Where is Our Work-Life Balance?

Linda Dulye's picture
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Note: This is the first of a two-part article on Work-Life Balance written by our friend and colleague Calvin Schmid of The Ronin Consulting Group.
 
I find it slightly ironic that I begin writing this article on Work-Life Balance on my weekend "off" but it also reflects the biggest challenge for both employees and companies trying to implement Work-Life Balance within their organizations.
 
In most employee surveys that explore topics such as employee engagement, quality of work life or employee satisfaction it is not uncommon to have survey items that explore their perceptions and feelings about Work-Life Balance. These survey results often reflect more employee dissatisfaction than satisfaction leaving companies feeling frustrated that their efforts seem both ineffectual and unappreciated. Why aren't more companies successful (from the employees' point of view) in the implementation of Work-Life Balance?
 
It may be in the very terminology. What exactly is Work-Life Balance? What does it really mean? 
 
Work-Life Balance implies that the time split between work life and personal life is equally balanced -- literally a 50/50 split. An employee might think that I work my eight hours, I can leave and do whatever I need to do on my personal time. Life is good. 
 
However, most of us have jobs and responsibilities that do not allow us this kind of consistent and predictable work schedule. It simply isn't realistic or practical. With today's technology -- cell phones, PDAs, laptops, wireless connections, iPads and smartphones -- we are connected. We are very connected. We are so connected that while away from the office we can still answer questions from our office, plan meetings, deal with crises, attend conference calls and respond to customer requests, etc., virtually 24/7/365. 
 
For many of us, work doesn't stop once we drive out of the workplace parking lot. Whether we're just leaving our work for the evening, or trying to enjoy our weekend, or on our well-deserved vacation, we feel guilty if we're not immediately responsive to our email or business calls or text messages from the office. 
 
Where is our "Work-Life Balance"?
 
Besides technology what else has encroached on our personal time? The reality is that companies are keeping human resources lean and companies' norms and work expectations have changed the definition of the "work day". Meetings start earlier and later in the day increasing the expectations of time on the job for employees. "Face time" is another topic by itself and, in my opinion, one of the most insidious destroyers of employee morale and productivity in the workplace. And of course there is business travel. Employees are encouraged to travel on weekends and after regular business hours, i.e., on personal time. 
 
With all this erosion of our personal time by work demands and expectations when are we to find the time to manage and perform all those "other things in our lives"? When are we to find the time to do things like childcare, after school events and parent-teacher conferences on top of the "regular" responsibilities of raising our children? The list of responsibilities for this area alone could take all the space for this article. In addition there are often areas of responsibilities for elder care; balance demands are not just about childcare. 
 
Please note that none of these issues are gender unique. Men and women equally share in these demands. Now, let's add issues like commute time and issues like divorce, doctor or dentist appointments, car maintenance, house maintenance, etc. When do we find the time to manage our personal lives? We're all expected to leave our personal lives at home but is this any more practical today than leaving our work lives at the office?
 
We can intuitively understand and emphasize why this question is important to employees but why is it important to companies? Why should companies care? There are at least two reasons for companies to care. There are emotional and physical impacts on the individual employees and there are negative impacts on the company itself.
 
First, what are the potential emotional and physical impacts on employees? Employees who feel they have no control over their personal lives can feel stressed. People under constant and on-going stress can suffer from many physical ailments that are outcomes of stress. The physical ailments range from headaches to hypertension. Emotionally and psychologically the symptoms can range from depression to learned helplessness. There are direct and indirect costs that hurt both the employee and the company.
 
In addition to the individual impact the company is affected in other ways. Stressed and distracted employees make more errors and are less productive. Employees that need doctor appointments, have parent-teacher conferences, home repairs, etc. and who feel they have no other options often call in sick. At increased levels of stress you have higher risks of employee burnout and turnover. All of these are costly impacts to companies. In addition, companies with poor reputations regarding "work-life balance" affect their ability to attract and retain employees, organizational productivity and organizational loyalty.
 
Coming in October: Part Two - What can companies do to implement a practical and workable "Work-Life Balance" in the workplace?

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