A workplace culture valuing balance boosts retention

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"Certainly for managers, how to say 'no' is one of the biggest issues they face," says Helgeson, a psychotherapist. "They know they need to draw boundaries in their jobs, but they're not sure how to do that."

Some of the workers faced with surging workloads and expectations that they can't meet have figured a way to resolve the demands: They look for other jobs.

A recent survey by the Pittsburgh-based business consulting firm Key Group found that 18 percent of workers plan to switch jobs this year specifically to bring a better work-life balance to their lives.

"Balance really is a bottom-line issue," says Key Group Chief Executive Joanne Sujansky.

Her company's survey of 1,727 workers ages 18 to 64 revealed an almost desperate feeling among many. While the respondents worked in a variety of positions, a majority identified themselves as middle management, office and administrative or professional.

The surprise is that so many workers feel overwhelmed that they think finding another job is the best solution. With the U.S. unemployment rate at 4.7 percent - its lowest level in more than four years - employers might find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain talented employees.

"I see this as an early warning of a huge turnover issue soon to face the U.S.," Sujansky says. "Many companies simply don't have a culture that emphasizes work-life balance. There's a prevailing attitude among employers that employees are there to work and their personal life, or lack thereof, is irrelevant. Let me bluntly say that if you think this way, it will harm your company."

Whether the workload has increased from staff cutbacks, increased expectations or workers simply sensing they need to be more productive, Helgeson sees the resulting stress as a growing problem.

"You hear that companies say they have to compete in the global marketplace and that they have competitors breathing down their necks," she says. "That translates directly to the workers who are expected to do more.

"But the demands of companies are always going to be consuming. It's up to individual workers to take a stand and put boundaries on how much of their lives they will devote to the job. The companies won't do it for you."

Career counselor Virginia Byrd has been pushing companies to provide more work-life balance for more than a decade. she says that companies endorse work-life balance in cycles.

"When the economy has been good for quite a while, companies seem interested in helping their workers," she says. "But as soon as things tighten up, you see them backing away from that."

Even when some companies offer programs to make workers more comfortable, they undermine those programs with subtle pressures not to use them.

"A key issue is whether people feel comfortable enough in their jobs even to ask for these programs," Byrd says. "Unfortunately, some corporate cultures send the wrong message, and the programs are wasted."

Helgeson is encouraged by Gen X workers, who she says have staked out their personal time better than preceding generations.

"They're the ones who are much more likely to say that they have to leave at 5 p.m. for an aerobics class and mean it," she says. "They just come with a different value system. To them, work and their careers is important, but they also know their personal time is important, too. They just seem more willing to draw a line between them and hold to that than many baby boomers."

Sujansky cautions employers that instead of workers today feeling lucky they have jobs, an impending labor shortage means the best workers will find other work opportunities that match their expectations more closely.

"My theory is that in difficult times, people rethink their priorities," she says. "They focus on what really matters to them. And you know, working long hours for a job that is unfulfilling isn't going to make the cut."

Sujansky urges employers to pay attention to this cry from their employees and to find ways to make them feel that they don't have to sacrifice their personal lives for their jobs.

Do that, she says, and you probably won't find many looking to move on.

© Copley News Service

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