Everybody Wins With a Healthy Work-Life Balance

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It should come as no surprise that employees today are struggling to balance work and personal responsibilities.

Longer work hours and more erratic work schedules, the increasing prevalence of two-career families, the demands of constant accessibility and global collaboration, and leaner operations have all created a recipe for strains in this area.

Indeed, Hay Group's global employee opinion database, comprised of data from more than 5 million employees worldwide, indicates that more than half of employees express concerns about the adequacy of staffing levels and over 40 percent report that their organizations do not provide sufficient work-life balance support.

The issues are increasingly on the radar screens of leaders as well.

In a recent Hay Group survey of senior executives in companies eligible to participate in Fortune magazine's annual rankings of the World's Most Admired Companies, fully 49 percent of respondents from organizations ranked in the top three in their industries in corporate reputation reported that addressing work-life balance issues is a "top priority" or "very important" as a human capital challenge over the next two years.

These results reflect awareness that helping employees achieve a reasonable work-life balance is not just a matter of creating attractive work environments, but also a critical consideration for sustaining performance over time.

How are organizations responding to increased work-life balance concerns? Typical approaches have been tactical, seeking to provide employees with more flexibility in where and when they work.

Organizations have emphasized telecommuting options, flexible work schedules, compressed work weeks and the like. While these benefits are certainly helpful, they fail to address the fundamental problem. For today's maxed-out workers, professional and personal demands simply leave them with too much to do and too little time to do it.

To further explore the relationships between organizational supports and work-life balance, we again turned to Hay Group's global employee opinion database.

We isolated a best-practice group of organizations that scored in the top quartile on employees' ratings of their responsiveness to work-life balance concerns and compared them with organizations scoring in the bottom quartile on this issue, examining a wide range of workplace practices.

The results suggest that organizations need to look beyond programmatic responses. The organizations that are judged by employees to be the most effective in helping employees juggle work and personal responsibilities effectively manage a broader set of workplace dynamics. Specifically, within these "work-life balance leaders:"

  • Clear direction regarding organizational priorities is provided, to help employees focus on the highest-value tasks;
  • Policies and practices are consistently implemented, to ensure that workloads are seen as fairly and equitably distributed;
  • High levels of teamwork within and across organizational units are emphasized, to provide employees with access to support from co-workers in coping with work demands;
  • Strong support for training and development and high levels of empowerment are provided, to ensure that employees have the skills and decision-making authority to get the job done; and
  • Adequate resources (e.g., tools, equipment and technology) are supplied, to enable employees to execute work tasks efficiently and with high quality.

The benefits of getting it right are real as companies work to retain key talent. In fact, Hay Group's research found that more than one in four employees (27 percent) in organizations that are not perceived to support work-life balance plan to leave their companies within the next two years. That's compared with only 17 percent of employees within the work-life balance leaders.

The message for company leaders is that many of the same factors that are associated with a more engaged and effective work force also lead to work environments where employees are more positive about stress and work-life balance issues.

Given that time available for work is finite and work demands are unlikely to decrease anytime soon, long-term solutions to work-life balance issues need to focus on helping employees work smarter as well as harder.

By providing enabling work environments, organizations can help employees accomplish work tasks as efficiently as possible, leaving more time to attend to personal responsibilities.

At the same time, even when workloads are heavy, employees are likely to feel far better about staying late or coming in early if they are working on tasks with a clear and compelling purpose, provided with adequate resources and support from colleagues, and given the authority necessary to make decisions about how best to accomplish their objectives.

Mark Royal is a senior principal in Hay Group's employee research division.