Work-life balance means different things to different generations. Here's why that matters and how to manage it.

At first glance, the definition of work-life balance is obvious. It's how you balance your time, attention, and energy between work and personal engagements. But there is much more to it.

Work-life balance relates to a broad definition of what it means to balance your life as an employee and as a person. But people are different. They have different lives, experiences, wants and desires. So, work-life balance means different things to different people. It’s an evolving, fluid definition.

Recent research shows that 98% of accountants are stressed, with 29% citing poor work-life balance as the cause of stress. If you add in the still very real effects of the pandemic and the and blurred lines between home and work, it's a recipe for overwhelm and chronic stress.

But a balanced work environment can prevent your employees from being stressed and burnt out. Promoting work-life balance in your accounting firm is the difference between happy and productive employees, and sick, tired, and unproductive ones.

And to achieve this, you need to understand the differences between people's definition of work-life balance.

Understanding these differences and tailoring work-life balance initiatives on a case-by-case basis is the key to a thriving accounting firm.

And as EY puts it: Businesses can better predict future trends when they look through the eyes of the generation that comes next.

How different generations define work-life balance

At the generational level, Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers define work-life balance very differently. 

How Baby Boomers define work-life balance

Born 1946–1964
Born after WWII, Baby Boomers grew up on horror stories of the Great Depression, so they value working hard and the opportunity to work, and crave stability. As a result, work-life balance wasn’t a main priority or concern.

How Gen Xers define work-life balance

Born 1965–1980
Gen X workers witnessed their Baby Boomer parents work long hours, which often put a strain on their families. As a result, to them, work-life balance means suitable parental and vacation leave. They want the flexibility to leave the office early to watch their kids’ piano recital or the ability to work from home. This generation wants to produce high-quality work without sacrificing their personal lives.

How Millennials define work-life balance

Born 1981–1996
Millennials crave even more flexibility than their Gen X counterparts. They aspire for more than just work-life balance—they want work-life integration. Work-life integration looks like working from home, flexible work schedules, and the ability to choose what they work on. Because Millennials are tech-savvy, they know how to use technology as a tool to help them achieve this balance.

How Gen Zers define work-life balance

Born 1997–2010
Gen Zers are similar to Millennials, particularly in relation to work-life balance and technology. They also highly value career development. In fact, 83% of Gen Z accounting professionals planning to quit in the next six months did not expect to advance at their current company. For many Gen Zers, their careers began in the thick of COVID or after, which means many have never worked in traditional offices before. While there are plenty of positives about this, many Gen Zers are struggling with a lack of personal connection at work.

Personal priorities and work-life balance 

On the other hand, different definitions of work-life balance might have nothing to do with generations at all. People are different—they have different priorities and desires. Some may define work-life balance as having enough time to pick their children up from school. Others might define it as having the ability to take vacation leave several times a year.

So it’s not enough to assume that your employees define work-life balance the way other members of their generation do.

Work-life balance for diverse accounting teams

Your accounting firm team is made up of individuals with different definitions of work-life balance. For this reason, it’s not possible to create a one-size-fits-all work-life balance plan. But that doesn’t mean you can’t facilitate work-life balance for your team. 

Here are some tips to help you create flexible work-life balance strategies.

Know your employees’ needs

Take the time to ask and understand each individual’s goals and what work-life balance means to them. It’s best to do this one-on-one so that you can have a clear picture as you create a specific plan for each employee.

Find out if there are barriers that are preventing them from finding balance. Is it heavy workloads, unreasonable deadlines, or an always-on culture? Eliminating barriers to work-life balance is just as important as prioritizing it.

Communicate openly about the available options 

Let your employees know about existing work-life balance initiatives in your firm. This might be the push that they need to encourage them to take advantage of these initiatives.

Make sure your firm clearly communicates policies like sick leave options and parental leave entitlements.

Set a good example 

Lead from the front. If you send emails or call your employees with work requests after work hours or during weekends, they can’t have balance. This can lead to things like email anxiety, making it difficult for your employees to relax even when they are off the clock.

Respect what after hours means to your team. Remember: not everyone has the same definition of work-life balance.

Go beyond flexible work hours 

Flexibility means more than just hours worked. It might include where employees work or how they work. 

Consider permanently implementing the ability to work from home. You can also give them more freedom to control how they tackle their projects.

Recommended reading: Advice for managing a newly virtual team of accountants

Implement a ‘use it or lose it’ policy

Some employees might need to be incentivized to take full advantage of work-life balance programs. A great way to do this is by implementing a ‘use it or lose it’ policy. 

By making it impossible for employees to carry over unused off days or receive financial compensation instead of off days, they will be more inclined to take time off.

The key to finding balance 

Since you can’t please everyone, you need to keep flexibility in mind and keep communicating with your team.

By being flexible, you can create work-life balance plans and options that serve the different needs of your employees.

That’s the key to finding work-life balance.