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/pccvj77.
  4. Justine Hofherr, "Americans Are Taking Fewer Vacation Days. Does It Help Anybody?" Boston.com, June 17, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/doesptohelp.
  5. Derek Thompson, "The Case for Vacation: Why Science Says Breaks Are Good for Productivity," The Atlantic, Aug. 6, 2012, http://tinyurl.com/vacationproduction.
  6. Rawn Shah, "Have You Got Millennial Workforce Expectations All Wrong," Forbes, Sept. 25, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/millennialexpectations.

Denise Wrestler is a quality and regulatory professional at Nypro Healthcare in Dallas. She holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomedical engineering from the University of California-Irvine. An ASQ member, Wrestler is an ASQ-certified quality auditor and engineer.

I completely agree. As a leader, I want my employees to feel good about their job and work duties. Life happens. I don't expect them to stress out about running late or needing to take time off for an illness. I also try very hard to practice what I preach, often leaving before they do and urging them to do the same. Trust me, you will get a higher quality of work in a normal work week, than you would if employees felt compelled to work overtime each week.
--Deborah, 01-25-2016

I'm a fairly young QE and 100% agree with this article. When looking for a new job earlier this year, one of the first things I asked was what was the work life balance was. I was working temporarily for a place that lied to me and immediately put me on 55 hr weeks and alternating weekends, I left after 2 months even though they beat the other offers I recieved and were paying me overtime. I would rather enjoy less money with my family and friends then be tired and miserable by the time I get home even with the slightly more comfortable income.
--Shawn, 01-06-2016

My old company was definitely a clock-watcher. Thus,they are my old company. It didn't matter how much you do, unless you put in the 60+hours a week the boss was, he just assumed you were slacking off. It came to a point that my moral was so bad that it encouraged me to not care about my job duties... just sat there and put in the hours!
--Amanda, 11-10-2015

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