A work-life balance audit for employers

Four out of five doctors* agree: work-life balance is the most, to say the least.

*Made-up statistic.

Seriously, it is. Studies have shown that employees who have lives outside of work are healthier and more productive than those who don't. They are also more satisfied with their jobs and stay on the job longer.

This topic has gained a lot of attention in the last few days, after The Atlantic published an article entitled "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who left a high-level position at the U.S. Department of State to return to her job as a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. Professor Slaughter, who made the move so that she would have more time with her teenage sons, concluded that you can't "have it all" in today's American workplace.

Although I don't agree with the Professor on every point, her article is thoughtful and well-written. I respect her for making her kids' well-being her top priority.

But, time out. I have a problem with the idea that she hasn't "had it all" . . . or, at least, more of "it" than most of us will ever have. First, she was with the State Department for two years. Working for Hillary Clinton. (Not a political endorsement.) Second, she had to lower her expectations to be a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton?? That's her "scut" job? If so, I suspect she has never worked the french fry station, much less swabbed the floors in the men's room after closing time. Third, she has a jewel of a husband, another professor who was more than willing to take on the domestic and family responsibilities while she was jetting between Princeton and Washington.

For all of those reasons, I don't really want to talk about Anne-Marie Slaughter. Let's talk about work-life balance for regular people. The 99 percent, if you will.

There has been a lot of advice for employees who want to achieve work-life balance: set aside "sacrosanct" time each day and refrain from answering the phone or checking emails during that time; make sure you exercise and eat healthy; have some interests besides your job; etc.

All of which is very good advice. But the truth is, employees will not do these things if they don't feel that they are receiving the support of their employers. Otherwise, they'll just keep on being miserable workaholics*, or they'll be like Professor Slaughter and decide they can't do justice to their families and continue.

*I don't think all workaholics are miserable. Many people find great joy in their work. I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the workaholics who don't really want to be, whether they're conscious of it or not.

So what can an employer do to encourage employees to achieve balance? It's hard to give advice that applies in all situations because there are so many variables. Is the employee exempt or non-exempt? It's generally harder to be "flexible" with a non-exempt employee, simply because you have to be so persnickety about accurately tracking her hours of work. Is the environment a manufacturing-distribution setting, in which case flexibility will be difficult, or is it a retail setting where you have to be on-site but there may be a bit more flexibility with scheduling, or is it an office setting where the work can be performed virtually anywhere anytime, thanks to the magic of the computer and the telephone?

Here is a little work-life balance audit for employers:

*Do your supervisors and managers know that work-life balance is important to the company? When was the last time you said so? Do you communicate to them that you do not want a group of miserable workaholics but a management team that has outside interests and time to pursue them? 

*We've all known managers who are not very flexible -- who expect everybody to be physically at the workplace from 8 to 6 or thereabouts, maybe with an hour for lunch. If the employees aren't there, they must not be working. Can you identify which of your managers have this attitude? Do you pay special attention to getting their understanding and agreement that the "traditional" model doesn't necessarily apply any more?

*Do you discourage mind-numbing, unnecessary meetings, or tasks that don't contribute anything but suck up your employees' time . . . not to mention their souls?

*If your employees perform shift work, do you do what you can to keep overtime low and minimize the disruptive effect of emergency overtime? Do you allow swapping in such situations and enough notice when possible so that they can swap? Do you strive to keep each employee on a single shift so that his or her sleep patterns and biorhythms can adjust?

*How's your technology? Are you current enough that your employees can work and communicate wherever they are?

*But, at the same time, have you clearly communicated to them that they are not "on call" for you 24/7 unless there is an urgent situation?

*You want your employees to be fit and healthy. Without being a Mayor Bloomberg, do you have healthy snacks, drinks and food available for those who want it? Do you have exercise facilities on-site, or offer free or reduced-price fitness memberships to employees? With the exception of urgent situations, do you let them have the time off that they need to get exercise and fresh air every day, preferably while the sun is up? (Vitamin D, dontcha know.) Can they exercise daily (if they want to) and still get their work done most of the time?

*Do you have a voluntary wellness program that helps employees quit smoking, lose weight, or deal with substance abuse or mental/emotional health issues if they need and want the help?

*Do your employees know that you want them to be good fathers and mothers? (After all, their kids may be working for you someday.)

*If they have other relatives (elderly parents, siblings, whatever) who have special needs, do you work with the employees so that they can fulfill their responsibilities?

*Do your employees know that you want them to be good citizens, and good human beings? You need to be careful about pressuring them to support your own pet causes, but do you encourage your employees to be involved in civic affairs, charities, and their places of worship as they see fit?

*Do you take an interest in your employees' hobbies and other extracurricular activities, to the point that they at least know you're not frowning on them?

Maybe your employees can't have it all, but if you let them have lives, they'll have an awful lot, and so will you. 

And while we are talking about work-life balance, my firm, Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP, is accepting entries right now for its 7th annual Excellence in Work-Life Balance Award. If you're interested in entering your company or in-house law department, please go here to download an entry form. The deadline is July 31, and there is no cost to enter. Questions? E-mail Wendy Angel at wangel@constangy.com.

Visit the Employment and Labor Law Insider for additional insights from Robin Shea, a partner with the national labor and employment law firm Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP.

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