HR can help to solve the work-life crisis

By Barbara Moses
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/07/2003

Five years ago I had a year from hell.

My mother, who was living by herself in Montreal, was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I spent that year alternating between endless hours on the telephone on hold, trying to decipher instructions of beleaguered doctors who never had more than a nanosecond to answer my questions, and jumping on an airplane at a moment’s notice to do crisis intervention.

I was fortunate — I had a work-at-home spouse, extremely capable subcontractors to whom I could subcontract work with a day’s notice, sensitive clients, and most importantly, I was self-employed. I could not have survived that year if I had had a nine-to-five — or should I say, a 24/7 — job.

There has been more ink devoted to the issue of creating systems and programs that support work-life balance than perhaps any other HR initiative. It seems that almost every month there is yet another conference devoted to HR professionals promoting, describing, auditing, or boasting about their work-life programs. And still it remains an issue that won’t go away.

I don’t believe the problem is one of a lack of knowledge. Ask most HR professionals about their work-life balance interventions and they can recite a litany of strategies — telecommuting, flextime, job sharing, sabbaticals and so on. And yet still full-timers in their organizations are doing the job of two people, part-timers and telecommuters are not seen as serious players, and everyone feels like they’re holding on by their fingernails.

Work-life balance issues are hardly new. But today we live in an unforgiving business world in which work has become a high performance sport. There is no slack, no one to pitch in for an absent or distressed colleague and pick up work that would otherwise go undone. Combine this with greatly increased female participation in the workforce, today’s complicated family configurations with many single parents, and the problems are further exacerbated.

Savvy HR professionals recognize that offering strong work-life balance policies and programs can help them become the employer of choice in a talent-starved marketplace. But they are also walking a tightrope between responding to the individual human needs of staff, and senior managers who feel that responding to such needs will undermine productivity. What, they ask, is the business case?

The reality is, an organization can never be productive if its human contributors are not healthy and able to meet the responsibilities associated with all the roles in their lives — as individual contributor, parent, child, manager and friend.

Meeting diverse needs

If I were to ask you what kind of pressures you need to respond to in the design of your work-life program you would probably point to the different demographic groups within your workforce, including:

•forty-somethings dealing with aging parents as well as children;

•thirty-somethings, some of whom are single parents, juggling work with responsibilities for young children; and

•twenty-somethings who think it’s entirely reasonable to take a day off — whether to run in a marathon, or whatever else is compelling — after pulling a week of all-nighters.

Within these broad categories, people can vary widely in personal preferences and life situations. Some people, for example, prefer to telecommute because they have young children at home, their work doesn’t require extensive personal contact, and they like working by themselves. Others prefer the collegiality and structure of an office environment.

In short, we have described the over-committed life of the new worker — beset by challenges, an often complicated personal life, complex family configurations and varying personal needs as a function of their life stage and personal situation. They may differ in many ways, but they understand the value of their skills, see themselves in an egalitarian relationship with their employers, believe work-life balance is a right and not a privilege, and will vote with their feet if their needs for flexibility and personal choice are not met.

Meeting the challenge of work-life balance is the most critical issue facing this country today. When I ask people in speeches and workshops if they feel that their most important human commitments are suffering significantly as a result of their work the answer, sadly, is a resounding “yes.”

Employees at all levels and life stages want the opportunity to look after themselves economically, be challenged at work, and at the same time honour commitments to children, parents and significant others. Finding an employer who recognizes their over-committed and complicated lives is a critical determinant for job satisfaction.

Metaphorically speaking, if we ask people to work at 125 per cent all of the time, initially they may rise to the challenge, but in the long-term we will have a serious crisis. This crisis will express itself not only in terms of how effective we are as contributors and managers, but also how effective we are as parents and citizens. Tired, grumpy individuals do not make up mentally healthy organizations. Nor do they make up a mentally healthy society.

Indeed, I believe we are reaping productivity gains on the backs of our children. Parents come home tired, grumpy and stressed. This is not a formula for effective parenting. My research shows that approximately 75 per cent of parents feel that they are short-changing their children as a result of their work load. Everyone recognizes the problem, yet people seem paralyzed to take the necessary action.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing questions I am asked by young people is, “is it possible to have meaningful work and still have a life?” or, even more pointed, “is it possible to be a good parent today and still have a career?”

What can HR professionals do?

In thinking about work-life programs, HR professionals should go back to the fact that their workers are human beings. People should not have to make decisions between looking after children or working or looking after aging parents.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, the number of “sandwiched” employees — dealing with both children and eldercare — has reached 15 per cent and will continue to increase. People will leave their jobs due to an inability to cope with the time squeeze.

Human resource professionals help create “life-friendly” organizations. I use the word “life-friendly” advisedly — not everyone has children but everyone has or wants to have a life. Life-friendly organizations are attuned to human rhythms, significant life events both happy and sad, life stages, and the issues that people grapple with on a day-to-day basis. They use strategies including flextime, telecommuting and job sharing to help staff achieve some kind of compromise between keeping their personal show on the road and meeting work demands.

What kind of work world do we want to create? What kind of work environment would you be proud for your children to be working in?

Human resource professionals are fortunate that they have an opportunity to play a key role in shaping the future. Model the behaviours you want to promote in your own day-to-day work behaviours. Advance new ways of thinking. Support an ongoing dialogue between all the stakeholders in the organization.

As a human resources professional, take a minute. If you’re not happy with what you see going on around you, do something about it. You owe it to yourself, the people around you in your organization, and most importantly, the next generation.

Barbara Moses, president of BBM Human Resource Consultants Inc., is the best-selling author of

The Good News About Careers

and

The Career Planning Workbook

. She is also a speaker and organizational career management consultant and can be reached at bbm@bbmcareerdev.com.

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