Work-life balance Elon Musk VS Ian Sohn

This week two very different emails went viral. The first was by Elon Musk, urging his employees to work hard, and the second by Ian Sohn, encouraging work-life balance.

Can a company be successful with a healthy work-life policy? Is changing the world a reason for people to pour long hours into their work? How does a person work hard while also having a life outside of the company?

What is the purpose of a company?

I have often read that the purpose of a company is to make a profit for their shareholders. I disagree with this and think a company’s purpose is for people. Of course, a company needs to be profitable but this needs to be done in conjunction with putting people first. This isn’t just customers but also employees, partners and the wider community within which the company operates.

I recently listened to the Tim Ferris podcast where he interviewed Jim Collins. Jim Collins is listed in the top 50 business thinkers on business and management thinking. At the end of the two-hour interview Tim asked Jim if he had any closing comments.

This is what Jim Coliins said:

“When you add it all up, the one thing I — with everything we’ve talked about in this, I still think it all goes back to the first who, life is people. Life, at its best, is about doing meaningful things with people you love.” – Jim Collins

Companies need to have fully engaged employees who are working hard for the company but also have a full life outside of work.

The Elon Musk perspective

I mentioned the two emails in my introduction. The first email came from Elon Musk to his staff.

Elon Musk is well known for having incredibly long working hours. He has spent long periods working about 120 hours a week. He has recently “slowed” this down to “only” between 80 and 90 hour work weeks. He has said that a person can’t change the world working a 40-hour work week. I wonder how the lack of sleep has affected his mental state?

Of course, Elon Musk is not alone in urging his staff to work hard. Jeff Bezos has said that he doesn’t believe in the term work-life balance and has said that it isn’t easy to work at Amazon.

“When I interview people I tell them, ‘You can work long, hard, or smart, but at you can’t choose two out of three,'” – Jeff Bezos

Some of the negative effects of working long work hours are decreased productivity, poor performance, health problems and lower employee motivation.

In a book written by Bronnie Ware titled “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing” she lists the second most frequent regret as “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”.

"This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence." – Bronnie Ware

The Ian Sohn perspective

The second trending email comes from Ian Sohn. Ian is the president of Wunderman, a digital agency in Chicago.

“I never need to know you’ll be back online after dinner.

I never need to know why you chose to watch season 1 of “Arrested Development” (for the 4th time) on your flight to LA instead of answering emails.

I never need to know you’ll be in late because of a dentist appointment. Or that you’re leaving early for your kid’s soccer game.

I never need to know why you can’t travel on a Sunday.

I never need to know why you don’t want to have dinner with me when I’m in your town on a Tuesday night.

I never need to know that you’re working from home today because you simply need the silence.

I deeply resent how we’ve infantilized the workplace. How we feel we have to apologize for having lives. That we don’t trust adults to make the right decisions.

How constant connectivity/availability (or even the perception of it) has become a valued skill.

I'm equally grateful for the trust/respect my peers, bosses and teams show me every day.

Years ago a very senior colleague reacted with incredulity that I couldn’t fly on 12 hours notice because I had my kids that night (and I'm a single dad. edit: divorced). I didn’t feel the least bit guilty, which I could tell really bothered said colleague. But it still felt horrible.

I never want you to feel horrible for being a human being.” - Ian Sohn

I think a large part of having a healthy work-life balance, especially in a white-collar workspace, is to give responsibility to employees. This is a combination of treating people like adults, trusting that they will do their required work and incentivizing them to do so.

The benefits of a good work-life balance are increased productivity, fewer instances of sickness and absenteeism, a happier workforce, improvements in employee mental health and well-being, more engaged staff and fewer resignations.

Can a company be successful while encouraging their staff to have a good work-life balance? I am delighted to say yes to this! Here are some examples of highly successful companies.

  • Slack

“We are actually genuinely focused on a work-life balance. It’s something a lot of companies pay lip service to, but we like to tell people to work hard and go home. We don’t kit out our offices with ping pong tables or arcade games or anything. We really want people to come in, focus on their work and then go home.” - Ali Rayl, VP of Customer Experience at Slack.

  • IBM - retains talented people by recognizing and supporting their life outside of work.

  • Colgate - Their Wellness Strategy encompasses physical, emotional and financial wellness, and encourages holistic health for all employees and their family members. Colgate provides ‘Live Better’ events, activities and resources all around the world to support employees in their efforts.

  • Google - Google is at the forefront of healthy work/life balance momentum. Google offers its employees free meals, napping pods, gym memberships, zen gardens, games rooms and more.

  • Virgin - Virgin encourages all its employees to “enjoy life” as much as possible.

Forbes published an article on their website titled “Eight Ways To Achieve Work-Life Balance Within A Thriving Business”. These eight things are:

  1. Stop micromanaging and work smart

  2. Take time to recharge

  3. Offer a flexible schedule

  4. Set clear priorities, milestones and deadlines

  5. Incorporate wellness into your environment

  6. Respect each other’s time out

  7. Focus on experience

  8. Ask each team member what they need.


If a company like Tesla, led by Elon Musk, requires its employees to work 80 – 100 hours to achieve objectives then I think the company’s business model needs to change. Perhaps it is fine in a time of crisis to expect long hours but not as part of the long-term company culture.

There is a great deal of research that shows that a good employee work-life balance is good for company success.

At the end of our lives we want to look back and know that, while we worked hard, we also focused on what makes our lives great – the people.

As always your comments and stories are always welcome. You can contact me by emailing or send me a message on

The views expressed here are my own and don’t represent the views of the company I work for.

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