Silicon Valley often brings to mind the image of a startup developer working late into the night, rushing to meet a tight deadline and bring their product to market before the competition. But those long hours can take a toll: Only 65% of tech workers said they were satisfied with their work-life balance, according to a recent survey from Comparably.

The negative impacts of poor work life-balance are well-documented: Overwork and the resulting stress can cause numerous health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heaving drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. These conditions not only hurt the employee, but also the company, in terms of turnover and rising health insurance costs.

In tech, particularly in the startup arena, there can be intense pressure to produce, said Cali Williams Yost, a flexible workplace strategist and author. “If left unchecked, that can turn into a 24/7 reality,” she added. “But there is a growing recognition that perhaps that isn’t ultimately the best approach, and that you can still be productive without driving your people into the ground.”

SEE: Addressing work-life balance, tech giants expand leave policies, sparking mixed reactions

In a 2014 study published in the American Sociological Review, researchers conducted an experiment at a Fortune 500 company with nearly 700 employees. More than 25% logged more than 50 hours per week. The researchers separated employees into two groups: In one, they were given control over when and where they worked, and their supervisors explicitly stated the importance of family and personal lives. The other group’s working conditions remained the same.

Over six months, the people in the experimental group experienced a significant reduction in work-family conflict, and reported feeling that they now had adequate time to spend with their families while managing their workload. They also felt more in-control and less overwhelmed.

The conversation around work-life balance and company culture in the tech industry has risen to the forefront in recent years, due in part to the desire to hire millennials, Yost said. “In general, this is something they look for in an employer,” she added. “They go into a job search thinking about issues related to flexibility and how their work and life will fit together in ways that perhaps other generations did not.”

The tech industry is also trying to diversify and attract more women, Yost said, further bringing the topic of work-life balance into consideration. “There is a perception that if you are in tech, it’s 24 hours a day forever,” Yost said. “The fit between work and life has got to be a strategic business imperative for tech and business leaders if they want to attract and retain the best talent, and make them as productive as possible.”

Examining the data

The Comparably survey asked more than 6,000 tech employees in major US cities about their work-life satisfaction, and broke the data down by gender, ethnicity, age, job title, location, and department.

About 81% of senior designers were reportedly satisfied with their work-life balance, followed by 77% of founders/CEOs. At the other end of the spectrum, just 61% of creative directors and 46% of sales managers felt satisfied.

This breakdown by position makes sense, said Barbara Safani, a career strategist at Career Solvers. Sales teams, within the tech industry and in other areas, tend to have erratic schedules and nights spent off-site entertaining clients. Many creative directors are in charge of the product, with pressure on deadlines and reaching the market before the competition does, lending itself to high expectations and long hours. On the other end of the spectrum, the CEO in many cases has the most flexibility because they can delegate tasks to others, Safani said.

The survey also found a slight gender difference: 68% of men reported satisfaction with their work-life balance, compared to 63% of women. This is also not surprising, Safani said, given the tech industry’s notorious gender problem. “Once women get into the industry it can be challenging, as they may be scrutinized differently–if they want to start a family, the male-dominated industry might not be as receptive to balancing those needs,” Safani said.

Solutions for tech companies

Tech companies need to stop promising people “balance,” because that infers a 50/50 split between work and personal life, which may not be a reality for many companies, Yost said. “What organizations can do is give people the ability to find a work/life fit within the organization that allows them to be their productive best on and off the job in the long term,” Yost added. “People will feel that they can find the time and fit in things that are meaningful to them and allow them to perform over the long haul.”

This approach helps employees stay with a company throughout the different phases of their lives, Yost said. While a recent graduate might prioritize finding time to go to the gym and see friends, someone who is married with children might want flexibility to attend school events. “You have to have flexibility that allows for a reset to accommodate new life circumstances,” Yost said. “Otherwise, people are going to feel like ‘If I have a child, I have to leave,’ which is not a good retention strategy.”

To create a high-performance, flexible work culture, a tech company must:

  • Train individuals on how to think through the way their work and life fit together week to week, and understand how to leverage flexibility in their job in terms of the way they work, the technology they use, and the workspace itself.
  • Help teams coordinate individual flexibility goals together.
  • Teach managers how to set clear expectations, and how to have ongoing conversations with employees about them. Help them learn to be open to new, more flexible ways of working and then recalibrate as needed, depending on what needs to get accomplished.

“The goal is to create this high-performance, flexible work culture that allows people to be productive and achieve success on and off the job, based on the realities at a given time,” Yost said.

When seeking a new job, candidates often ask about company culture and flexibility, Safani said. “The world is changing and people’s needs are changing–in order to remain competitive, tech and business leaders will need to be responsive to that,” Safani said. People have more options than in the past in terms of how they work, and workplace flexibility needs to change throughout their lives to keep them satisfied and productive, she added.

A leadership decision

Mercedes De Luca, chief operating officer at Basecamp and an advocate for startups and small businesses to adopt a culture that prioritizes work/life balance, has worked in tech for 20 years. “My entire career in Silicon Valley was stay-after hours,” she said. At one company, a big perk was free dinner so the team could stay until 8 pm. “For a while, working long hours was revered, a badge of honor for how important you were to the company,” De Luca said. “But really, our work is not do or die.”

Basecamp founder and CEO Jason Fried actively encourages employees to work no more than 40 hours per week. Workers receive paid time off, but also free trips as an annual gift to those with at least one year’s tenure. The company also offers four-day, 30-hour workweeks in the summer, $100 per month for fitness, another $100 for massages, and the option to work anywhere. A parental leave policy allows mothers and fathers to take 16 weeks off with pay.

“Tech leaders need to recognize that this is a top-down, courageous thing to do,” De Luca said. “When someone in a leadership position says ‘I won’t be available after 6 pm, and I don’t work weekends,’ that’s impactful.” Managers can also coach their teams on ways to turn off after work, and make it clear that they do not have to be available all the time, De Luca added.

What employees can do

Employees who want to find a better work/life balance should approach their employer from the perspective of how a change will value the company, Safani said. For example, an employee can go to their manager and talk about how working from home would help them get more work done with specific examples and evidence.

“Come up with a business plan, showing how you can get the tasks done, why it’s important to have flexibility, and why it makes you a better contributor,” Safani said. “The dialogue goes much better when it’s approached as benefitting the company, as opposed to saying ‘I want this.'”

No matter what a company’s policies are, anyone can tweak their work-life fit, Yost said–it’s about deciding what matters, and figuring out where you can capture time for those priorities. For example, do you want time to exercise, or volunteer? Decide, and break it down into small, meaningful actions that you can fit in where you can week by week. Take an hour during the day to go for a walk, or spend an extra 10 minutes preparing a healthy lunch in the morning, Yost said.

Unplugging from social media, gaming, and TV can also make a big difference in gaining more personal time, Yost added.

“Start small, and suddenly you’ll see you have more control than you thought,” Yost said.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Only 65% of technology workers are satisfied with their work-life balance, according to a recent survey from Comparably–a problem for companies looking to attract and retain employees, and keep them productive.
  2. Tech companies should find ways to incorporate more flexible workplaces to keep employees happier and better able to manage their personal lives. These might include work from home options and flexible hours.
  3. Workers can approach their employers and present a plan detailing how more flexibility will enhance their contribution to the company.