• March 2010

Is There Really Such A Thing As Work-Life Balance?

By Barbara Mitchell
HR expert and co-author
The Essential HR Handbook

Janet Luhrs, a Seattle-based attorney, left her highly paid job to have more work-life balance. Of course, she didn’t sit home waiting for life to calm down. The author of The Simple Life Guide started Simple Living magazine in 1992, and began winning attention for her ideas on “voluntary simplicity.”

She and others struck a chord with many Americans who longed to spend less time on the job and more time with family and friends. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many stories in the press noted that executives were walking away from careers they had spent a lifetime building.

Few people can actually take that step. So they look to employers for the flexibility to keep their jobs, but still have time for activities outside the office. Responding to employees’ need for alternative work schedules enhances the organization’s ability to compete in the 21st century.

Employers are jumping on the bandwagon

Employers, too, are looking for greater flexibility — to compete in the global economy. That has created a trend toward alternative staffing arrangements, including hiring independent contractors rather than full-time employees, or maintaining an “on-call” workforce for peak periods. These types of arrangements help employers avoid a cycle of hires and layoffs as they respond to market forces.

Employees are already beginning to see themselves as “free agents” whose skills matter more than where they work. Many now present themselves as being available for work on a project-by-project basis, and many organizations bring laid-off employees back as independent contractors. This decreases organizations’ fixed-salary and benefit costs, but the work still gets done.

To implement alternative staffing, employers must first determine which functions are “core” to the business — for example, those that bring in revenue — and work hard to retain employees who perform them. Then, they should design a structure that accommodates the use of independent contractors, part-timers, or seasonal workers for other positions.

Flextime and other options for employees

Another approach employers can use is to institute flextime. Core business hours, when all employees must be present, are established, and then employees work with their managers to determine their own work hours. This offers employees flexibility for such needs as child care and medical appointments so they can avoid regularly requesting time off, being late or leaving early. At the same time, managers know when to expect them on the job.

Day care and doctor visits aren’t the only reasons employees want flexibility. Workers may want to ease into retirement; care for elderly parents; or pursue personal passions such as training for an athletic event or volunteering for a favorite charity. Today’s fathers often want the same work-life balance and scheduling options as working mothers, yet may fear being stigmatized if they use flex benefits.

The generation currently entering the workforce is more likely than older ones to request and expect alternative work arrangements, whether it is telecommuting from home one day a week or working a compressed week. This new generation of workers calls for a new view of how work is measured, especially when “face time” is no longer an adequate way to judge whether an employee is doing a good job.

Another alternative for healthier, happier workers: Wellness programs

“Across the country,” says Cheryl Mirabella, an HR trainer and the founder of Living Whole Health, “companies are beginning to take notice of the startling connections between employee wellness and fiscal responsibility, and look for better answers. Employee wellness programs not only boost morale, but also make significant, measurable differences in health-care spending. Studies have shown that employee wellness programs help companies reduce their health-care costs an average of $3.72 for each dollar invested.”

Statistics continue to show that smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 30 percent of adults smoke cigarettes, and approximately 438,000 deaths a year are associated with smoking. The second leading cause is obesity, which increases the risk of developing at least 30 serious medical conditions and is associated with increases in deaths from all causes, according to the American Obesity Association.

Managers should consider supporting a wellness program in their organizations that encourages employees to adopt a healthier lifestyle. That should not only improve the employees’ health but also boost the bottom line.

Tips for a successful wellness program

  • Involve employees’ family members in your wellness program.
  • Sponsor health screenings at the workplace.
  • Provide incentives for employees to stop smoking.
  • Encourage participation in the program with incentives.
  • Consider weight-loss programs such as Weight Watchers at Work.
  • If there is no health club at the office, subsidize membership at a local club through payroll deduction.
  • Reduce stress by offering chair massages at a discount one day a week.


About Barbara Mitchell

Barbara is a human resources and organization development consultant who is widely known as an expert in the areas of recruitment and retention. She has experience in both for-profit and not-for-profit sectors and has consulted to a variety of organizations around the world.

She served in senior human resources leadership positions with Marriott International and several technology firms in the Washington, D.C., area before co-founding the Millennium Group International, which she sold in 2008.

Barbara is a graduate of North Park University in Chicago, with a degree in history and political science. Contact Barbara by email.

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