Solving the Work/Life Balance Dilemma

Forward thinking employers are well aware of the barriers to work life balance posed by modern working life. Money concerns, peer pressure to work long hours, ambition and perceived hostility from bosses make it hard for employees to achieve a harmonious integration between work and family life.

This is despite all the publicised advantages to employers and employees of having a well rounded work force, some of which include:

  • Reduced absenteeism and usage of sick/carer leave
  • Improved recruitment and retention rates and associated cost savings
  • Improved productivity
  • Improvements in employee satisfaction and loyalty
  • Boost in company image and potential to become an employer of choice
  • More potential for flexibility in operating hours

However, scanning the list of advantages described above raises the question of whether enabling employees to achieve a better work life balance is a matter of social responsibility or a business necessity to ensure competitive advantage.

This edition of the Better Workplace Bulletin explores some options for companies wanting to improve their work life balance offering.

What is work life balance?

Work life balance means something different for all employees and is not the exclusive concern of working parents.

CEO of US based consultancy firm, Jim Bird, defines work life balance as: Meaningful daily achievement and enjoyment in each of the four life quadrants: work, family, friends and self.

Jim Bird goes on to further explain what work life balance is not:

Work-Life Balance does not mean an equal balance: Trying to schedule an equal number of hours for work and personal activities is usually unrewarding and unrealistic. Life should be more fluid than that.

Individual work-life balance varies over time, often on a daily basis: The right balance today will probably be different for employees tomorrow. The right balance for single employees will be different when they marry, or if they have children; employees starting a new career will have a different balance to those nearing retirement. In addition, there is no perfect, one-size fits all, balance. The best work-life balance is different for everyone due to different pressures, priorities and interests.

The barrier posed by corporate culture

The best approach employers can take in trying to improve their overall work life balance proposition for employees is to develop, implement and promote a wide range of work life balance measures.

Some of the most successful work life benefits offered by Australian employers include:

  • Flexible work hours, including flex time and the option to work part time
  • Telecommuting (working from home using a telephone, computer and internet connection)
  • Support finding child care or on-site child care
  • Leave provisions such as parental leave, carer leave, study leave, personal leave and vacation leave
  • Job sharing
  • Employee assistance programs such as grief, addiction, career and family counselling
  • Fitness subsidies to promote health and well being
  • On-site stores and services such as concierge

However according to the managing partner of Workplace Innovation and author of the Federico Column Richard Federico any work life balance policies a company has in place are only words on paper if the culture of the organisation doesn’t endorse and support the policy.

“When you have the right culture for flexibility, you know it right away, and so do your employees. Flexibility becomes a normal part of the way people work, rather than an enforced policy,” he says in a question and answer article on work life balance.

According to Mr Federico the level of trust between managers and employees and uniform guidelines for granting flexibility are critical factors in the success of work life balance policies. He says requests for workplace flexibility must be weighed on the basis of both professional and personal needs.

“To gain managers’ support, it is important to develop a ‘what’s in it for me?’ business case for work life balance. This will differ from manager to manager. For one manager, it might be a recruitment or retention issue. For another, it might be the additional productivity from enabling employees to work at their most productive times—early starters/finishers versus late starters/finishers, for example—or from their most productive work environment (office versus remote location). For another manager, it might be the reduction in unscheduled absences—it’s often easier to take the whole day off than to ask for a couple of hours to deal with a personal or family issue. In the end, managers have to see some return on investment, such as enhanced productivity.”

Mr Federico claims an employer’s primary responsibility is to train managers to be sensitive to their employees’ personal needs and to break down traditional ‘face time’ mentality, which is the attitude that employees can only be trusted when they’re within their manager’s line of sight.

An employees’ primary responsibility, he claims, is to maintain the productivity standards that are expected of them. While a joint responsibility is to communicate with one another on these issues in an open and trusting environment. This concept of shared responsibility becomes a win-win by valuing both business success and personal fulfillment.

“A culture of trust, combined with effective training and communication, provides the perfect environment for flexibility—and the work life balance that comes with it,” says Mr Federico.

The right corporate culture also requires constant monitoring to ensure work life policies are effective in the long run and that they endure through times of management change, company restructure and peak work times.

Try and conduct regular staff surveys to gauge the ongoing effectiveness and relevance of work life balance policies and to ensure staff are fully aware of all the benefits available to them.

Empower managers to model a healthy work life balance and ensure they can offer employees the same privilege.

Ensure managers set priorities for work so employees have a clear understanding of time frames and don’t feel pressure to do everything at once. Access to project time lines and calendars will ensure all employees have the knowledge they need to allocate and achieve their workloads effectively.

Conduct regular and ongoing training on the importance of work balance for both managers and employees. Line managers are in a great position to identify signs of fatigue and overwork among employees but need to be taught how to do so.

Employees should also be offered training on work life balance, covering topics such as why it is important, how they can work to balance the competing pressures in their life and how factors such as exercise, diet and lifestyle contribute to physical and mental wellbeing. These sessions also offer employers the opportunity to remind employees about the work life policies offered by the company and how employees can access them.

Companies need to remind employees about the company’s commitment to work life balance and the range of opportunities available to encourage it year round. Regular communication via email, the intranet, notice boards and company newsletters will ensure employees have the information they need to make the best decisions in relation to their work life balance options.

1. 2007 ABS Survey of Employment Arrangements, Retirement and Superannuation.

This Better Workplace Bulletin was First Published in May 2012