Help employees achieve a work/life balance

By David Thompson, former work/life strategy manager for Microsoft Diversity, Human Resources

Your company is successful, and your employees have a great deal to do with that success. They're energetic, motivated, and almost always flexible when last-minute work issues develop. But recently, you've noticed that some of your employees look pretty stressed. And you've overheard their concerns about missing family events and social engagements due to increased workloads.

For an employee, balancing a challenging career with life outside work is a complex task. Maybe your employees have decided that it's time to step back and take a good look at their work/life balance. As an employer, you need to be aware of your employees' needs and to set realistic goals so that valuable staff members don't get burned-out or decide to move on.

What is work/life balance?

The work part seems pretty self-explanatory. It's what occupies most of our time during the week and sometimes on the weekends. Therefore, life represents everything that is not work — all the details and activities that make up a personal life, such as:

  • Interacting with immediate family, extended family, and community.
  • Attending to a home.
  • Enjoying hobbies.
  • Seeing to personal well-being.

Is work/life balance a new concept?

Although not necessarily a new concept, work/life balance has evolved over time. Throughout history, work and life were basically integrated. Life activities like community involvement, childcare, and elder care happened right alongside work.

With the onset of the industrial revolution in the second half of the 18th century, the separation between work and life became more clearly defined. The workplace has continued to change dramatically since those days, and as a result, balancing work and life has changed as well.

One major change is that many families no longer have an adult who doesn't work outside the home. Without someone in the household attending to life issues full-time, workers now have to find time to take care of tasks like childcare or caring for an elder parent in addition to their professional workload.

What is the company role in work/life balance?

According to a recent survey, more than 70% of CEOs thought that they could not remain competitive if they didn't help employees balance their work life and home life. Employees have realized that they're expendable, and consequently they're much less committed to their employers and more likely to leave for greener pastures. Since employers don't guarantee lifelong employment, employees want more flexibility in their jobs, and they're no longer as willing to give up personal time for the company.

To remain competitive, and to retain their most talented employees, companies must provide more than a good salary and a medical plan. Companies have started implementing flexible work options like:

  • Childcare
  • Wellness programs
  • Financial planning
  • Concierge services

These work/life benefits encourage employees to be more productive and committed to the company, and they make your company more competitive when recruiting new candidates.

What types of work/life programs are there?

When people think of company work/life benefits, they often think of childcare. But most work/life programs entail much more. A Towers Perrin survey identified more than 100 varieties of work/life programs that fall into the following categories:

  • Time     Including flexible work arrangements such as flextime, telecommuting, job sharing, and part-time work.
  • Leave     Paid and unpaid leaves for childbirth, for the care of young or sick children, or for other personal or family matters.
  • Benefits     Cafeteria-style plans, nontaxed flexible spending accounts, or insurance to pay for the long-term care of oneself, elderly parents, or a spouse.
  • Dependent care     Resource and referral services to help employees find childcare or elder care, childcare programs that are on-site or nearby, and employee discounts or vouchers to help pay for the cost of care.
  • Counseling and wellness     Employee seminars about balancing work and family life, peer support groups, and training for supervisors to be more attuned to employee family problems caused by overwork.
  • Personal convenience     Concierge services, lactation rooms, nap rooms, and food shopping and dinner preparation services.

How can employers help their employees manage workloads?

The most important variable in work/life balance is the nature of the job itself. Jobs with autonomy, flexibility, meaning, manager support, and a chance for advancement often result in enhanced job satisfaction, commitment, and retention.

But even the best and most supportive workplace cannot prevent the negative effects of too much work. Managers should keep the following tips in mind:

  • Keep workloads realistic     Schedule time accurately, manage resources wisely, prioritize tasks, and say "No" to projects that would overload the team. Review work processes and load distribution regularly to see if you can help lighten the burden.
  • Remove interruptions     Setting aside specific interruption-free periods during the work week can result in increased productivity and a less stressful work environment. Interruptions prolong the workday and are symptomatic of a crisis-centered, reactive approach to work.

Examine what you expect from your employees and what you can offer to help them balance work and personal lives. Consider adopting policies and programs that promote the life side of the equation. A little sensitivity and effort on your part can significantly help with morale and company commitment.

Applies to:
Access 2003, Excel 2003, Outlook 2003, PowerPoint 2003, Project 2003, Publisher 2003, Visio 2003, Word 2003