Work-life balance: Is it an urban legend? (Guest Commentary)

Survey finds informal policies more likely to acknowledge tough issues
By Claudine Kapel
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/10/2012

Work-life balance is one of those subjects that triggers divergent opinions — and sometimes heated debate. Perspectives range from those who want companies to do more to support it to those who believe it is merely a fantasy.

But beyond the discussions and deliberations, what are companies actually doing to enable employees to achieve work-life balance?

Survey looks at work-life balance policies

Only 24 per cent of organizations have a formal work-life balance policy in place, although one-half (52 per cent) indicated they have an informal policy, according to a recent survey by the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) of 332 of its members.

The elements most likely to be addressed in work-life balance policies include:

• discouraging work during vacation (included by 47 per cent of those with formal policies and 62 per cent of those with informal policies)

• discouraging or prohibiting work over a specified number of hours per week at or away from the office (included by 43 per cent of those with formal policies and 41 per cent of those with informal policies)

• discouraging employees from coming to work sick (included by 34 per cent of those with formal policies and 54 per cent of those with informal policies)

• offering flexible work arrangements (included by 10 per cent with formal policies and nine per cent of those with informal policies).

What’s interesting about the survey findings is they show organizations are more likely to tackle the tough issues — such as working on vacation or not coming into work sick — through informal policies than through formal ones. This suggests organizations prefer to exercise discretion as to when such policies are applied, so they aren’t formally codifying them.

Survey participants with informal policies also identified the management practices they were using to encourage employees to take time away from work to recharge, including:

•supervisors and managers encouraging a healthy work-life balance within their work unit (80 per cent)

• supervisors and managers encouraging employees to ask for help when necessary, such as when they need to work beyond specified work hours (67 per cent)

• supervisors and managers encouraging the use of paid time off or vacation and sick leave (seven per cent)

• supervisors and managers discouraging employees from answering emails or phone calls via wireless devices during non-working hours, such as weekends, evenings and holidays (26 per cent).

Not surprisingly, only one per cent of survey participants said their organization has days or times when email is not used, such as “email-free Fridays” or “no-email weekends.”

The survey findings suggest organizations are still grappling with how best — or even whether — to tackle the issue of work-life balance.

In fact, only a small number want to formally discourage employees from working while on vacation or coming to work sick.

The challenge for some organizations may be they fear promoting work-life balance could undermine the drive for performance and productivity, or perhaps even their ability to remain fully staffed. If every sick employee stayed home, who would serve customers? If employees didn’t respond to emails after hours, how would deadlines be met?

Unless organizations can begin to see how healthy employees create a healthy company, the notion of work-life balance may remain more an urban legend than a reality.

Claudine Kapel is principal of Kapel and Associates, a Toronto-based human resources and communications consulting firm specializing in the design and implementation of compensation and total rewards programs. For more information, visit


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