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Time to adjust the work-life balance (2008)

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Time to adjust the work-life balance

Author: Elizabeth Broderick

Publication: The Australian, Page 31 (Fri 11 Apr 2008)


Workplace demands should take account of the realities of employees' lives

WHY am I not surprised by the the findings in this week's report by Beaton Consulting on work-life balance?

That report provides more evidence of what many people around the country have been saying for years -- that trying to balance paid work and family responsibilities in knowledge businesses is hard. Incredibly hard.

The report is based on a survey of 12,000 white-collar workers across professional services, government departments and publicly listed companies.
Respondents were asked about their working and caring roles, and how they were managing to combine both. The report drew conclusions about the extent of work-life conflict and how this affected an individual's decision to stay in their role.

The report focused on caring over the whole life cycle -- not just for children, but for older relatives or other dependents who need care and support.
Knowledge workers spend long hours in the workplace. The reasons for this range from organisational cultures that reinforce the last-man-standing approach to the impact of globalisation, which has extended work hours to enable collaboration across time zones.

To compound this, new technology often creates greater work expectations rather then genuine flexibility. Those most affected by these long hours are working women in the ``sandwich generation'' -- those with childcare and elder care responsibilities.

The report confirms what we always suspected -- that knowledge workers who experience particular forms of work-life conflict, such as high work demands interfering with family, are almost three times more likely to be looking for another job than those who don't. We know that these men and women are having smaller families as a way of coping with competing demands on their time.

Of particular concern is the study's finding that part-time work is not the panacea we might have thought.

I am a long-time advocate of flexible work arrangements, having successfully used one to balance my own career and caring responsibilities over many years.

As I wind up a national listening tour I am repeatedly hearing about the failure of flexible work arrangements to deliver a better work-life balance. People talk to me about their six-day-a-week job being squashed into four days and knowing deep down that they are being set up to fail on both work and home fronts.

Has the time come to redefine what work means?

We must ask ourselves whether the model of work we adopt in our workplaces really suits the reality of our lives. The full-time male breadwinner/full-time female homemaker scenario is no longer the preferred model for most couple families -- let alone other family types.

Yet in many organisations this model is implicitly supported in the way jobs are designed and the systems that support work. It is the re-conceptualisation of work and innovation in job redesign that will mark out the high-performing companies from others in what is now a very competitive marketplace.

It is clear there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Control must be returned to individual professionals so their work-life balance needs can be met.

The focus must be on outcomes rather than inputs, on innovative use of technology -- so individuals can work from anywhere

at any time in a way that corresponds to their caring responsibilities.

We need to ensure the principles of workplace flexibility underpin all work arrangements. Work practices must be examined with the aim of sharing those that work and discarding those that don't. We need flexibility that cuts both ways -- for both the business and the individual.

It's about working from home, flexible start and finish times, allowing staff to take annual leave in single days to cover emergency care needs, introducing programs such as the purchase of additional leave, keep-in-touch plans for staff on maternity leave and workplace policies for breast-feeding employees.

I welcome the report that brings this study to life and encourage chief executives of knowledge businesses to focus on the findings and to drive improved responses to the ongoing challenge of work-life balance.

Our caring demands will grow as the population ages. Elder care is the next frontier in the work-life balance debate for both women and men. We will require better support for the increasing group of mature-aged Australians who will remain in the workforce while simultaneously caring for their ageing parents.

For business, it's not a question of if, but how, we will sustain and develop our knowledge-based industries and build on the realities of people's lives, rather than at their expense.

There is much to lose if we do not rise to this challenge, but plenty to gain if we do.