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Connecting Work/Life Balance to Turnover

Employees who do not feel their companies uphold workers' efforts to juggle work and home obligations may be more likely to jump ship, new research finds. That means managers need to get better at recognizing the signs of burnout, experts say.

Thursday, May 9, 2013
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More than one in four employees at organizations not perceived to support work/life balance plan to leave their employers within the next two years, compared to 17 percent of employees who feel supported, according to a study by the Philadelphia-based global management consulting firm Hay Group.

"Organizations across the globe continue to ask their employees to do more with less, leading to increasing dissatisfaction with work/life balance," says Mark Royal, senior principal at Hay Group Insight. 

The most recent figures in the firm's annually updated database compared employee responses from the top- and bottom-performing companies ranked by effectiveness in helping employees manage work/life issues. The database is comprised of responses from more than five million employees and 400 organizations worldwide.

In addition to affecting turnover, the research showed that employees' perceptions on the matter can affect how they feel about their compensation. Among employees in the bottom quartile, 36 percent said they would agree with the statement, "I believe I am paid fairly for what I do," compared with 58 percent at the work/life balance-leading organizations.

The idea, Royal says, is about equity, so an employee working to the point of routinely missing important social or family events, is likely to wonder: "Does my compensation match what I'm giving up and putting in?"

Employers promoting work/life balance should focus less on offering traditional solutions, such as telecommuting or flexible schedules, and more on ensuring that employees are able to work productively, Royal says.

"You want to help create sustainable working patterns for employees," he says. "On a broader front, many leaders are heavily focused on employee engagement, for good reasons … As a consequence of that, there has been a tendency to define performance in motivational terms. I'd offer this perspective: Employee engagement through motivation is important, but not sufficient. You also have to enable employees to get things done.

"You have to create the 'want-to' but also add the 'can-do,' " he says.

Effective organizations, Royal says, manage a broad set of dynamics in their approach.

"For example, they do a better job of providing clear directions on organizational priorities. So, if an employees' to-do lists are longer than their workday, that helps employees understand where they need to prioritize. They also rated higher for creating higher levels of teamwork and managing collective relationships. It's all part and parcel of insuring that people have access to what they need to get their job done. They also approached training as a process, rather than an event.

"The work isn't going away," he says. "The real recipe for success is allowing people to be as efficient while at work as possible."

Research from HR services provider Spherion, based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., makes an explicit  connection between formal work/life balance programs and employee retention: More than half (52 percent) of employees at companies that employ such programs are likely to stay with the company for five or more years, according to the firm's 2012 Emerging Workforce study. The majority (60 percent) of 225 human resource managers surveyed in the study also reported their programs had positive impacts on retention.

Slightly more than half of the 2,035 workers surveyed indicated they primarily are seeking flextime to meet family and personal obligations, and 47 percent said the option to telecommute was most important.

Though questions have surfaced about the potential drawbacks for employers on telecommuting in light of Yahoo and Best Buy discontinuing remote-work arrangements, telecommuting -- when implemented carefully -- can benefit both sides, says Sandy Mazur, division president of license and franchise at Spherion.

"There should be no reason for concern among HR and company executives that employees working outside the office are any less productive than those who work in the office," she says. "In fact, there is abundant research supporting the contrary. For example, in a recent study by the Computing Technology Industry Association, companies who offer employees telecommuting options find greater employee productivity, lower operating costs, improved employee health and higher retention rates.

The Spherion study also showed that 95 percent of traditional employees are "happiest" when an employer helps them meet family obligations.

"A regular 9-5 schedule just doesn’t cut it for everyone," Mazur says. "A little bit of flexibility can go a long way in recruiting, engaging and retaining productive yet happy and balanced employees."

Carol Sladek, work/life consulting lead at the HR consulting firm Aon Hewitt, says workplace flexibility and paid time off continue to garner the most interest among work/life initiatives at the companies she advises.

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"These programs tend to reach a broad range of employee needs, while driving employer business results," she says.

The most effective programs are those that blend a collection of policies to meet diverse needs of a modern workplace, and those are well worth the investment, Sladek says.

"Work/life programs are often perceived as 'soft' by senior leaders, and as a result, HR needs to prove the business case for encouraging work/life balance and offering programs to employees," she says.

Though measures to promote work/life sustainability, such as child-care assistance for moms, have been evolving over the past 20 years, best practices have remained somewhat elusive, says Beth Livingston, an assistant professor at Cornell University's Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.

"One of the major issues that companies need to address if they really want to improve employee work/life balance is the implicit 'ideal worker' stereotype where managers utilize FaceTime and other proxies to evaluate whether an employee is adequately committed or loyal to a job," she says. "Providing structured performance management paradigms and manager training can help create a family-supportive work climate, which can allow companies to get the most out of the policies they already offer."

Direct supervisors should be adequately trained to implement, tailor and model existing programs to individual employees, she says.

"[W]ork/life balance is not consistent for all employees," she says. "We all have different thresholds of balance. Because of this, I think that the quest for balance is almost a misnomer. It sounds good to say we're going to 'promote balance,' but that is easier said than done. It's probably more apt to say we are seeking to promote greater flexibility or promoting work/life integration." 

Supervisors also need to learn how to spot burnout, Royal says.

"There is clear evidence that work/life imbalance can lead to burnout and thoughts of departure," he says.

"While you may think sings of burnout will be apparent -- red eyes, complaining, for example -- there is a challenge for managers as they think about their most engaged employees," Royal says. "Because they are highly motivated, they are not the types who like to be seen as causing problems. Engaged employees will often suffer in silence, and feelings of inequity can fall below the surface."

To counteract this, he advises managers to "ask the question in performance-related conversations, 'Are there things we can be doing to better support work/life balance?' "

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