The Amazon Article: A Reminder of the Work-Life Balance Issues We All Face

On Saturday, the New York Times released a piece about Amazon called Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace. From the title alone, you can tell the article is clearly meant to predispose us toward the negative. Once you read it, mission accomplished. Those interviewed say some pretty awful things about the culture and management ethics at the company, with enough personal anecdotes and brutal details to make it strike a major chord in readers. We want to be treated with support, fairness, and respect in the workplace — and we are upset and sickened at the thought of a household name company doing the polar opposite to its thousands of employees.

If you didn’t read the article, here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.

Yikes. Doesn’t sound good does it?

Now, I read the whole article. It is long and it is painful at some points to read, because the stories are awful and quite traumatic for those who worked there and contributed to this editorial. But, the article is important and getting a lot of attention, and not just because ex-employees and Fortune 500 cynics are happy that someone finally exposed Amazon of all its dirty laundry. It’s important because these workplace issues go way beyond the walls of Amazon. For the cliff notes version — here are the top 5 themes that I kept hearing in the article:

  • People are really stressed out. Very stressed.- Emotions are high, there are tears.
  • People are working around the clock. — They are checking emails in middle of the night, on vacation, and at all other hours that probably shouldn’t be categorized as the “normal work day”.
  • People are given pretty harsh feedback. — Flaws are pointed out at work because criticism is encouraged, in people’s faces and behind people’s backs. Feelings are hurt.
  • People are overworked, but there is no other choice. — You are there late and available when needed because you want to succeed. If you aren’t, you are gone — or told you should be.
  • People do not have work-life balance. At all. — Life, defined as important aspects like “family”, “physical health”, and what I would like to call “general sanity”.

Of course, the article shows a much more extreme and inexcusable version of these five themes, as we read about a woman with thyroid cancer being put on a performance plan and told to “try harder”. Not good. But essentially, and sadly, I’m sure a lot of these themes sound familiar to many of you, as I know they do for my friends and family, whether they are right out of college or about to retire.

As I read through all the comments, tweets, and retaliating blog posts, it is clear that people find this to be a serious management/CEO issue. I agree, of course, as without the right vision and examples being set by leaders, a company will most certainly fail its employees. That said, I believe even more so that unfortunately, the majority of these problems are a nation-wide (not just Amazon) work culture problem, where the behaviors that lead to these horrible situations often start as merely self-imposed habits. We live in a culture where people are tragically incapable of saying no to a project, making it through one day of PTO completely offline, or finding the time to even take care of their own health. I am guilty as charged. Throughout my career I’ve scrambled to answer emails late at night, I’ve definitely cried on the job, and I can admit I have, at times, taken on way more than I could handle for a chance to get ahead. Now, do not get me wrong — I can’t emphasize enough how lucky I have been to have always had fantastic and supportive managers, none of which ever “forced” or “required” me to behave in such a way. But as someone who does want to succeed, and feel I still have a lot to prove, I have placed those high standards and stressful delivery expectations upon myself — and I know I am not alone in that regard.

Every day at my job, I speak with clients whose roles and decisions (primarily in the realm of HR and upper management) play a huge part in the overall happiness of their employees. These are people who really, truly care about the well-being of their employees, but are not blind to the work-life balance issues that plague their cultures. And, in the San Francisco/Silicon Valley tech world, most of these employees already have flexible work schedules, unlimited PTO, and work for companies that pride themselves on being open in regard to communication, ideas, and improvements. The resources to have a healthier, happier work-life balance are in place, but they often go unused. So, as a manager, what do you do about it?

The solution isn’t simple — and it’s not cookie cutter. For the same reasons I explained above, the fact that many of our work-life balance problems are self-imposed makes solving the problem extremely difficult. The majority of people I talk to feel guilty for leaving their desk to take a walk outside when their coworker is eating at their desk next to them, or are hesitant to ask for a full, unbothered 5 straight days of vacation (even if they have the time). It’s easy to see how, bad manager or not, these habits can spiral into feeling the need to always be available and of service. So, rather than simply promote the concept of taking time for oneself in the office (something everyone loves to know and ignore), I try to advise companies and management to look at ways they can change their opinion of work-life balance to that of work-life integration. If people aren’t going to separate the two or the work load won’t allow for it (no one said start ups or busy seasons are ever easy), then it’s up to the company and leadership to supply their employees with the resources that help employees integrate healthy (physically and mental) behaviors into their busy, hard-working lives.

Now, proceed with caution when suggesting or implementing these. While some programs have the best intentions, the last thing that you want is to bring anything onsite that employees will view as a ploy to “help people to stay there longer”. A backhanded benefit, if you will. What I advise is working to integrate programs and initiatives that help employees genuinely feel recognized and appreciated (both for their hard work and who they are as human beings), while aligning these with the theme of your culture and values. There are many great, creative, and cost conscious ways to do this. Here’s a few:

  • Take it outside. — Promote walking meetings to get people out of the office, even if they are talking work while they do it. Employees might not be the first to take a breather, so plan a time for them to at least get away from their desk. A recent study found that even gentle lunchtime strolls can perceptibly — and immediately — buoy people’s moods and ability to handle stress at work.
  • Recognize families. — Being a parent is a fulltime job, but many are doing it as a side one. Over 50% of all employees report that job demands interfere with their personal responsibilities, while 43% of employees say that their family responsibilities interfere with their work performance. Find creative ways to acknowledge this, even if it’s offering babysitting vouchers so they can come to your company party. It’s a nice gesture that shows you recognize the sacrifices they make to be at work, and you are rewarding them by trying to make it easier for them to have some fun like their other colleagues.
  • Give employees time to breathe. Literally. — Yoga and types of meditation are becoming even more popular today as a form of stress relief, for a good reason. Set aside a conference room to offer mindfulness exercises for 20 minutes once a week. It can be as simple as a YouTube recording, but it’s a quick exercise that makes people slow down for a second and reconnect with themselves before returning to work. Sodexo’s Mindfulness At Work Report found that these types programs resulted in nearly a 37 percent improvement in stress, 22 percent better sleep and nearly 47 percent higher productivity among participants.

The reality is, some hard workers may never slow down on their own, but these efforts show you want to give them the outlets and resources to be happier and healthier.

Now, (re: Amazon) there are always going to be companies whose systems are broken and management styles drastically need to change. But even the most respected leaders may not realize that the statements and pressures felt by those in that Amazon article are shared by employees within their own cultures as well.Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace is shocking, if all said is true, but it is also positive in that it shines light on some real serious issues facing all companies. Many employees are already out there beating themselves up daily in our society, so it is more important than ever for employers to be proactive and find ways to stop any other forms of “workplace bruising”. You can’t just tell employees to take care of themselves anymore; you need to take care of your employees for them.

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