Is the Work-Life Conversation Going Anywhere?

Today, the workplace goes wherever we go and parents, men and women are trying to juggle all our responsibilities. It can be challenging for men and women. Have employers come to see work life concerns as more than just "mommy" issues?
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Sit on the sidelines of a child's soccer or baseball game and you will see parents, men and women, handling work issues from their cell phone or iPads while cheering from the bleachers. Today, the workplace goes wherever we go and parents, men and women are trying to juggle all our responsibilities. It can be challenging for men and women.

Have employers come to see work life concerns as more than just "mommy" issues?

October is National Work and Family Month. It's a great time to step back and look at where the conversation has come from and where it is going. What kind of support are you getting from your employer to help you do your job well? Are the right people at companies involved in the work life conversation?

In a blog post this week, Donna Klein talks about how the struggling to balance work, family, care giving and, in many cases, pursuing education is made all the more challenging against the backdrop of anemic economic growth, rising tuition and health care costs, and high unemployment.

She writes, "Work-life conflict is no longer an issue confined solely to working mothers, but how a diverse group of working mothers and fathers, caregivers, nursing mothers and students balance the dual demands of work and life."

True, but do businesses understand that evolution? Do they care about job satisfaction, increasing recruitment and engagement, and building a strong future talent pipeline? Over nearly a decade of writing about work life issues, I've spent hundreds - no thousands - of hours searching for an answer to this question. Sometimes, I think the country has taken a giant step forward. Sometimes, I think we're stuck or worse, taken a step backward.

Here are the positive changes I've seen:

1. Organizations like the WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress, Families & Work Institute and Corporate Voices for Working Families have risen to the forefront to push policies, highlight corporate initiatives and recognize best practices. At the same time, some companies are eager to tout their best practices to recruit and retain working mothers and fathers.

2. More business leaders are part of dual-income families and want that flexibility that their staff desires. This has forced some to understand and embrace proposals and requests to shift work hours, work from home on occasion and More of these proposals and requests are coming from men, particularly those near retirement age.

3. Men are taking to blogs. I see more men writing about their juggling act and commenting on blogs that cover work life topics. As men take more responsibility for child care and house work, they are sharing their experiences, if not at work then at least on the Internet.

4. The work life conversation isn't going away. I see the conversation going on in big companies, small companies, at the White House, at national conferences, even at monthly meetings of business groups. There definitely is increased awareness that issues such as elder care, paid maternity leave and quality after school care are concerns for a growing population of American workers.

5. Paid sick leave has gained national attention. While we don't have a national policy -- yet -- there's momentum. I'm hoping that one day soon people won't have to feel compelled to go to work sick or bring a sick child to work with them.

Here are the areas where we are stuck or have room for improvement:

1. Employer programs that support work-life balance exist but are underutilized because workers fear that will cost them their jobs. The results of global survey by WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress disappointed me: "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," said Kathie Lingle, executive director of WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress. "This conundrum can be so oppressive that some employees go underground, resorting to 'stealth maneuvers' for managing their personal responsibilities."

2. Businesses still don't understand that you can't pile more and more work on a person, expect them to be on call at all hours, and not eventually burnout or disengage. I've asked companies what they plan to do about overworked or disengaged staff. Few have solid plans going into the new year.

3. With the ubiquitous smartphone, the work day has begun to encroach on family time. Men and women are struggling to set boundaries. But few are having the conversations about this encroachment with their managers or supervisors. More of us need to find the courage to stand up and push back.

4. Too many business owners believe the conversation about the bottom line is in conflict with talk about work life issues. Companies need more education that the two go hand in hand.

Here's where I'd like to see the work life conversation go as we head into a new year:

1. Businesses should survey employees to find out which work life issues they face and which services they'd like to see offered. Men and women should be encouraged to participate.

2. Experts should drive the point that a culture of flexibility correlates with lower employee turnover. The cost of training a new employee surely is higher than allowing a good worker to come in an hour later and stay an hour later. The conversation must change to re-frame flexibility from a perk to a strategic initiative that makes good business sense.

3. Employees need to speak up about why they leave. If work life conflict becomes so impossible that it forces a worker to resign, he or she needs to make that known along with what the company loses (talent, knowledge, etc.) by his or her departure. If it helps even one manager to "get it" it can make a difference going forward.

The National Work and Family Month blogfest includes some fascinating posts on work life issues. The blogfest is running on Huffington Post primarily, but several posts have been repurposed for BlogHer and WorldatWork Post. Here is a link to the NWFM page on Huffington Post, BlogHer, and WorldatWork.

Readers, where do you see the work life conversation going? How can we improve upon workers resorting to stealth maneuvers for managing their personal responsibilities?

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