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A Global Glance at Work and Family

April 1, 1995
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Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Global Business Issues, Featured Article
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As we near the 21st century, work and family issues are changing rapidly. Wherever we look, we see more women entering the labor force; single parents working because of economic necessity; and companies responding to the aging work force by addressing such issues as age discrimination, retirement benefits and elder care. All these social trends affect how global workers manage their jobs and personal lives. But where does the United States stand in comparison to other countries' values, policies and programs that address work and family issues simultaneously? What can Americans learn from our Asian and European neighbors?

The United States has led the pack in studying work-family issues.
Indeed, the New York-based Families and Work Institute's l993 Study on the Changing Workforce revealed that 87% of the American work force has some family responsibility that could potentially interfere with a job. The study also showed that employees value the employer who offers assistance such as flexible time, leave programs and dependent-care programs. In fact, many of the employees said that they'd be willing to make substantial trade-offs to receive these services. The study confirms that family-friendly programs also benefit the company because employees are more committed to performing their jobs well, are more loyal to their employers and show more initiative on the job.

But, even though the United States is a leader in studying and initiating corporate work-family programs, I wonder if our culture is family-friendly—especially in this era of downsizing and reengineering. As a work-family consultant, I've interviewed employees working in companies that are well known for their work-family programs and services. Many of their stories indicate that they're expected to work long hours and they're afraid to use programs or ask for flexibility. I also see the need for longer-term planning and a united effort between government and corporations. Even though we're a large country with diverse needs, it seems that the backbone of our nation is being overlooked.

By contrast, some Asian and European governments and social institutions have demonstrated their commitment to the welfare of families because they value the family as an essential institution. For example, Singapore's prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, says, "Our institutions and basic policies are in place to sustain high economic growth. But if we lose our traditional values, our family strength and cohesion, we will lose our vibrancy—and decline. This is the intangible factor in the success of East Asian economies."

Likewise, countries in Europe also look at work-family benefits from a larger perspective. Rebecca Rolfes, a Chicago-based journalist, explained European attitudes during a speech she gave at the l994 Canadian Conference Board Work-Family Conference: "European social legislation stems from a holistic view of society," she says. European workers don't have and use work-family benefits because their employers are nicer than those in the United States. Rather, European companies recognize that the stress of balancing work and family life have an economic cost that's passed on to all citizens. Of course, these companies welcome enhanced productivity, loyalty and retention, but the main reason many of them assist workers is for the betterment of all. Hence, it would be valuable for U.S. business and government leaders to learn from some of the Asian and European practices and attitudes. If the United States is going to remain competitive for the long haul, we must ensure our workers' future.

However, as U.S. corporations continue to downsize and tighten their budgets, employees face mounting pressures and workloads. Workers still have to manage their personal responsibilities, and they'll do a better job for the corporation if they have the necessary support. Yet many American companies no longer look at work-family benefits from a strategic point of view. A recent study by Stamford, Connecticut-based Towers Perrin indicated that nine of 10 senior executives said that people are their company's most important resource, but when developing strategic priorities, these people issues ranked near the bottom.

What's needed to change this mindset? John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends, says that change occurs when economic necessity and changing values merge. Researchers already have proven that, in order to recruit and retain productive and motivated employees, there's an economic necessity for companies to provide viable work-family support systems. Faith Wohl, President Clinton's appointed director of Workplace Initiatives, says, "We have to stop diminishing ourselves with pat solutions and cute packaging. The place where work and family intersect is a critical juncture in our society. Those are the two essential elements in any individual's life."

The United States can learn from its global neighbors.
At a conference last year in Singapore, representatives from Malaysia, India, Japan, Indonesia, Brunei, Thailand, the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam shared strategies for strengthening the family.

They discussed government policy as a vehicle to assist families. Stella Quah, a family sociologist from Singapore, says that family policies don't change people's behavior. "It merely creates the conditions to facilitate behavioral or attitudinal change," she says.

Family policies such as flextime, she adds, don't create better families, but they certainly establish the social mechanisms to satisfy family needs.

In Singapore, the Ministry of Community Development has allocated $1 million for assistance in promoting family values. Its 17-member committee strives to help individuals maintain and enhance their family life. Some of the government-sponsored benefits include:

  • A government advisory council on family and community life
  • Eight weeks' paid maternity leave; four years' unpaid
  • Four years' unpaid child-care leave for parents with sick children
  • Child-care subsidies of $100 per child
  • Elder care
  • Government-sponsored family resource centers.

The Australian government has been involved in a variety of initiatives to promote the importance of family-support programs. The premier of New South Wales published a booklet entitled "Valuing the Family." He emphasized the government's commitment to families: "Families are the core unit of society, and my government is focused on strengthening this core unit to create stronger communities." New South Wales also is the first state in Australia to introduce flexible working arrangements for public-sector employees. For example, the government generally provides 12 months of unpaid parental leave, but also provides six to 12 weeks of paid parental leave in the public sector. Moreover, the father is given the right to share unpaid leave with the mother of the child during the first year following birth or adoption.

In Sweden, employees enjoy 38 weeks of paid parental leave, which covers 90% of their paycheck. Through the European Union and European Free Trade Association in Sweden, workers enjoy paid maternity leave because they're considered valued employees with qualifications, training and seniority. Swedes share the belief that it's society's duty to care for its citizens. A directive adopted in late l992 provides for a minimum of 14 weeks' leave—paid at an amount similar to sickness benefits.

Unions play leading role in work-family issues.
As a free-spirited, independent country, we have often rejected mandates. Even the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows 12 weeks of unpaid leave, hasn't been fully accepted by many company leaders. But union representatives have been among the leading change agents and have contributed to the support of work-family programs both in the United States and abroad. According to Donna Dolan, a spokeswoman for the New York-based Communication Workers of America (CWA): "U.S. unions are now coming together to address workers' work-family needs." A coalition was formed in July l994 to address such issues. The CWA and IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) have put $7 million into a subsidy fund to assist employees with child- and elder-care expenses.

Other pilot programs in New York include a spring arts camp during the school recess for working parents' children. In addition, the AFL-CIO established an international labor committee to explore work-family issues and domestic violence, says Dolan.

Another positive example of union involvement is the National Trade Union Congress of Singapore (NTUC), which is a major institution providing for the improvement of the socio-economic status of workers and their families. Since l973, a Women's Program within the NTUC and several women's union committees have focused on labor contract provisions to assist working parents. As far back as 1977, the NTUC set up child-care services that operate near workers' homes.

More recently, many corporate work-family leaders have emerged. Among them are Fel-Pro Inc., Hewlett Packard Australia, Telecom Australia and Bio-tech Australia Pty. Ltd. Many of their programs support working families. In l993, the University of Chicago conducted a study of Fel-Pro's work-family benefits (Fel-Pro is a mid-sized auto parts supplier located in Skokie, Illinois). Bottom-line results showed that family-friendly policies and programs are important in facilitating organizational change, and employees who are supported by their employer are in turn supportive of their employer. "Working at Fel-Pro and receiving their benefits is the best thing that's happened to me," says an employee who's worked at Fel-Pro's factory for 20 years. "I have complete concern for and loyalty to this company."

To recognize positive efforts by the business community, the Australian government and members of the private sector initiated the Corporate Work-Family Awards in 1992. The awards identify and honor corporate champions who are implementing work-family programs. Among the past recipients are Esso, Sydney Water Board and IBM.

European managers also are very aware of the positive effect family-friendly programs have on white-collar women's career development, but work-family benefits for the most part have been legislated.

Currently in the United Kingdom, one in four British employers now provide more than a statutory minimum maternity leave. Abbey National, British Gas, the civil service and the national health service offer up to 52 weeks of leave. Companies such as Marks & Spencer, The Rover Group, Amersham International and HP Bulmer also pay 100% of earnings during maternity leave.

Some European companies have even offered career breaks as an alternative to leaves. In her l991 study for The Conference Board Europe on the glass ceiling, Rolfes learned that 50% of responding companies use career breaks. The initiative has helped to retain female employees who have children. A good example is Midland Bank in Belgium, which allows employees to take up to five years, in three separate breaks with at least one year of continuous service between breaks, for child care, elder care, long-term sick care or pressing family reasons.

Even though European social legislation has been assisting workers, a long-term approach by corporations is still necessary. "Improved long-range planning [yields and embraces] the kind of family-friendly working environment that attracts skilled workers," says Rolfes.

Trust is equally important to long-term strategic planning. Corporate managers often don't trust workers to determine their own work schedules around their family responsibilities. Yet volumes of research extol the value of flexible work options. A l990 study by the Conference Board indicated that 50% of 521 large companies reported that they offered flextime. Yet, in a recent survey of 121 private companies in the Chicago area by researcher Linda Stroh of Loyola University, the statistics were dispelled. Of 64 responding companies, only 14% confirmed they had flextime. Moreover, of the 86% of companies without flextime, 92% said it was unlikely or very unlikely they'd ever adopt it.

However, Sao Paulo, Brazil-based Semco, is an extraordinary example of a company that trusts its employees. Since the company introduced "participative management" programs, in which workers to a great extent take responsibility for managing their own workflow, productivity has increased sevenfold and profits have risen fivefold. Ricardo Semler, the company president, has stated: "At Semco, we treat our employees like adults. We trust them. We don't make our employees ask permission to go to the bathroom or have security guards search them as they leave for the day. We get out of their way and let them do their jobs."

If employees want to have breakfast with their kids or take them to school, Semco allows them to do so. "Flexible working hours demonstrated our belief that we wanted to pay workers for results, not merely their time... and we didn't care how those results were obtained," says Semler.

European companies also value alternative work options. In fact, flextime has been common in Europe, where the workweek already is shorter than in North America. In a l991 study of European companies and the glass ceiling, Rolfes learned that 50% of responding companies offered flexible hours, 30% offered work at home, and 27% offered job sharing. Fortunately, there are many pockets of change, but without a more universal, coordinated effort of such initiatives, the work-family puzzle will still have missing pieces.

Educational institutions can play a major role in changing values.
In Singapore, family values are being taught through civic and moral education programs and through pastoral care and career-guidance programs. Parental education courses are offered throughout Singapore's family resource centers. Marcia Brumit Kropf, director of research at New York-based Catalyst, says that a one-time work-family training experience for senior executives and middle managers won't guarantee change. "Education is an ongoing process. It should include coaching, cultivating commitment and changing habits," says Kropf. The United States, she believes, is at a crossroads. Arlene Johnson, vice president of the Families and Work Institute, concurs: "The model of the learning organization is good for the work-family field," says Johnson. "Change isn't something that gets stamped on an organization. It's a gradual and incremental process in which awareness and action reinforce each other until the norms and beliefs have shifted. Education is the application of that learning in real situations," she says.

Change is a gradual and incremental process in which awareness and action reinforce each other until the norms and beliefs have shifted.

What makes it harder now, Johnson adds, is that Americans' expectations have risen. We've raised the bar in what we want to achieve. Progress in the l980s was a child-care program, then manager training and a wider range of programs. Now, our bar has been raised to issues about the work environment and the nature of work itself. "It's like the tide coming in. It hasn't crested yet. Work and family issues aren't only about programs and policies. They're also about flexible work environments, a trusting and respectful workplace, and looking at the nature of work in human terms," Johnson says.

Culture change will occur faster when all the change agents have a collective vision and it becomes a priority for policymakers as well as work-family leaders. Without a long-term, strategic plan, we will continue to see a fragmented, piecemeal approach to work and family issues. Hence, we need to keep in touch with our global neighbors and learn from their successes and failures.

UNICEF summed up the importance to society of ensuring positive family experiences by stating, "Families are the fundamental group in society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members. Beyond providing natural caring and support, families represent the locus of deepest human experience. Intimacy and passion, identity and selfhood, connection to the past and hope for the future... all arise from this nexus."

Personnel Journal, April 1995, Vol. 74, No. 4, pp. 85-93.

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