Do the right thing: The Work/Life Balance Pay-back

Striking the right balance between work and personal life is difficult, even for the most disciplined individual managers. Creating work environment in which employees too can achieve ‘work-life balance’ is great challenge. In the first of three articles based in part on his research into employee attitudes in Auckland and Perth, Australia in 2001, Phil Kerslake argues that it is commercially smart to “do the right thing”, by supporting staff in their efforts to balance their lives and establishing work environment based on flexibility, mutual trust and respect.

Corporate leaders understand that employees’ work and family lives are inextricably linked. They always have been but today, with increased pressures in both domains, the overlap and the challenges created are increasingly obvious and complex to resolve. Solving the paradox seated in an organisation’s need to be optimally productive and the individual’s need to find quality time to meet domestic responsibilities, to establish, maintain and grow relationships and to relax and re-charge, is the great challenge of the new millennium. Most managers have yet to overcome the conundrum for themselves let alone help employees resolve it in their lives.
The prospects for easing the work/life imbalance dilemma lie, at least in part, in establishing what’s creating it. ‘Know thy enemy’ and so forth. Enemy number one must surely be the ‘time distribution imbalance’ trap – consistently committing too much time to work where this is having detrimental impact on personal life.
But the concept of ‘work-life balance’ means different things to different people, and there are always shades of gray. What is an imbalance to one person is perfectly acceptable to another. And, commercial realities cannot be ignored. Somehow the needs of key customers and/or other stakeholders must be met or they will take their patronage elsewhere. These and the myriad of other related issues are why the problem is so vexed and why many leaders effectively suspend their attempts to solve it. It ends up in the ‘too hard’ basket. But given the gravity of the problem and the potential upside that comes with finding remedy, at some point the issue must come back to the fore. So where to start?
Most managers agree that so-called ‘quality work environment’ reduces the employment stresses that can spill over to staff’s personal lives and create distress. The quality work environment bundle might include job characteristics such as work time flexibility, individual responsibility and autonomy, the physical office environment, pay, equity and advancement conditions. Lastly, but certainly not least, the nature of interpersonal relations in the office is very important.
I found it intriguing that in rating the importance of 27 practices in terms of their ability to help people achieve better work/life balance, my 1844 survey respondents from Auckland and Perth rated ‘Working for manager with whom there is mutual trust and respect’ and ‘Working for company that you trust and respect’ first and second respectively (see figures 1 and 2). Following close behind and rating fourth was ‘Having company and manager that communicate with you openly and regularly on company plans, direction, strategy and objectives.’
The fact that these relationship and communication issues rated above broad range of flexible work practice options and family support initiatives frequently touted in the popular press as present-day work-life balance imperatives, speaks volumes about the nature of people’s assessment of ‘balance’ today.
Maybe cooperative, collegial leadership attitude incorporating flexible approach to the time and space needs of your employees will be valued more by them than the provision of traditional offerings such as gym memberships; more even than emerging support programmes such as sponsored parenting seminars?
John Judge, chief executive of Ernst Young New Zealand believes so. He identifies company and leader behaviours in particular as having real effect on staff and their work/life balances. “We have cafés, but it’s the attitudinal aspects, not the physical that are key. It’s about attitude. For instance, providing staff access to gyms is useless if the prevailing company attitude suggests you shouldn’t use them.”
American-based surveys suggesting that perceptions of working in quality environment are influenced by employees’ relationships with supervisors and management, have often found concurrently that many staff tend to mistrust their own supervisors and management.
Prevailing attitudes – culture – in many companies around the world (and there is no evidence to suggest that New Zealand and Australian companies are the global exceptions) are, it seems, neither flexible nor collegial. They are instead focused more on rules, regulations and employment contract small print, and less on ‘doing the right thing’ with flexibility to ensure agreed objectives are met.
This approach, which basically stems from mistrust, can become stressor for the distrusted, contributing to their feelings of work/life imbalance.
Inspector Dr John Mitchell, national human resources manager for NZ Police suggests: “Companies have often used and abused staff. But now staying in one organisation is not necessary or valued [by staff]. So it’s deemed important to keep people for decent period of time; particularly in our profession where lot of experience and training is required.”
Many organisations hold to Mitchell’s view as we morph into so-called knowledge society. Others, however, remain unable or unwilling to acknowledge that their leaders’ behaviours and company cultures are off-track and contribute to staff stresses and ultimately, work/life imbalances.
As in any relationship, people respond positively when they sense that genuine interest is being taken in their needs. Not surprisingly, almost every one of the survey respondents in my study placed high level of importance on having work/life balance (figure 3). But about third felt they did not or may not have such thing (figure 4). Leaders who recognise this now common experience and who work with their teams to create the space and time needed to improve the position will surely earn goodwill that the dogmatic, immovable managers with paternalistic behavioural tendencies of the past never got?
Companies and leaders that take genuine interest in the well-being (and of course personal/professional development) of people seem to cultivate teams of employees that are less stressed, that perceive better work/life balance for themselves, and consequently are more satisfied and productive than their mistrusting counterparts.
They are also less inclined to seek greener pastures elsewhere, thus making for more stable workforce. Since securing and retaining the best talent is the first avenue to competitive advantage and service excellence, the premise of doing the right thing and the behaviours that underpin it warrants closer consideration.
Glenn Harris, HR manager of North Shore City Council and immediate past president of the HR Institute, agrees that leaders need to be flexible and consider the needs of their staff. But he cautions against assuming that every employee wants the same things from an employer: “You have to take work/life balance issues into account as part of your strategy for recruitment and retention. But it’s not an all things for everyone thing. Some people don’t, for instance, want you interfering in their private lives. Others do.”
So is policy designed to regulate the ‘right’ behaviours by managers one road to improving intra-company relations and ultimately the lives of staff? My observations suggest maybe, maybe not. My research had me associating peripherally with hundreds of Australasian companies. Some that seemed most demonstrably concerned with staff needs had no written policy on work/life balance issues at all. On the other hand, one or two that

Visited 10 times, 1 visit(s) today
Close Search Window