Work-life balance claims are so much hot air

2011

The past few years have seen a growing number of employers voicing their support for better work-life balance and trumpeting their own programs and initiatives. But a new report claims that much of this is just so much hot air. Whatever employers might claim, their attitude in practice is often very different, with many managers still refusing to accept that physical presence and productivity are not one and the same thing.

Every year since 2003, WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP) has led an awareness campaign that promotes work-life effectiveness as a key contributor to productivity and success in the modern workplace.

This year, it has published a survey examining the attitudes of executives and managers in three major economies – the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, as well as those in a number of developing countries.

What it found is that while organisations may claim to support work-life initiatives, the yawning gap between the beliefs of managers and leaders and their behaviours means that those who actually try to adopt flexible working could be destroying their careers.

The contradiction in leadership attitudes uncovered by the survey was profound. For example, eight out of 10 respondents said that initiatives such as flexible work arrangements, dependent-care supports and wellness programs play an important or very important part in recruiting and retaining top talent, employee satisfaction and productivity.

Yet despite this, more than half of the surveyed managers think the ideal employee is one that is available to meet business needs regardless of business hours while four out of 10 believe the most productive employees are those without a lot of personal commitments. Almost one in three also think that employees who actually adopt flexible working arrangements will not advance very far in their organisation

The same leadership attitudes emerged in emerging countries (Brazil, China, India) - but they are even more pronounced.

"The good news is that 80% of employers around the globe avow support for family-friendly workplaces. The bad news is they are simultaneously penalizing those who actively strive to integrate work with their lives," said Kathie Lingle, executive director of WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress.

"We set out to study men and work-life integration, but instead uncovered workplace trends showing employees suffer a variety of job repercussions for participating in work-life programs, even when their leaders insist they support the business value.

"This conundrum can be so oppressive that some employees go underground, resorting to 'stealth maneuvers' for managing their personal responsibilities."

According to the survey, employees faced overt or subtle discouragement if they tried to use flexible work and other work-life programs, while some received unfavorable job assignments, negative performance reviews or were denied promotion.

AS far as managers are concerned, the most common reason for opposing such initiatives (expressed by half of leaders in emerging countries and more than a third in developed countries), was that employees wouldn't be accessible to meet an immediate work need. The second-most common concern was that "work will fall on others in the group," which was voiced by four out of 10 leaders in emerging countries and a third of those in developed countries.

"While the HR department designs and administers work-life programs, it's the managers who have to implement it," said Rose Stanley, work-life practice leader for WorldatWork.

"Our studies find that a culture of flexibility correlates with lower employee turnover. Specifically, those with training and experience managing employees on flexible work arrangements are much more supportive of work-life than those without that training and experience.

"Closing the gap between what managers believe and how they behave will make every workplace a better place to work."