Work-life balance programs creating their own stressors

More companies are introducing work-life balance programs but a lack of support for front-line managers may explain the continued rise of employee stress levels.

“The relationship between employees and their managers is key to the success of work-life programs,” writes Kimberley Bachman in Work-Life Balance: Are Employers Listening?, a new report for the Conference Board of Canada.

Managers should be given the responsibility for ensuring the programs are implemented equitably and in the way they are intended, but they often need support to cope with the significant responsibility.

“There is a lot of pressure on the managers and the direct supervisors,” she said. “They are the gatekeepers and they can make or break programs.”

But the research shows few companies are helping managers prepare for the changes that introducing a work-life program can entail. Barely one-third (33.8 per cent) of respondents to the Conference Board survey provide managers with any education on work-life issues. Even fewer encourage managers to share experiences or knowledge (27.5 per cent) and fewer still recognize and reward managers for being supportive of work-life balance initiatives (22.9 per cent).

Just by bringing managers together to share their experiences with one another provides them with some comfort knowing they are not alone, said Bachman. Similarly, managers often discover innovative ways of handling different problems on their own that should be shared with other managers, she added. Once managers have been given the tools to implement work-life balance programs, they need to be recognized and rewarded for doing so.

To ensure work-life programs are successful, employers must also give managers more control over the implementation of work-life programs since they are in the best position to determine both the need and the effects that using a program may have.

“In dealing with issues such as work-life balance, front-line managers and supervisors must assume a leadership role…the fact is that the day-to-day difficulties felt by workers in trying to balance their multiple responsibilities are played out on the front lines,” she writes.

However, here too Bachman found few organizations are doing this, with just one-quarter of middle managers or supervisors having responsibility for human resources reallocation, with most of the control still residing at the senior level or above (see chart).

But even when the organization takes steps to help managers adapt to the new situation, it is not always enough.

Work-life balance often represents a major change and not everyone will fit in, said Bachman. “In a lot of cases employers help the manager, but they sometimes can’t adapt.” At some point, after the manager is provided with tools, information and training and they still can’t adapt, it may become necessary to sever ties — often a mutual agreement — or at least find the manager a position in which he won’t have the same responsibilities.

Most employers report they are relatively happy with the programs they’ve been introducing, said Bachman. But by almost every account, stress levels for employees continue to rise.

Employers are beginning to recognize the benefits of helping employees balance work and home in life terms of reduced absenteeism and stress levels and improved morale, she said. The latest numbers show 46 per cent of employers now offer extended parental leave compared with just 17 per cent in 1989.

But introducing a work-life balance program is just the first step. “Just having a couple of programs here and there around the periphery will not solve your problem,” she said.

Companies must adopt a complete work-life strategy with support from senior management to create an environment in which employees feel comfortable accessing the programs, but at the same time the new arrangement cannot become a burden for other employees.

Other research for the Conference Board of Canada has shown managers were most likely to say their work had been made more difficult or inconvenient by employees struggling to balance their work and home lives, said Bachman. “They get squeezed and they end up taking over the workload.”

It’s unreasonable to continuously pile on work. At some point it becomes necessary to staff-up, she said. The work being done, and the processes established to do it, must be thoroughly examined and reorganized. Figure out what work is necessary and get rid of anything that doesn’t add value, said Bachman. Here is where HR can make a contribution on its own by cutting back on all of the data and reports often imposed upon managers.

“HR departments create a lot of unnecessary work because they tend to ask for a lot of reports,” she said. “Just stop doing it and see what happens. In many cases things will be fine.”

Many employers remain concerned about costs or liability issues inherent in family-friendly initiatives such as opening a childcare centre for employees, for example. Fifteen per cent of survey respondents now offer on- or near-site childcare, up from just five per cent in 1989. Information and referral programs for childcare and eldercare remain the most common initiatives. Many other employers said they have not heard employees ask for programs and policies to help them balance home and work, but fewer than one-half of respondents who conduct employee surveys ask questions about work-life issues.

It can be difficult to address employee work-life balance concerns but there are ways to do it, said Bachman. A group of employers in the Ottawa area got together to form an emergency childcare consortium which provided babysitting services for employees at short notice. The service was made more cost-effective when shared among organizations.

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