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Insights

Making Work-Life Balance the Responsibility of Organizations

Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Every year, the month of May is recognized as “Mental Health Awareness” month, and various programs are held in communities to raise awareness of mental health issues and its importance. Why should business care?

Individuals spend on average one-third of their time at work each day, and according to a 2015 CNBC article, nearly half of U.S. workers reported that they worked more than 50 hours per week. With so much time devoted to work, it’s important to consider the role of organizational stress on our mental health, and what organizations can do to promote mental health and wellness.

Understanding Work Stress

There are two types of work-related stress. One is associated with job content and context of the employee. This can take the form of work overload, job insecurity, perceptions of unfairness, relationships at work and conflicts, lack of resources, role ambiguity, lack of recognition, lack of empowerment, and so forth. The other type of stress arises out of demands for work-life balance. Examples are long commutes to and from work; lack of time for family; lack of adequate personal time for exercise, relaxing, or even sleep; the need to bring work home or work on weekends and holidays; or frequent need to travel for work.

Stressors create tremendous internal conflicts in prioritizing family and personal demands over job demands. This can be even more overwhelming for single parent families, or families with small children, elderly, or other members who need care. This sort of stress can lead to further physical and psychological health issues. Fear of loss of pay, loss of job, loss of status or benefits, conflicts at home, and so on can take a toll on physical and mental health, as well as add to medical and other costs—ultimately affecting quality of life.

Striving for Balance

Achieving balance is touted as the panacea for alleviating stress. The idea is to balance one’s work demands with one’s life demands. But most of the time, it seems as if all the responsibility to achieve this balance lies only with the employee. Organizations must do a better job of making it easy for employees to achieve work-life balance.

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True, some organizations have policies and systems that aim to promote some level of work-life balance. Some organizations even have fun built into the culture, making the workplace more conducive to reducing stress. Meanwhile, others institute policies like allowing employees to work from home, paternity leave, or flexible hours. Even the recent bill introduced in New York to prevent after work emails is an attempt to promote work-life balance.

Measuring Efforts Creates Value

Although devising policies and enacting laws are steps in the right direction, it may not be enough. Organizations should aim to create a whole culture where balance is valued. One way that organizations can achieve this is to define work-life balance as part of their strategic goals, with specific metrics around it.

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Organizations generally have metrics around factors such as absenteeism, turnover, morale, and job satisfaction, which are critical for talent retention and management. Often, work-life balance is assessed in these same metrics or through organizational climate surveys like “Best Places to Work.” But few organizations actually survey work-life balance of employees separately. Having specific metrics not only outlines a goal for organizations, it also puts work-life balance in an attainable domain. Here’s very simple example: If a goal is written as, “In a given week, employees should not work more than five hours after work or weekends,” then any report of such work would become a deviation.

Granted, it may not be easy to articulate such goals or metrics. What’s more, in many cases, expectations are so ingrained in the culture of the organization that writing down precise goals may seem impossible.

One suggestion is to create and track metrics around some of the policies only after work-life balance is added as a formal strategic goal. Here are some potential metrics for balance:

  • scores on subjective responses to work-life balance items in surveys
  • number of employees using flexible work schedules, based on need
  • number of employees telecommuting
  • number of hours employees use technology for attending meetings or working remotely
  • number of hours spent per day or per week in overtime
  • number of hours of spent on work-related communication after workhours, and on weekends and holidays
  • number of hours employees spend on commuting to and from work
  • types of transport choices (public transit or car pools, for example) made available to employees, especially in cities with congestion
  • number of satellite offices with open work spaces so employees have a choice of work locations
  • any de-stressing time or space made available to employees for the use exercise, yoga, meditation, or general relaxation.

There are many other potential balance metrics you can devise around strategic goals. The point is that when work-life balance activities and actions are written as specific goals, organizational leaders will make sure to attain these targets. Doing so will not only help employees achieve better balance, but the organization will likely become a more desirable place of work and its metrics around job satisfaction, morale, stress, turnover, absenteeism are sure to improve.

About the Author

Swati Karve has 20 years of experience in instructional design and facilitation. She has conducted training programs for many for-profit and nonprofit organizations, for all levels of employees including senior management. She also has designed and facilitated train-the-trainer programs, and teaches the ATD Essentials course Managing Challenging Classroom Behaviors. Karve has contributed to various ATD publications, and writes blogs for the ATD Learning & Development Community of Practice. She is author of the August 2013 Infoline titled “Planning and Organizing Training Events.” Karve also has been teaching courses in psychology and management for past 20 years for undergraduate and graduate students in India and United States. She has her own consulting firm, Arcturus Global Consulting, and lives and works in Troy, Michigan.

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