Despite the attention given to the creation of work/life programs by many organisations in recent years, the majority of employees today are still failing to reap the benefits of a balanced professional and personal life. Many work/life programs currently lack true business grounding, are frequently at odds with corporate culture and are often viewed by employees as add-ons and concessions targeted primarily at women.
Why do work/life balance programs fail to deliver?
Leadership and corporate culture: A lack of managerial support often undermines work/life programs by discouraging employees' efforts to balance their lives. The challenge in moving the work/life balance issue from rhetoric to reality is one of leadership.
Renewed commitment and courage on the part of business leaders is required to consciously create organisational cultures which embody new values. These cultures are the key to keeping and motivating a productive, multi-skilled workforce.
Companies that truly entrench the initiatives into their culture typically integrate family support into the business itself. At Hewlett Packard, for example, every business unit's annual review must identify work/life issues and develop action plans.
One outcome of this initiative was financial managers developed activity rescheduling and 'work from home' IT support to overcome peak period bottlenecks.
Perceived career disadvantages: Many organisations today offer programs like part-time work, flexitime and telecommuting, but often the corporate culture identifies those who utilise such programs as less committed to their job.
If there is a general perception among staff that working long hours is essential for career advancement, and that visibility equals productivity, this can undermine attempts to promote work/life balance.
'One size' fits all: Historically, work/life programs have revolved around flexible working conditions for women, with part-time work, maternity leave, job sharing and shorter working days increasingly common.
The uptake of alternative work options by men has tended to be extremely low. This is due in part to organisational pressure and the traditional expectation in both the business world and wider community that men are the main breadwinners of the family unit.
For business with substantial numbers of administrative, maintenance or customer-facing employees, offering flexible working conditions can be problematic. Where the hours of work are customer-driven, organisations face limitations on flexibility for employees, but this is when family-friendly programs such as childcare would be of most benefit.
Sydney's Star City Casino's 24-hour childcare centre is one notable positive example. The facility is directly credited with contributing to the lowest staff turnover rate of any casino in Australia.
Return on investment
A critical element in implementing a work/life strategy is to objectively highlight the impact of a people-friendly work environment on profits. However, measuring the return on investment in work/life programs can be difficult. There are two areas where work/life programs can positively impact the bottom line.
Recruitment and retention: Staff turnover is a major issue for many businesses due to the costs of hiring and training new personnel, as well as the resulting loss of intellectual capital and customer defections.
However the provision of flexible work options can result in a substantial reduction in staff turnover. In 1999, when Westpac introduced six weeks maternity leave for the first time, resignations while on leave dropped from 40.6 per cent to 17.9 per cent.
Productivity and commitment: Providing work/life programs may also benefit profitability indirectly by increasing worker productivity.
High levels of job satisfaction often result in less absenteeism and greater levels of commitment. A US survey has demonstrated the strong relationship between employee commitment and return to shareholders, finding that companies with highly committed employees achieved a 112 per cent return to shareholders over three years, compared with a 76 per cent return for companies with low employee commitment.