They Want More Support -- Inside and Outside Of Work

November 1, 1998
Fifty years ago, if you used the term “work/life balance,” most businesspeople would have looked at you funny. Back then, there was no such phrase -- let alone a concept. No one acknowledged the fact that people had life issues to balance. If you worked, there was an unwritten rule that you didn’t let your home life interfere with your work life. After all, what did employees’ personal lives have to do with work, anyway?

Fast forward to 1998, and it’s obvious the thinking on the work/life issue has changed dramatically. Or has it? That’s the question thousands of employees across America are asking these days. And the answer, at least according to employees, is that although the bigger question of work/life balance has been addressed, they’re now saying that businesses can still do a better job of addressing the work/life question in an everyday context.

According to the 1998 America @ Work (SM) study conducted by Aon Consulting Worldwide Inc., an HR consulting firm based in Chicago, today’s employee commitment is most strongly correlated with management’s recognition of the importance of personal and family life, and the effects of work on workers’ personal lives. In general, employees are crying out for more appreciation of their extra effort on the job, and how that often impacts the rest of their lives.

Workers want more supportive workplaces.
In Aon Consulting’s workforce commitment study, the biggest driver of employee loyalty is having managers recognize their need to balance work with home life. But employees also value their co-workers’ support of their personal lives in relationship to their work lives. Additionally, people want balance within their jobs, too.

Correlating the results of Aon’s 1995 “Survey of Life-stage Needs” with its current study, we see that the amount of time workers are losing from their jobs because of personal distractions appears to be increasing. For example, in 1995, workers missed 13.6 days a year because of personal matters, but now lose an average of 15.1 (a 10 percent increase) because of the same types of distractions -- which include everything from stress to caring for elderly dependents. Not surprisingly, many of the employees who miss time for one personal reason, also miss time for other personal reasons. This is especially true for time off due to stress. More than 80 percent of the employees who missed time due to stress also missed time because they had no elder-care provider or for other personal matters. And while the average time missed for stress has increased 36 percent since 1995, the percentage of employees who reported often feeling burned out by personal stress in their lives is virtually unchanged. However, the percentage of employees who report often feeling burned out by job stress has increased from 39 percent to 53 percent in 1998.

And here’s the part where HR people need to perk up their ears: Increased time at work may play a part in this additional stress for workers. In 1998, 23 percent of employees reported working an average of more than 50 hours per week, compared with 13 percent of the 1995 respondents. Remember how the new employee commitment deal involves employees working harder? Well, they are, and here’s the effect: Though Aon’s study finds there’s no correlation between missed time and employee commitment (both committed and non-committed employees have to deal with personal issues), there is a correlation between job stress and employee commitment. The 53 percent of respondents whose job stress often causes them to feel burned out are much less committed to their employers. The 28 percent of the workforce whose personal stress often causes them to feel burned out are also less committed to their employers. And the “1998 Business Work-Life Study” from the Families and Work Institute in New York City found that the better the quality of a person’s job, the more committed he or she will be.

Employee-commitment studies find that as workplace supportiveness increases, so does loyalty. And now that some of the bigger support issues -- such as flextime, telecommuting and on-site daycare -- are being addressed by HR, employees are clamoring for employers to help with some of the smaller things that make their day-to-day lives easier, like finding a local fitness club, a pharmacy that delivers or a dry cleaner who makes house calls to the workplace. “I think anything that companies can do to inject that ‘personal touch’ is going to make employees feel more committed to that specific organization,” says John Place, president of the Dependent Care Connection (DCC), a global provider of employee and EAP assistance services, based in Westport, Connecticut. “The more you recognize and address the balancing act that employees go through, the more committed those employees are going to be.” Place says his HR clients tell him when they now go to college campuses to recruit, they’re being asked straight up by prospective employees: “What are you going to do to help me balance work and life?” Ten years ago, that question never came up. But answering the question is the tricky part. Give them what they need for balance, but tie those benefits to tangible performance.

Link work/life initiatives to performance.
Work/life initiatives are very important to employees. All the newest employee commitment studies make that clear. However, continuing to add one work/life initiative after another could be a problem down the line if workers start to see all the extra help and flexibility as simply another entitlement. For HR, it’s a delicate balance. Give them what they want and need, but don’t break the company bank in doing so.

Richard Federico, VP and National Practice Leader in the Work/life Practice at The Segal Company, an HR consulting firm based in New York City, has some excellent suggestions. “To my mind, the best way to foster commitment is to link work/life initiatives to performance as much as you can,” says Federico. What he means is, use the work/life benefits arena as a strategic advantage to both attract high-performers to your company (who’ll tend to stay because of your high-quality benefits) and as a reward for the high performance of the people you employ.

On the recruitment side, if you don’t offer high-quality work/life benefits, you may not attract the right people. “They’re never even going to come knocking on your Web site if you don’t,” quips Federico. He concedes that people may spend a minute or two on your Web site, but once they find out you’re not offering what they want, they’ll go elsewhere. And remember, people are the competitive advantage these days, so attracting them is a big deal. Federico points out that what’s making the difference between winning companies and losing ones these days is that winners replace people who leave with high performers. “Losing companies replace people with mediocrity,” he adds.

Once people are employed with your firm, work/life initiatives can also work for you if you play the cards right. If you give a menu of benefits from which employees choose, even the more personal-services type benefits, then they get what they want. And if you offer an increase of those benefits based on their good performance, you’ll sustain good work. However, if employees start to perform poorly, you take some of those benefits away. It’s that simple. Remember that the new employee-employer commitment is more of a give-and-take. When both sides give more, both parties get more. But the opposite is also true. If employees aren’t holding up their end of the bargain, they shouldn’t expect to stay on the gravy train.

“With quality of life predicted to be the controlling workforce issue of the 21st century, work/life is quickly taking center stage as a significant driver of employee commitment,” explains Ann Vincola, senior partner with Corporate Work/Life Consulting, a division of Boston-based Children’s Discovery Centers. A pioneer in the work/life arena, Vincola has provided consulting services to corporations for nearly 20 years. “In their efforts to attract and retain a diverse workforce, progressive companies are realizing that work and life are inextricably intertwined -- when they’re out of synch, both employees and organizations alike will suffer.”

HR responds to the cry for work/life help with balance.
In October, Working Mother magazine published its annual list of the 100 best companies for working moms. For the first time, the magazine considered whether companies give work/life training to managers and whether managers’ pay is linked to their effectiveness in dealing with such issues. The magazine also gave closer scrutiny to whether work/family programs are well-used, in addition to considering its other usual criteria, such as pay, child-care benefits and flexibility.

Dallas-based Texas Instruments, which is on this year’s list, is revising a seminar on flexible work arrangements to emphasize how to make them succeed. They’ll also be making managers take classes on making decisions based not only on business needs, but on workers’ needs, as well. And at Allstate Insurance, based in Northbrook, Illinois, every new manager gets three days of training on how to foster a supportive work environment. Allstate’s managers’ merit raises are also partly based on employee surveys that since last year have included a question on whether managers promote a family-friendly atmosphere.

Then there’s E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., the chemical giant based in Wilmington, Delaware, where managers are evaluated on whether they support work/life goals, and some departmental managers must take a mandatory course on using flexibility as a business tool. At drug maker Hoffman-La Roche, based in Nutley, New Jersey, the firm holds decision makers accountable for helping women advance by identifying talent. Executives must report quarterly on their efforts.

These efforts are notable, given the fact that a landmark study called “The 1998 Business Work/Life Study” published this summer by the nonprofit Families and Work Institute, based in New York City, found that only 44 percent of companies hold supervisors accountable for sensitivity to employees’ work/family needs. And the same study found that nearly 40 percent of HR representatives said their companies didn’t make a “real and ongoing” effort to tell employees of available work/family programs. Says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute: “Traditionally, we’ve thought that pay and benefits were the motivators that really affected the decision about whether employees will stay or whether they’ll give their all.” But this doesn’t prove to be true. “What really differs is the quality of jobs and how supportive the workplace is to the individual, both in terms of getting the work done and having a life outside the job. It’s not like work/life is the magic bullet -- but it’s a fundamental part of having a workplace that’s supportive.”

HR’s role in helping employees achieve balance.
When people believe that managers and co-workers recognize their lives outside work are important, commitment skyrockets. Don’t treat people like robots, and they won’t act like them. Treat people as you’d want to be treated. As one work/life expert says, you want people to feel like they’re working with you, not just for you.

And Aon Consulting’s experts suggest that HR leaders evaluate plans and proposals for work/life-balance initiatives carefully before rolling them out because what you think is a priority, might not be a priority with your workforce. Establish a high level of employee interest and desire for such programs. Then give ‘em what they want, but attach a price tag: high performance.

Workforce, November 1998, Vol. 77, No. 11, pp. 54-56.