Are Employees Penalized for Work-Life Balance?

November 10, 2011

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Employees suffer a variety of job repercussions for participating in work-life programs, even when their employers claim to support these programs, a recent study suggests.

Although employees today feel pressured to work longer and produce more to protect their jobs, the biggest changes in the workplace over the past decade have come in employers' attitudes toward work, family and flexibility. Yet a study earlier this year reveals a growing imbalance between what employers say about work-life balance and what they actually do.

Based on a global survey of 2,312 employees in six countries, WorldatWork recently found that among 37 work-life challenges, "financial stress" and "finding time to spend with family" topped the list for men and women alike. Items ranged from professional pursuits to life-stage issues (e.g., marriage, child-related issues, care for elders, etc.).

In terms of solutions, men and women around the world resoundingly sought workplace flexibility options to help them manage their work and personal/family challenges, starting with when they begin and end their workday. Respondents also sought "just in time" flexibility: the ability to take time off on short notice for a personal/family matter.

However, the survey findings reveal a widening rift between employers' claims about work-life balance versus their actions.

"The good news is that 80 percent of employers around the globe avow support for family-friendly workplaces," Kathie Lingle, executive director of WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress, said in an announcement of the findings. "The bad news is they are simultaneously penalizing those who actively strive to integrate work with their lives."

Employees reported numerous negative repercussions for using flexible schedules and other work-life options, including:

  • Overt or subtle discouragement from using such programs;
  • Unfavorable job assignments;
  • Negative performance reviews;
  • Negative comments from their supervisor;
  • Denial of promotion; and
  • Exclusion from consideration for career-advancing assignments.

The survey also uncovered the following prevailing leadership attitudes in developed countries (the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany):

  • Fifty-four percent of surveyed managers believe the ideal worker is available to meet business needs regardless of business hours;
  • Forty percent believe the most productive employees are those without a lot of personal commitments; and
  • Nearly one in three (28 percent) believe that employees who use flexible work arrangements will not advance far in their organization.

The same leadership attitudes about workers' personal/family commitments prevailed in emerging economies (Brazil, China and India), but on a larger scale.

The most common concern among company leadership was that employees wouldn't be available to meet an immediate work need. The No. 2 concern was that work will fall on others in the group, which was voiced by 41 percent of leaders in emerging countries and 34 percent in developed countries.

Simply put, even though the business case for work-life balance has been made, many employees believe they have been punished for using their benefits or are fearful they would be. At the same time, many leaders display antiquated attitudes toward those who use work-life benefits.

"While the HR department designs and administers work-life programs, it's the managers who have to implement it," according to Rose Stanley, work-life practice leader for WorldatWork. "Closing the gap between what managers believe and how they behave will make every workplace a better place to work."

To that end, WorldatWork offers the following recommendations:

  • Operationalize flexibility. For leaders inexperienced with flexibility, tools and processes that address their fears — such as the concern that employees won't be accessible — already exist. These tools and processes must be communicated clearly, as well as what the payoff will be.
  • Move flexibility up the priority list. While most employers say they are committed to work-life integration, many also say it is pretty far down their priority list. To move flexibility up the list, the focus must be on overcoming business challenges. It is much easier and more compelling for an executive to hear how flexibility will address his or her company's critical challenges.
  • Magnify competitive advantage. It is relatively easy to establish a work-life initiative today, yet that doesn't necessarily give employers a competitive talent advantage. What gives them true advantage is institutionalizing work-life balance in the organization's culture. Companies that want to be seen as "employers of choice" that attract the best and brightest must be flexible and supportive of employees' lives outside the office.

Businesses are beginning to realize that unless employees can have balance in their lives, productivity will suffer. Until they redesign work to help encourage work-life balance, however, employers will suffer as much as their workers do.

Resources

Men and Work-Life Integration: A Global Study by Peter Linkow, Jan Civian and Kathleen M. Lingle WFD Consulting and WorldatWork, May 2011

October is National Work and Family Month... WorldatWork, Sept. 13, 2011

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