STUDIES OVER THE YEARS have consistently found that work-life balance policies are a fabulous thing for performance, morale, and commitment. So why aren’t more people and companies benefitting from these policies? That’s also a very consistent answer: Few employees feel they have enough support from leadership to actually participate in those policies, from telework to flexible schedules and wellness programs.
This finding gets new support in a major new work-life balance survey of more than 64,000 federal workers, the first-ever Governmentwide Federal Work-Life Survey in the U.S., conducted by the Office of Personnel Management. In the survey, which included employees and supervisors, only 35% of respondents said senior leadership support work-life balance practices, while only 45% thought supervisors have their back on WLB policies.
The lack of management support is a very counterproductive bottleneck, since offering employees opportunities to reduce the conflict between work and home responsibilities pays such big dividends. In the new report, employees who utilized telework and wellness programs were 76% and 74% more likely to get performance ratings that exceeded their last rating. Those who participated in work-life balance programs were also 75% - 80% more likely to be satisfied with their jobs.
THE GREAT UNSPOKEN
Even when there are telework and flex options on the books, unless employees see credible support from leaders, they don’t feel the permission is there to partake. I hear this time and again in my work-life balance employee trainings. If leaders don't walk the walk and expressly encourage the policies, the team gets the cues to tread carefully.
Work-life balance is a topic hard for many managers to talk about. There's a belief that the message is at odds with performance, when it's just the opposite. All the data shows that work-life balance drives productivity and employee engagement. Too much remains unspoken in the balance realm, and as a result, people are reluctant to go out on a limb. When they do, and arrange a schedule around a child’s play or an elder’s care, they don’t feel good about it and it adds to stress levels.
As a result, in the OPM survey 83% said they experience work-life conflict. There’s a big difference in the numbers between those who would like to telework, 58%, and those who actually do it, 35%. While some 83% of workers want flex schedules, only 54% have them. Fifty-five percent said they would like to use the employee assistance program, but only 13% actually do.
THE BALANCE DIVIDEND
One of the reasons that it’s difficult for leaders to talk directly about work-life balance and let their team know it’s okay to telework or adjust a schedule is the ambivalence we have in the culture about anything that could be perceived as letting up or not undeviated, flat-out, nose-to-the-grindstone mode. The reality, though, is that adjusting schedules to reduce conflict, cuts stress, increases concentration, and more attention results in better performance.
The Corporate Executive Board, which is made up of 80% of the Fortune 500 companies, found that employees who feel they have good work-life balance work 21% harder. That’s the dividend of employee engagement, willing extra effort, when people feel they are valued and supported.
In the knowledge economy and digital world, productivity is not a function of brute stamina, a triathlon in pants. It’s about the level of attention and engagement in the mind of the employee. Anything that is undercutting attention, such as the saboteur of stress and the guilt it drives when work-family issues are top of mind, is counterproductive. When the brain gets signals that it’s overwhelmed by home pressures it can’t address, working memory is impaired by intrusive thoughts, attention spans shrink, and it takes longer to get the work done. Absenteeism and retention problems increase.
One of the major side effects of telework, for instance, is that it increases focus by decreasing the distractions of the office. In the survey, the number one reason people cited for teleworking was to minimize office interruptions and distractions; the second most popular was maximizing productivity. That productivity helps people feel good about their work and provides the mental space to take care of the home front without guilt.
ENCOURAGING MENTAL SEPARATION
When managers get the topic of work-life balance into the open and talk to employees about their own work-life struggles or hobbies outside the office, studies show it makes a big difference in the success of work-life programs. A study that measured the ability of employees to recover from work stress (Bennett, Gabriel, Calderwood, Dahling, Trougakos) reported that employees whose supervisors encourage them to unwind after work are more likely to do it. Without that permission, the study found, people are more likely to take work home with them and ruminate about work problems, preventing the mental separation that allows bodies and minds to recover and come back to work the next day in a positive frame that enhances productivity.
Most of us have grown up with the idea that facetime is essential for productivity, yet surveys of teleworkers have found that being able to have a day or two a week to work at home minus distractions increases productivity—and even the hours employees work. The data shows teleworkers put in more hours at home without time lost to commuting and because they have more control over their schedule.
Despite the increase in employee performance ratings in the OPM report, only 55% of the federal supervisors in the government study thought telework improved performance. This may be because of a very telling finding, that just 48% of managers felt they had the ability to manage and assess teleworkers.
This leads us to one of the essential ingredients of effective work-life balance policies: education. Leaders need to be shown the evidence that WLB programs make their teams more productive and get training in how to assess employees when staff works from home. As the data in the new survey shows, work-life balance practices make everyone’s jobs easier, managers to staff.
All we have to do is follow the science (for more studies, visit our Work-Life Balance Research page) to a healthier and more open approach to full-life performance. We are human resources, after all, and when we acknowledge human challenges, we increase the connective tissue that transforms individuals into teams.
If you would like to know more about our work-life balance training programs and how they can increase engagement on your team, please click the button below for details.