According to the 3rd European Quality of Life Survey in 2011, 22 per cent of people in employment expressed dissatisfaction with their work-life balance. Many of them either left work too tired to do household jobs or found it difficult to concentrate at work because of family responsibilities.
This obviously suggests there are some real costs associated with workplaces that do not respond to the work-life concerns of their employees as the cumulative effects of poor work-life balance and stress are damaging.
Often companies delegate the responsibility for work-life balance to human resource departments which introduce work-life programmes that include practices such as flexitime or telework in an attempt to address the work-life issues of their employees. Such programmes however rarely help employees in striking a meaningful balance between their work and personal lives. Nevertheless, the ability of companies and employees to devise work-life balance solutions may be an increasingly important source of competitive advantage in the current business landscape.
So what solutions are available to companies?
Many managers presume that work-life programmes provide adequate support to employees for balancing their work and personal lives. The reality however is that work-life programmes alone are not effective in retaining top performers or developing long-term relationships between employers and employees. The main problem with these programmes is that they fail to address the diversity of employee interests and are often disconnected with the actual needs of the workforce.
Companies should try to understand the inadequacies of their existing work-life balance programmes and assess how to redesign them to meet employee needs. The following guidelines might help them in enhancing the effectiveness of their work-life programmes.
Control over work time: It is often assumed that the number of hours worked has an impact on work-related stress. However, several studies have revealed that the amount of time spent at work or at home does not predict people’s satisfaction with work or life. Rather, control over when employees work is more important to their wellbeing than merely the number of hours worked. Irregular work hours can be stressful for employees but the growing use of nonstandard employment contracts indicates that more and more employees will face difficulties in juggling the competing demands of work and non-work lives. Companies and employees should work together to identify the key elements of variability in employees’ work and take steps to address them.
Developing flexible work structures: Most companies promote a culture of facetime not realising that such work cultures are not necessarily the most efficient. Such cultures encourage presenteeism while infringing on employees’ non-work lives. In fact, many workers have highlighted that they do not use work-life policies because of the anticipated negative career consequences. This results in highly stressed workers who have difficulties reconciling the demands of work and personal lives. Developing flexible work structures that value performance over facetime are necessary for ensuring the success of work-life programs.
Universal versus customised solutions: Companies must try to strike a balance between policies that are sufficiently broad to take into consideration the needs of the majority of the workforce while also accommodating the idiosyncratic needs of each employee. Ideally, work-life policies should support variation in domestic backgrounds and not view differing non-work or caregiving identities as barriers to an employee fully contributing to their work role. Given the variability in needs, preferences and values of the workforce there should also be room for customising work arrangements to fulfil the needs of individual employees.
A climate of trust: Work-life programmes are generally more effective when there is a climate of trust and clear channels of communication between managers and employees. Employees should be clearly informed by their managers about the business’s priorities. Likewise, employees should also be open about personal interests and concerns. Having honest conversations about both the business’s and the employees’ objectives might serve as a catalyst for discovering inefficiencies that would otherwise remain unnoticed. However, such conversations can only take place under a climate of trust where employees are assured that they will not be penalised for prioritising their personal concerns.
Finally, although many organisations are introducing work-life programmes, they lack the flexibility to enable their employees to balance personal and professional lives. Ideally, formal work-life programmess should be complemented by on-going dialogue between employers and employees. When employers obtain a direct assessment of the work-life needs of their employees rather than assuming these, they will be better equipped to meet the evolving work-life concerns of their employees.