Work/Life Balance: Hit or Myth?

Thursday, June 1, 2006 - 15:53

Recent studies show that a balance between work and life is not a big concern for passionate employees. Managers should start thinking of other ways to attract and retain good staff, writes Deborah Tarrant

When Campbell Sallabank recruits people to work on new careers website, he looks for drive, ambition and passion.

"The great opportunity with a start-up is to create the culture you want from scratch," he says.

He needs people who can help him, as CEO, make it all happen - men and women, full-time, part-time. Sallabank currently has 16 staff, and plans to have 25 in the near future.

Sallabank, a father of three and former corporate high-flyer in the telecommunications sector who still puts in a solid 50-55 hours a week, stresses flexibility as a motivating factor when discussing the culture he's building. Work/life balance not so much.

Perhaps innately Sallabank has recognised that emphasising work/life balance is not a lure for passionate prospective employees and, for a business that's striving to make its mark with a new model in a highly competitive marketplace, in reality it may be a big ask.

Yet work/life balance has been mooted as the Holy Grail for organisations wanting to attract and retain talented individuals in the tight labour market. It will win over the "work to live" generation Ys, lure back or hold wise mature-age workers, make your employer brand more alluring to parents, and provide the antidote to burnout, we're told.

Recent skill shortages and labour shortfalls have increasingly seen organisations grappling for solutions; and suggesting that your workplace will enable people to readily factor in pursuits other than work has been recommended as one of the key winning strategies to attract and retain good employees.

When recruitment company Hamilton James Bruce released a national study of 1000 CEOs/managing directors and 1000 mid-to-senior managers across Australia, it listed work/life balance as a key people strategy, up there with improving morale, manager/staff retention initiatives and better communication from the CEO and other senior management.

The Case For Work/Life Balance: Closing the Gap Between Policy and Practice white paper commissioned last year by global recruitment and HR consulting firm Hudson, found it was imperative for organisations to embrace work/life balance to attract and retain talent, in particular working parents and mature-age workers.

"Organisations not providing it were opening themselves to increasing numbers of dissatisfied employees, and hence, increased attrition rates," it claimed.

However, evidence is also emerging that work/life balance does not deliver talent. While it is a sound offering, and ensuring the wellbeing of employees is most definitely the right and socially responsible thing to do, it's no guarantee they'll keep coming back for more.

A survey of more than 10,000 employees, from 700 predominantly Australian organisations, by Peter Langford and Louise Parkes of Macquarie University's The Voice Project, has debunked the theory that work/life balance is directly related to employee commitment and retention.

The Voice Project measured 28 management practices to identify which of these best predicted staff engagement and organisational performance, and found that work/life balance was least important in engaging employees.

Respondents rated the satisfaction of working relationships and teamwork well ahead of flexible work options, with 74 per cent of those surveyed claiming they already enjoyed a good balance between their work and other aspects of their lives.

The research stands apart from other similar surveys as it surveyed comparatively - across a spectrum of management practices - to see which practices mattered more.

Even Parkes admits surprise at the results, but not completely. "Engagement is about how much somebody loves their job - their passion for work - and not about work/life balance, which is how convenient your job is," she points out.

The message is clear, according to Parkes. Organisations that want to engage and retain employees (those with high turnover rates or seeking talent in a tight market) will find a better return on investment by looking to practices other than work/life balance to win them over.

What matters for engaging employees are the three Ps:

  • Purpose - A strong belief among staff in the overall purpose, values and work done by the organisation. Mission and values are often talked about, but these must be authentic, says Parkes. Ethics are also important, as well as a clear direction, and being transparent about where the organisation is heading.
  • Participation - Employees feeling that they receive fair rewards and recognition, and these are not always financial. Building a sense of belonging and involving people in decision making.
  • Progress - Achieving goals is highly motivating, insist the researchers. Organisations need to manage change well, provide effective learning, continuous improvement and be innovative.

That's not to say we're done with the valuable concept of work/life balance. Parkes - herself a part-time worker - argues it has outstanding relevance in the case for corporate social responsibility. The new research is thought provoking, although it was cross-sectional - that is, taken at one point in time - and did not study the respondents over a longer period of time.

So do we need to adjust our focus?

According to Parkes, the solution lies in work/life alignment; the ability to work flexibly in a purposeful, fulfilling role with future prospects and quality relationships. Not so much a balancing act as an "either/or" - even the term work/life balance suggests competing influences. Indeed, one manager in a not-for-profit organisation confessed to Parkes that at the beginning of the day he found it hard to leave his family, and at the end of the day, when he had to leave the job he loved, he had the same difficulty in leaving work behind.

"What we're looking for is a congruence between the two," Parkes says.

The Hudson white paper also examined the question of balance, which is subjective and can be measured both in time and levels of satisfaction. A perception of balance often outweighed the real thing, it said.

In the process, it explored the reasons employees fail to embrace work/life balance initiatives. Two key ones were the concern that taking time out, in any form, might impede career progress (typically part-time workers are paid less and overlooked for promotion); and there's an ingrained notion that committed people work long hours.

In concluding the case for work/life balance, the paper urged employers to recognise that work needs to be meaningful. Smart organisations already understand this.

As IAG CEO Michael Hawker quipped in a recent talk on the insurance giant's multiple sustainability initiatives, designed both to serve the business case and keep employees engaged: "I've never heard a passionate employee complain about work/life balance".

In recent times Sensis, the advertising and information business, has received various awards for its employer brand and people excellence, capped by the 2005 Australian Human Resources Award for best attraction and retention strategy. It wasn't always that way. Back in the days when it was Pacific Access, the company scored a spectacular 45 per cent employee turnover, a figure that has come down to a single digit.

According to Leonie McCarthy, Manager of Recognition and Engagement for Sensis, the company considers work/life balance to be just part of its people commitment strategy. It's one of seven engagement factors including recognition through an awards system (that culminates in an annual Oscar-like presentation of the Pinnacle Awards), community involvement (volunteer days and matching staff donations to charity), career development support and opportunities, leadership, reputation and innovation.

"This is a busy workplace and there are times when people are working long hours on specific projects," says McCarthy. "As an organisation, we'd be concerned if that was sustained. We try to give people as much flexibility as we can, but it's also about output. We're not time-watchers," she says.

McCarthy hits the heart of the issue simply: "Work/life balance is a very individual arrangement. You can get into the habit of thinking you have to work extra hours if you're committed... On the other hand, not everyone wants more time to themselves."

Some do, some don't. Where you get your fulfilment, purpose and meaning varies. Indicative that some of Sensis and its subsidiaries' 3500 employees value more time to themselves is the 10 per cent uptake in the first year of its purchased leave scheme.

It's a matter of providing options, McCarthy insists.

Part-time senior roles are not commonplace at Sensis, although a job-sharing program is on the radar for 2006. The company is also in the process of surveying its mature age workers to learn how to accommodate their needs.

Vilma Faoro - who was a senior manager in the oil sector until 2003 when she repatriated to Australia and found herself on the parenthood path - says, "I wasn't able to continue my career progression in a part-time capacity".

Feeling frustrated, she did something about it. Recognising Australia lagged well behind Europe in approaches to flexible work solutions, she established a consultancy, which has since joined forces with Hudson, to educate and help organisations implement job-sharing.

Faoro claims it's the only flexible solution that allows an individual to continue on their career path "without de-skilling [effectively being demoted] because it still fills a full-time role". It works for organisations allowing them to retain knowledge in the business, and in senior roles it plays to the old adage that two heads are better than one.

In short, it delivers work-life alignment.

"Typically, job-sharing has been associated with working mothers who are administration assistants, and it was up to the people who wanted to job-share to sell the idea to their managers," says Faoro. She adds that different roles need to be shared in different ways.

There's often a stigma associated with anyone doing part-time work, Faoro claims, and she believes it emanates from middle management putting undue emphasis on "face time". Senior executives believe they have flexible work solutions policies in place, but the reality - in practice - may be very different, she cautions.

According to research conducted last year by the Australian Institute of Management Western Australia, most respondents perceive achieving balance between their work and home life as important.

Almost 1000 Personal Members of AIM WA took part in the survey via email.

Four out of five respondents (79 per cent) believe their lives are more balanced towards work rather than to their personal life. Only 12 per cent of the sample regard their lives as completely in balance, with fewer again (8 per cent) believing their lives are weighted towards the personal side.

More than half (52 per cent) of the respondents indicated that they work in organisations that encourage work/life balance, although another way of looking at the results is that only one in five (19 per cent) work for organisations that strongly encourage this balance.

At the time of interview, Campbell Sallabank was on the brink of defying convention with a part-time senior appointment at because he believes time spent at work is not the real issue. He's learned from experience. "If people feel valued, are treated with maturity and feel the employer cares, they'll always put in more than required."
AIM WA Work and Personal Life survey

The Work and Personal Life survey by the Australian Institute of Management Western Australia explored the issues of the balance between work and personal life.

The findings of the survey reinforced the perceived importance of balance in one's life between both work and personal aspects to enable greater success to be achieved in every area of life.

The survey - completed by 958 Personal Members of AIM WA via email in September 2005 - found that with an ageing population and changes in perceived company commitment and loyalty, work and personal life balance is a real issue for employers and employees alike.

The survey found that five out of six respondents work 40 or more hours, with only 16 per cent currently working less than this amount in a typical week. Almost one-third of respondents (30 per cent) work 50 or more hours.

Almost one-half of the sample (47 per cent) expect their average weekly working hours to increase. While only a minority (10 per cent) expected their working hours to decrease in the foreseeable future.

When asked to expand further on why it is important to have a balanced work and personal life, the sample presented an interesting array of viewpoints. A good number of respondents openly articulated a knowledge that they needed and wanted to become a lot better at managing balance in their lives, with some voicing outright fear about the medium-to long-term impact on themselves and their families if they did not curtail the present imbalance.