Balancing Work & Life

How agencies can create a worker-friendly environment

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Adapted from CWLA's forthcoming book On the Job in Child Welfare: Recruiting, Retaining, and Supporting a Competent Workforce

Few of us ever wish we had more time to spend on the job. The challenge of managing a personal life and a work life can often feel like managing two full-time jobs. This is particularly true for workers with family responsibilities, but those without family responsibilities also have a variety of outside interests that are equally as important to them. It is a challenge for employers to create an environment that meets the needs of a variety of workers. For example:

  • Jacob, 50, recently moved his mother into his home because of her advancing Alzheimer's disease. His wife works full-time as well. They have a teenage son with behavioral health problems.
  • Rhonda, 28, is a single mom with 3-year-old twin girls. One of her daughters has a neurological condition, the result of complications at birth. Rhonda's extended family is 600 miles away in another state.
  • Benjamin, 25, has been a volunteer for the Special Olympics since he was in his early teens. His brother still competes in the games. This year, he wants to volunteer at the International Special Olympics in Europe, which would require a month-long leave of absence.

Jacob, Rhonda, and Benjamin all work for the same organization and all have very different needs to balance their home lives with work. The workforce is changing. The traditional stereotype of Dad going off to work while Mom tends the home and hearth is gone. Today, both men and women participate almost equally in the workforce. Our attitudes, values, social policies, and workplace practices, however, often still reflect the old stereotype. This has created a dilemma for both employers and employees as we struggle to manage both domains.

An Organizational Approach

Creating a family-friendly workplace requires an organizational approach. Agency leadership, middle management, and staff all contribute to the effort, both individually and collectively.

What Agency Leadership Can Do

Both philosophically and financially, agency leaders can support a variety of policies and practices to address the changing demographics, workplace environment, and life demands of the workforce.

  • Schedule. Managers at all levels of the organization can encourage a reasonable work-week schedule through setting a good example. They can establish a climate that does not reward the workaholic, but instead rewards those who work within sensible guidelines. Employees who feel compelled by the culture to choose work over family or other life responsibilities soon lose--or fail to develop at all--a commitment to the organization.
  • Sabbaticals. Agency leadership can be open to providing unpaid leaves of absence. Most organizations have adequate maternity and paternity leave; however, some employees may have other interests they would like time to pur-sue. A month to tour the country or to volunteer at the International Games of the Special Olympics can buy the agency a great deal of loyalty and high morale.
  • Family Leave and Care Assistance. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (P.L. 103-3, 107 Stat. 6) requires organizations with more than 50 employees to provide 12 weeks of unpaid, job-guaranteed leave for a variety of reasons related to the care of family members. Some smaller organizations comply with this law, viewing it as good practice for employee retention. A few states have passed laws that mandate time for paid family leave as well. On a federal level, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 626 in June 2008; if approved by the Senate and signed by the President, the bill would provide up to four weeks of paid family leave for federally employed birth, adoptive, and foster parents when a child joins the family. Agency leadership should track this trend in their states and nationwide.
          Organizations can provide child care assistance either on-site or via several pretax credit options, including reimbursement of child care costs if an employee must work late or travel for business, or while children are on vacation from school. More workers are coping with an elderly or infirm parent, and agencies can consider elder care assistance such as referral services, long-term care insurance, or direct support for local elder care programs.
  • Employee Assistance Programs. Agencies can help employees resolve problems through a solid Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Boundaries are blurring between home and work and employers can no longer rely on workers leaving their problems at the door. In fact, workers expect that employers understand that they are managing problems outside of work. A referral to a program for a troubled son could be a lifesaver to a parent.
          Consider offering low- or no-interest short-term loans to employees for emergencies. These can be repaid through payroll. Rhonda, a single mother with a sick child, may not have the $1,000 to fix the vehicle on which she relies when her child has a medical emergency. Employees who are worried about being able to cover such emergencies will not be focused on work and may have higher rates of absenteeism during times of emergency.
  • Salary and Benefits. It is essential that employers provide a comprehensive salary and benefits package that allows employees to live as comfortably as possible and to plan for future economic security, such as providing for children's college tuition and/or retirement. Provide a benefit plan that offers options or benefit "credits." Not all employees need or want the same package. Under Section 125 of the Internal Revenue Code, organizations may offer a "cafeteria plan" benefits package that can be individually tailored for each employee.
  • Personal and Professional Development Opportunities. Provide opportunities for personal and professional growth such as tuition reimbursement, tutoring help, or time off for class attendance. With the increase in the minority population, coupled with the slower rise in educational attainment among minorities, the need for educational programs that are accessible through the workplace will grow. Train supervisors to encourage employees to attain personal goals.
          Involve the organization in the community to enhance employees' lives outside of work. Consider partnerships with local schools, recreation departments, libraries, or the YMCA or YWCA. Support a local charity, or introduce a matching-funds process for charities that employees value. Consider allowing employees time off on a reasonable, regular basis for volunteer work in the community.
          Invite guest speakers to present lunchtime seminars on issues important to managing personal affairs, such as retirement planning, investments, first-time home buying, how to advocate for a special-needs child or parent, and so on.
  • Supervisory Support. Train supervisors to competently and confidently manage the changing workforce. Many studies indicate that a key retention factor is the worker-supervisor relationship. Good relations between workers and management, and a feeling that management understands the needs of staff juggling work and home responsibilities, creates a positive agency culture.
  • Workplace Health and Safety. Leadership can create a healthy and safe workplace. They can encourage employees who are sick to stay home, make taking vacations a priority, and allow for personal leave time that can be used for health-related appointments. Encourage good physical fitness habits through formal exercise or yoga groups, or walking, biking, or jogging teams. Invite weight loss or fitness experts in to meet with employees who want to improve their health.
          To make sure employees feel safe, install security measures if necessary and mandate their use. Provide employees with cell phones when in the field. Start a buddy system for workers who must work late so they can check in with one another when they arrive home.

What Supervisors Can Do

Supervisors are the crucial link between the policies of the organization and how they are implemented. They are also the organization's culture-bearers. The supervisor shapes staff's attitudes about their work and the agency. Therefore, supervisors can ensure that employees are satisfied, productive, and feel appreciated in a variety of ways.

Supervisors can allow as much flexibility as possible when scheduling for employees. In child welfare organizations this may be difficult to do, especially for those that provide 24-hour care. Even a small effort will get results, however, if it is genuine. Employees will feel appreciated if they are allowed to make changes to their schedule as needed with the support of their supervisor and colleagues. Flex time, job sharing, and other similar practices are extremely important to employees with children and other care-giving responsibilities. The autonomy to decide how the work gets done aids in the development of personal growth for workers. They feel trusted and in control when they have the freedom to make decisions about how work is organized and completed. This freedom also allows them to arrange for their needs beyond the workplace. On a regular basis, supervisors can encourage teams to discuss what they need from each other in order to balance their lives. Given the workload, the need for client supervision, and case coverage, let the team decide how all the bases are covered. Workers are more likely to be flexible and supportive if given the power to make these decisions. Supervisors can inform leadership of staff needs and can advocate for additional practices that will positively impact work-life balance for staff.

Some of these practices do cost money, and they may be thought too expensive to implement in the current economy. Turnover, absenteeism, and overtime pay are even more expensive, however. An "ounce of prevention" will build worker loyalty and make for greater productivity. Even small gestures in the right direction will make employees feel valued. Managers who take the time to send notes to employees congratulating them for personal accomplishments or occasions send a positive message, both concretely and abstractly.

What Employees Can Do

Agency leadership can provide workers with work-life balance policies, and supervisors can support an organizational culture that values and even celebrates the employee's personal life; however, employees must take advantage of these policies and discipline themselves to maintain a healthy balance. A workaholic who checks voicemail and e-mail from home throughout the evening can't fault the agency if that behavior interferes with family life or other interests. Here are some things individuals can consider:

  • Learn to set reasonable priorities for yourself and discuss these with your supervisor and teammates. Discuss overlapping and/or conflicting needs and develop a plan to support and cover for each other.
  • Be clear with subordinates and colleagues about which things you should be called for at home or when away from the office. Constant availability and the expectation that you be consulted on all problems or questions sends a message to other employees that you don't trust them to handle things effectively.
  • Turn off your cell phone when it's your time off. There is the expectation in some agencies that staff carry a beeper during their time off. If you are concerned about being out of contact with the agency while at a special event of a personal nature, check in with staff before you go to decrease anxiety all around. Seriously assess the nature of any work "emergency" before you cancel a personal engagement to handle it.
  • Develop good time and stress management skills and use them. This takes practice for some of us. Be aware that you aren't as essential as you might like to think, and be grateful for that. Plan your vacation time well in advance. If it isn't planned you may find yourself saying, "This isn't the best time for me to be away." Be flexible about additional assignments. You need and want to be challenged and supportive, but make sure the additional work doesn't consistently interfere with your life. There will be occasions when work needs more of your time than usual, but it shouldn't become a pattern.
  • Talk to your family and friends about work needs. In order to produce your best at work, you need support from those in your life away from work. Seek encouragement and advice on attaining professional goals and handling workplace problems. Hands-on help, like child care, meal planning, and housework is also a way for friends and family to provide support. This support works best when it is preventative. Ask for what you need rather than waiting until work-life conflicts become overwhelming.
  • Learn to say "no" assertively, or learn to say "not unless...." Be clear with superiors about your workload. Taking on more than is reasonably handled creates undue stress and negatively affects work quality. When your supervisor asks you take on another project, another case, or another program, let them know what will have to be moved off your plate in order to say yes.
  • Learn to ask for the seemingly impossible, because sometimes it isn't! "If you don't ask for it, you'll never get it" is a good lesson to remember. In today's climate, more agency managers are considering creative requests from employees in the interest of keeping happy, productive workers.

Promising Practices

Child welfare organizations have limited resources with which to provide "perks" to staff. The following examples of current and former programs at CWLA member agencies illustrate that even with little or no financial resources, creative ideas can positively affect staff retention. All efforts--past, present, and future--are commended.

  • Child and Family Services of New Hampshire in Manchester, New Hampshire, is a statewide, multiservice agency. In a program started several years ago, staff can apply for one-year, payroll-deducted loans for the purchase of home computers. This has increased computer literacy and enabled many more staff to afford computers.
  • Valuing employee education, Spurwink Services in Portland, Maine, allows staff to cash in vacation days to offset the cost of tuition.
  • In a program that staff regret to say has been discontinued, a chiropractor used to visit Walden School, The Learning Center for the Deaf, in Framingham, Massachusetts, and give 10-15 minute massages to staff once a month.

These examples are not revolutionary, and no single program alone is the key to retention at these organizations. They are an expression of concern for the whole employee, however. They are examples of how even small things like an extra day off says to staff, "The agency appreciates what you do and it values who you are." Even small changes can improve employees' sense of work-life balance.

Ginnie Waldron MED is a trainer and consultant in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Meghan Williams contributed to this article.

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