Canadian Consulting Engineer

Balance

Over the past decade, the problem of employees becoming stressed and burned out from coping with increasing work responsibilities and family demands has been well documented and publicized. Many firms...

December 1, 2002  By Shelley Boyes

Over the past decade, the problem of employees becoming stressed and burned out from coping with increasing work responsibilities and family demands has been well documented and publicized. Many firms even believe they’ve taken steps and dealt with the issue. They have implemented flexible work policies and provided employee assistance programs that give workers access to professional advice, references and assistance with childcare, seniors’ care and other personal challenges.

Recent studies indicate, however, that a work-obsessed culture can belie the avowed concern for employee welfare, even at some of the same companies that have flex-time and employee assistance programs. If senior managers and professionals are working 60 hours a week, are taking work home, and are not taking time off for family emergencies or other situations — and they are getting promoted for it — the people who work for them get the message. This is what it takes to get ahead at this organization.

Linda Duxbury, a professor at the Carleton University School of Business and one of Canada’s top authorities on work-life balance, suggested in a recent paper published by Canadian Policy Research Networks, “Work-Life Balance in the New Millennium,” that many employers are not yet “walking the talk” when it comes to family-friendly policies. Duxbury and her co-author, Chris Higgins, a business professor at the University of Western Ontario, compared the results of two surveys, conducted in 1991 and 2001, and concluded that the work-life interference problem has grown.

Downsizing and other reorganizations have often meant more work for fewer employees. Technology, such as cheaper laptops, the Internet and cell phones have made it harder for employees to leave work at work. At the same time, many Canadians have joined the ranks of the “sandwich generation” — squeezed between caring for growing children on one hand and aging parents on the other. Another study, conducted by the Conference Board of Canada in 1999, found that twice as many working Canadians (46.2%) reported mid to high levels of stress from trying to balance jobs and family than in the decade earlier (26.7% in 1989).

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“On the whole, jobs have become more stressful and less satisfying, and employees are less committed to their employer and more likely to be absent from work due to ill health,” Duxbury and Higgins point out in their report. And they say things aren’t likely to change until employers stop thinking of flexible work schedules and employee assistance programs as “nice things to do” and realize there is a solid business case behind them.

Making the business case

The major tenets of the business case for a company to have employee assistance programs are the need to retain good staff, and the need to attract staff by building a reputation as a great company to work for.

As director of Worklife Solutions for FGI of Toronto, Barbara Jaworski says there are more immediate cost-benefits. Studies have shown that employers can save an average of 17 hours of staff time for every hour that employees use an employee assistance program.* Providers like FGI normally charge a set cost per employee to supply counseling on anything from childcare issues to substance abuse problems to legal concerns. The math is pretty simple: when employees can find solutions to personal problems with the help of knowledgeable counsellors, their attention is back on the job and productivity improves.

Jaworski points out that as work and demographics have changed, so have the kinds of problems employees seek help with. For example, fewer employed baby-boomer parents are struggling with childcare for pre-schoolers than a decade ago. Now, they’re coping with teenagers and related issues like drugs and alcohol, sex, and problems at school.

And today many more male employees, especially those who are single parents or who have taken more child-care responsibilities, need help. “One quarter to one third of our calls now come from men,” notes Jaworski. However, more women still bear the brunt of family responsibilities and this is reflected in the fact that females are the majority of employees accessing these kinds of services.

If work-life stress has become an issue in your firm, despite the fact that you have implemented policies and programs to help, it’s very likely the problem is unsupportive managers, who are discouraging employees from taking advantage of those programs, Jaworski explains. Identifying those unsupportive managers is often just a matter of looking at departments with the highest turnover and absenteeism rates, especially among female employees. They’re being driven away.

Shelley Boyes is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

* The Conference Board, in a 2000 report, Work-life Balance: Measuring What Matters, cites two studies. One, by Johnson & Johnson, found that employee absenteeism decreased by nearly 10% in the two-year period following the implementation of an employee program. A second study by Hewlett Packard found that the productivity of employees with flexible work schedules was nearly double that of those without them.

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