There are three common work-life balance “red flags” that HR needs to take action on in order to reduce absenteeism and improve engagement, retention and productivity, according to an expert.
“More than ever, organisations need to be looking at how they can support their employees integrate work and life – especially since we are in an economic environment where businesses often do run on fumes, and so employee productivity and engagement are crucial to success,” said Fiona Hitchiner, diversity and work-life specialist at SeventeenHundred.
However, there are a number of common indicators that work-life balance is “out of whack” in an organisation, and Hitchiner said HR plays an important role in both identifying and addressing these three red flags:
- Employees are unsatisfied, absenteeism is high, productivity versus work hours are low
- The company has work-life balance programs and initiatives in place that aren’t being capitalised on, and
- Tasks are unable to be completed should a key employee not be present.
“HR teams should be undertaking regular reviews of the business, looking specifically at how employees are managing their work-life balance,” said Hitchiner.
“Supporting employees in their efforts to integrate their work and life allows them to maintain motivation and productivity.
“The work-life balance initiatives themselves do not need to be costly, either, as you can get improved responses from the staff simply by communicating clearly that the business managers and executives recognise that employees are individuals and have interests and responsibilities outside of work.”
Work-life balance pitfalls and challenges
With technology enabling workers to effectively take their offices with them – whether out and about or at home – Hitchiner said the expectation that employees are available, whether they are at their desks or not, is now standard.
“Managed well, having to be available outside of the standard work-day can allow for a strong work-life balance, by giving staff the ability to be flexible in where they work,” she said.
“This allows employees to manage their responsibilities as carers, or look after their health, without having set hours that they are expected to be in the office.”
However, practical experience in implementing work-life balance has shown that in many cases this opportunity is misunderstood and poorly implemented, and often used more as a way to extend working hours so they become invasive into the home, rather than allowing employees greater control over their use of time.
“The result is that many approaches to implement work-life policies lead to greater dissatisfaction within the workplace,” she said.
“We’ve all worked in a business where there’s an audible gasp if someone dares leave before the manager does”
In relying on individuals to be physically onsite in order for tasks to get completed, there is limited capacity for employees to engage in a flexible work project.
So for staff to opt for absenteeism, rather than a flexible work program, Hitchiner said this shows that the benefits and entitlements of a flexible work program are either not adequate for employees’ needs, or poorly communicated to the team, she said.
The other key area HR needs to address is the stigma that is attached to flexible work practices in many businesses.
“We’ve all worked in a business where there’s an audible gasp if someone dares leave before the manager does,” said Hitchiner.
“Tackling this issue really requires engagement with the management layer to ensure that each manager is making sure that his/her employees are not compromising their work-life balance in order to make their commitment to the work clear (and their job advancement prospects open).”
Future work-life trends
In the future, Hitchiner said work-life integration will not be seen as a nice to have, but a key business philosophy.
“Workplaces will be more diverse and will need to recognise and support the diverse needs of these employees,” she said.
“We will also see more authentic leadership – employees are recognising authentic employers and leaders, and with social media and platforms such as Glassdoor employees quickly and easily see the truth behind the glossy pictures and promotional material when looking for prospective places to work.
“They will want to work for organisations that are genuine and walk the talk not just talk the talk …
“Supporting employees in their efforts to integrate their work and life allows them to maintain motivation and productivity”
“With such a tight employment market at the moment, retention and staff happiness are critical factors in maintaining the overall health of a business. ‘
“We have found that organisations took their work-life balance strategies far more seriously in 2015 than ever before, and the early signs for 2016 is that this growth in focus is only going to accelerate.”
5 strategies for improving work-life balance
Organisations should think of work-life balance as work-life integration, where management seeks to break down the attempt at building a clear line between work and “life,” and instead makes work a part of – but not the entirety of – a person’s life, according to Hitchiner.
In line with this approach, she suggested five strategies organisations can adopt to create a better work-life culture for their employees:
- A focus on flexibility: Organisations that provided flexible work, carer support programs, and emergency backup care/access to resources were the ones that were most successful in helping employees juggle between their work and life commitments.
- A review of the culture within the business: Businesses that took the time to review how people worked, whether they spent long hours in the office just to be seen, whether they were encouraged to be flexible with their work when they needed to, and how employees were being managed by senior executives, were the ones that had a firmer understanding on the kind of working culture within the organisation. This process allowed executives to adjust strategy if the review uncovered problem areas.
- Ensuring teams are properly resourced: Poorly resourced teams will exhibit a series of indicators that the culture review within the business will red flag – long hours, poor retention, absenteeism, negative commentary in engagement surveys and exit interview data. One of the best things that businesses can do to improve work/ life integration is ease the stress burdens placed on each individual person by resourcing their work properly.
- Making managers more accountable with facilitating work/ like integration: The businesses meeting their work-life balance goals best are those that are encouraging the managers to be keeping an eye on hours worked, and encouraging staff not to work long hours simply to create the perception of working long hours. Some are, almost literally, pushing their staff out the door, and such a gesture is appreciated.
- Increase awareness of employee entitlements; communication with employees around the flexible work entitlements, carer’s leave and other such support programs: Employers that are providing their staff with quality content and communication on strategies to facilitate a stronger work-life integration are the ones that find employees more invested in the programs, thus improving the management of their work-life balance.