Throughout her 20s, Liya Shuster-Bier often worked around the clock. The 34-year-old completed her bachelor's degree at Dartmouth, worked 100-hour weeks at Goldman Sachs, worked at a social impact startup in Boston and completed an MBA from Wharton business school while juggling extracurriculars and internships.
But months before her 30th birthday in 2018, Shuster-Bier discovered she had a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that affects the body's immune system. She went through six rounds of chemotherapy and, after discovering the cancer had come back later that year, underwent both radiation and a stem cell transplant that forced her to take a break from her work and life for 100 days.
As Shuster-Bier regained her strength, she had time to reflect. "I didn't sleep for years," she says about her previous attitude toward work, realizing she'd been pushing herself "to the physical edge." If she was going to give her body a chance to heal, she needed to change her priorities. And in starting to fill her time with activities like watercolor painting and long walks through Central Park, she realized she loved doing those, too.
In 2019, a few months into remission, Shuster-Bier founded Alula, an online marketplace of products that help current and former cancer patients manage symptoms of their treatment. She's raised $2 million for the company, and now runs a team of three people.
Even as an entrepreneur, Shuster-Bier has set clear boundaries between work and the rest of her life. Here are some of the policies she's implemented to ensure no one is working from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m., as she used to.
To begin with, she implemented a hard stop to the workday at 7 p.m.
"After 7 p.m., you're not allowed to Slack or email or set up a meeting at work," says Shuster-Bier, who starts working at 10 a.m. and finishes around 7 p.m. herself. If employees find that they need to work late into the night, they're required to schedule any emails for the next morning. Same with any other form of communication. "You're required to schedule and send a slack for 8 a.m. the next morning," she says.
"I did that so I could go to sleep at night and not be bombarded by emails and slacks," she says. And it's worked. The same rule applies for weekends.
"Some people love to work on Sunday at three for a few hours to clear out their email, to get ahead for the week," Shuster-Bier says, and she respects that. But for everyone else who needs a break, like herself, that scheduling and sending messages in business hours alone has been liberating.
On top of Alula's 20 days of PTO and unlimited sick leave, employees also get some extra days off like the Friday before Memorial Day Weekend. Shuster-Bier also took inspiration from companies like LinkedIn and Bumble that were giving their employees extra time off in the spring to prevent burnout. As a one-time policy, she gave each Alula employee an extra week off in May.
The company also shuts down for the final week of August and final week of December each year.
"Our crazy, globalized, hyperactive world really quiets down those weeks," she says. "So most people take PTO during those weeks. And my thought was, why should you spend your PTO during those weeks? Why don't we just close down as a business to support that?"
"One of the things my executive coach would always tell me is, 'when you're resting, you're working,'" says Shuster-Bier, "because I would get a lot of guilt" if she wasn't.
"Vacations are really important to recover from our always-on work culture," Ashley Whillans, behavioral psychologist, assistant professor at Harvard Business School and author of "Time Smart," previously told CNBC Make It. They help people avoid burnout and come back to work "more refreshed, more creative, more energized, feeling more positive."
It's an attitude shift Shuster-Bier's had to work on. Given the pervasiveness of this culture in so many parts of the U.S., it's a mantra she's had to repeat to her employees as well.
"Next week, you're taking the week off, you're working," she says she tells them. "That's the best work you could be doing for me right now."