Keeping your balance

Experts say workers are on their own in juggling jobs, lives

November 01, 2006|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,Sun reporter

Work-life balance in corporate America is mostly amiss.

That's according to several worker surveys, consultants and others who say that balancing jobs and personal lives is more an advertisement than a reality. Most workers find that companies can't always deliver on work-life promises in a 24-hour economy that requires just about everyone do more with less.

Even though more companies are offering a variety of programs, such as flexible work schedules and telecommuting, some business leaders and workplace consultants say it's still up to workers to figure out their work-life balance challenges.

To achieve balance, some workers are making tough choices, such as leaving work at a set time regardless of what it means for their career, finding new employment or going out on their own.

Much of it depends on the worker and where they are in their lives.

New mothers often look for something that's flexible and some companies are working to keep them onboard after maternity leave.

Workers who want to climb the corporate ladder typically give more to the job in hopes of advancing - one worker, for example, read to his children rapidly to make more time for work. Others put in extra work out of fear their future with the company could be in jeopardy. But many forgo promotions and the demands that go with them to preserve time with family.

The challenge for workers and their managers who subscribe to work-life balance is to meet that need while also achieving the company's responsibility to make money and satisfy customers.

"With flexibility comes responsibility," said Maryella Gockel, a flexibility strategy leader at accounting firm Ernst & Young, where about 10 percent of its 23,000-person U.S.-based work force is in flexible work arrangements, including reduced and seasonal schedules as well as telecommuting options.

"At the end of the day, the clients' expectations have to be met, the work has to be done in a high-quality way. [The conversation is about] how to get work done in the most efficient way and still have the ability to do everything you want to do personally," Gockel said.

More than two-thirds of U.S. workers were not satisfied with their ability to maintain work-life balance in 2005, according to a continuing work force study by Spherion Corp., a recruiting agency in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The study polled a sample size between 2,500 and 3,100 over five months last year.

And a separate survey commissioned by Pittsburgh-based consulting firm KEYGroup found that 18 percent of 1,727 respondents said they plan to look for a new job this year to improve their work-life balance. (The survey has a margin of error of 2 percentage points.)

"Anytime an employee relies on their employer to give them life balance they will wind up disappointed, as the goal of business is to make money and get the most out of each employee," said Laura Stack, a Colorado-based workplace consultant and author of Leave the Office Earlier!

But even workers who believe in and want work-life balance find it to be a struggle. Workers are putting in longer hours as companies face pressures to do more with limited resources and staff.

"Employers are afraid that if people had balance in their lives their work would suffer," said Rick Maurer, an Arlington, Va.-based management consultant. "Employees are afraid that if they ever do leave early, arrive late or take their full vacation time, they'll miss out on something important, and that they might be seen as less than dedicated."

Some workers find that being their own boss is the solution to finding balance between career goals and family.

Kristin Schwitzer, 41, of Severna Park, who has two children, said even part-time work didn't afford her enough flexibility. That's because her previous employer required her to be at the office during set hours regardless of whether she worked extra hours at home.

"It was still too restrictive with life-family balance," she said. "I wanted the ability to be home when the children were at home, attend field trips and take vacations when they were off."

So, Schwitzer left her job at an advertising agency six years ago to start her own market research firm, Beacon Research.

"It gives me a sense of control and lets me do the work when I want," she said. "If I want to pull back, it's me making the decisions, which is wonderful."

Of course, not everyone has the option of starting a business. But even at companies promoting work-life balance, "the reality is that some people don't take advantage of the programs that are offered," said Stack, the workplace consultant.

Part of the reason is the mountain of work that must be done by workers and bosses alike.

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