After publishing The Big Scale Back, I loved hearing from people after they’d read the book. There were so many individuals who wrote to me and said, “it felt like you were writing directly to me!” and there were also many leaders who whispered to me over zoom calls and in hallways, “I love the book for me, but I’m worried about my team reading the book – what if they quit or stop working so hard?

The belief that blocks work-life balance

It is this last comment that is at the crux of what blocks so many people from achieving work-life balance. I see this particular type of binary thinking play out in organizations all the time: a discussion of work-life balance turns into a judgmental conversation about work ethic. At its worst, these conversations end with statements like “balance is just another word for lazy. Or unambitious.” 

I was watching an IG reel over the weekend that was pitting the generations against one another, asking about weekend plans. The over-eager boomer says they are catching up on work they didn’t get done through the week; the Gen Z-er rolls their eyes dismissively at this response;  and the millennials and Gen X’ers fall somewhere in the middle. I know, I know, the reel is intended to be funny. But I see this dynamic play out in workplaces all the time. 

I’m going to be brutally honest: this kind of narrative just pits people against one another and centers the wrong issue. It generates resentment, and doesn’t get anyone any closer to living in a way that allows for both personal and professional fulfillment. 

At the heart of successful work-life balance

At the heart of successful work-life balance is accountability. At its most basic, to achieve work-life balance, you’d take stock of your personal and professional commitments and devise a realistic plan for meeting those responsibilities (while getting a good night’s sleep, eating healthily, and working out three times a week). The easy perspective here is: know what you need to get done, and honour those commitments. 

And, to a certain extent, I very much agree. You want to honour your responsibilities and do what you say you’re going to do. Living this way builds trust, both in your personal and professional relationships. 

Here’s where it breaks down, though: we live in a world where the demands on our time are, quite honestly, completely unrealistic. And never, ever, have I worked with an organization that says “Stephanie, help us: we have an abundance of financial and people resources.” Everyone is constantly being asked to do more, with less. Workload and responsibilities often far exceed what is reasonable to sustain on an ongoing basis. 

So when individuals are feeling burned out, or struggling to meet their responsibilities, I can say with a good sense of certainty – based on my experience working with hundreds of leaders and employees – it’s not because they are lazy, lacking in work ethic, or unambitious. It’s because the demands are unrealistic to sustain, day in and day out, for years on end. 

To help manage increasing demands, leaders will often be guided to delegate. And when their employees seem mentally wiped out, they are told to point them to the organization’s EAP program, or any one of the organization’s wellness initiatives. I’m all for EAP programs and wellness initiatives, but I can also tell you: they will not solve the burnout issue. (And I’m not the only one saying this – check out the recent article in Forbes: You Can’t Yoga Your Way out of Burnout

Leaders can’t delegate to an already over-worked, over-stretched workforce. And when over-worked and over-stretched, turning to wellness initiatives is just a band-aid solutions if, immediately after partaking in said wellness initiative, the employee comes back to their desk to be greeted with pings and emails asking them where they’ve been (along with a slew of new, unread emails to contend with). 

The common advice given to individual contributors can be equally ineffective. When dealing with burnout, employees are often advised to “learn to say no and set boundaries” and “take breaks regularly throughout your day.” But the reality is, saying “no” doesn’t always feel possible to stay in your boss’s good graces, or when something urgent comes up. The fear of getting fired in those situations is very, very real. And taking breaks according to your own needs and whims can throw off the team’s rhythm and productivity.

How to create the conditions for work-life balance

So what is a leader and team to do to achieve any semblance of work-life balance, and deliver on their ever-increasing demands? Here are three things that leaders and individuals can do to generate excellent results, optimize wellbeing, and help individuals tap into a sense of fulfillment:

1 – Create clarity. When being asked to do more with less, getting crystal clear on priorities and action items – at the individual and team level – is critical. Leaders: you need to be setting appropriate context and making sure you’re having conversations with your reports about expectations, timelines, and risk. Individual contributors: you need to speak up if something is unclear, if priorities are conflicting, or if timelines are at risk – and you need to be doing this as early in the process as possible. This may look like daily huddles, or weekly level sets – it needs to happen often, and consistently, especially given the pace of business today. Be ready to adjust priorities, and shift action items, in a way that is clear and transparent to everyone.

2 – Create team norms and agreements about how work will get done. Every business and team is different. Each individual team member has their own, unique personal and professional circumstances to navigate. What the team has in common is the need to achieve the team’s objectives – on time, and at a high level of quality. Leaders: get your team together to talk about how work is distributed, how you’ll manage through conflicts and tension, and how to manage the shared responsibility for outcomes. Individual contributors: it’s important to remember that you are a part of a team, and your piece of the accountability puzzle connects to everyone else’s; think about the kind of team member you want to be, and how you can clearly communicate in a timely way with your co-workers to achieve outcomes, and manage your own personal needs.

3 – Create the conditions for individual flow. While each individual is part of a team, each individual has their own optimal way of working. Whether it is a preference for highly social and extraverted environments, or quiet, focused space; or whether it is at the office or at home. As companies continue to navigate hybrid work, we know there are strong preferences for in-office work, at-home work, and all kinds of flexible arrangements along the spectrum. If you’ve managed items (1) and (2), above, well – that is, you have clarity and strong team agreements then, as a leader, you should be able to say “you have clarity on what you need to get done and when, and you know the team agreements – you are now free to work in the way that suits you best to get your work done well, and done on time.”

Creating a system like this – one that honors business priorities, the team’s working agreements, and individual needs and preferences is how you’ll create the conditions for excellent results and provide individuals with an opportunity to maintain more control over their work-life balance. If you’d like support creating these conditions for your team, reach out: visit and book a discovery call to learn more. 


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