by Doug Drinkwater

How CIOs can achieve work-life balance — and avoid burnout

Oct 22, 2021
CIOIT Leadership

CIOs are struggling for work-life balance now more than ever, but it’s harder than it sounds.

Work-life balance, the loose principle through which you evenly split your time and focus between work and personal activities, benefits individuals and corporations in equal measure.

A healthy work-life balance can improve health, productivity, job retention and turnover, and in-turn stave off emotional burnout, say experienced CIOs. And yet, attaining a healthy equilibrium between personal life and career work has seemed further out of reach than ever.

The economic and social fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has afforded CIOs more opportunity and accountability in the boardroom, and put additional pressure on project delivery teams to expedite multiyear digital transformation programs. Business expectations for IT teams have subsequently blossomed, but this in itself represents something of a double-edged sword.

CIOs, work-life balance and a global pandemic

Like many technology executives, Jason James, CIO at US-based EHR (electronic health records) software provider NetHealth, says that he threw himself into work at the start of the pandemic, “in retrospect … because it was one of the few things we could control.” He admits that work became an outlet, but an unsustainable one.

jason james

Jason James is CIO at software provider NetHealth.

“I was working through lunch, working nights, and weekends and sleeping way less than I should,” he says. “My family wasn’t getting the attention they deserved. I may have been succeeding as a CIO, but I wasn’t the top of my game as a father or husband.”

James developed a plan to make work more balanced, setting boundaries for checking emails and messages, and making time for lunch breaks to get outside. But it was still difficult to switch off, with work often eating into family time.

For Tariq Khan, CDIO (chief digital information officer) at the London Borough of Camden, work-life balance came to mean something else entirely. Starting his first CIO job last year, Khan had to juggle work and home-schooling children during the country’s national lockdown, meeting new colleagues virtually and standing up government services with limited resources.

“[It] could have been better,” he admits. “It’s been a steep learning curve, plus there has been a lot of reactive demand on local government services during the pandemic which has added to the workload.”

Working in isolation whle leading teams

Other CIOs expressed difficulties in working in isolation, pointing to the lack of human contact, the transactional nature of videoconferencing and yet the same pressure to lead, motivate and support teams as well as an ecosystem of partners.

For some, fighting the itch to do more has been difficult, even during downtime. Michelle Kearns was new in her role when she joined Boots Ireland as head of IT last year, having previously spent 16 years at family doctor service Caredoc, most recently as its CIO. She admits it has been challenging to balance making an impression in a new job, while retaining some resemblance of normality at home.

“Even when I was on annual leave this year, because I was so new to the company, we had a project that was going and I was dialling in for calls at the end of the evening to see how it was going,” says Kearns. “It was partly because I was so new, but I also wanted the project to succeed. I think it can be quite difficult to disconnect.”

mark bramwell

Mark Bramwell is CIO of Oxford Said Business School.

This disconnection came more abruptly for Oxford Said Business School CIO Mark Bramwell, when a heart attack last May forced him to evaluate life’s priorities. He describes the event, from which he is now fully recovered, as a “wake-up call” to take better care of himself.

“I have learnt that results are not solely driven by how hard and long you work, but how you prioritise, delegate and how smart you work,” says Bramwell, who also advocates for working to a set of personal values.

“I have definitely set out new boundaries for my working day, learnt how to say ‘no’ more and better protect some ‘me time’ in my diary to get work done, reflect, plan and exercise.”

To achieve work-life balance, set priorities

Work-life balance can be achieved through delegation and prioritization, as well as setting clear boundaries and taking breaks, CIOs say. But it is also, as Khan describes, about having a clear idea of what you want to achieve.

tariq khan2

Tariq Khan is CDIO at the London Borough of Camden.

“Someone once described their inbox to me as ‘your to-do list controlled by other people,’ so as such it’s important to have a clear set of north star strategic priorities that dictate how you plan your day,” Kahn says. “One of the most valuable commodities we have to spend is our time and attention. So it’s important to invest wisely.”

Jot Sehmbi, CDTO (chief digital transformation officer) at Essex University, UK, has looked to do just that by setting daily habits, ring-fencing protected time but also taking up new hobbies outside of her day job.

“I’ve completed a few items on the hobby list, including going back to playing the piano and chess with a regular club,” Sehmbi says. “Having an activity scheduled where a group is dependent on your participation helps.”

jasper mcintosh

Jasper McIntosh is CIO of the Gym Group.

For Jasper McIntosh, CIO at The Gym Group, balance has been about setting an end time in the evening, blocking out time in the day to get away from his desk and making time for informal conversations with team members.

“When things were really crazy, you would find yourself spending 12 hours a day talking,” says McIntosh, “but it was always on a work thing. It just didn’t engage the right side of your brain.”

How to create work-life balance for your team

These conversations can be part of something bigger, with Boots’ Kearns and Oxford Business School’s Bramwell saying that building trust, transparency and empowerment within teams can help all parties. Tom Catalini, CIO of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, goes one step further by suggesting that rewards for a job well done can bring about a healthy work-life balance for all staff.

“If someone on the team has to put in some extra effort to get a job done, I want them to balance it out with a long lunch, an afternoon off or an extra vacation day — and soon. Making that an explicit policy is as important as modeling balance,” Catalini says.

NextHealth’s James, who recently became the first male employee at the company to take paid parental leave, says this goes back to the “softer” skills required by CIOs today, such as empathy and flexibility, which can in turn lead to improved talent retention.

“People are more than just their jobs and the pandemic is forcing many companies to come to grips with that,” James says. “Many workers are pushing for roles that allow them to have greater flexibility in their careers and the companies that embrace that will retain and attract the greatest talent.”

For Catalini, work-life balance is ultimately about being smart. “A more balanced life is not just helpful — it’s essential to reaching your full potential. Not only is being happier just as important as being successful, being happier and more balanced actually leads to greater levels of success.”