Managing Work/Life Issues: A Healthy Balance Impacts Retention and Productivity

Mary Campbell used to be a bit of a Renaissance woman. She taught aerobics, worked as a personal trainer and played in a band part time, all while attending graduate school. After finishing her doctorate, she got her first “real job” at the University of Southern California.

She threw herself into her work wholeheartedly. Soon she was taken over by the daily grind and the other pieces of her life fell away.

“Women in particular have a more intense desire to overdo and really prove themselves as a viable executive-level person,” says the assistant vice president of career services at USC. “If you are a good performer, people tend to rely on you to get things done and I got caught up in that.”

Dr. Mary Campbell with her son, Dane, and husband, Dr. Michael Collins.

Dr. Mary Campbell with her son, Dane, and husband, Dr. Michael Collins.

While she loved her job, she suffered from complete burnout on more than one occasion. She had a family at home, but ended up spending her time overscheduled and working most weekends. She could no longer avoid the fact that she was “exhausted, fatigued and miserable.”

Campbell has since learned to take control of her workload to the best of her ability. In order to avoid crashing, she opts out of work obligations that aren’t aligned with her priorities. In addition to making her feel better, she’s trying to impress a healthy balance on her staff.

“I felt I was not setting a good example of work/life balance for my people. They see that this is what gets promoted and it becomes an organizational dynamic.”

But the task of creating a healthy work/life balance is no longer placed solely on the shoulders of working women. With women accounting for nearly 60 percent of the nation’s workforce, helping female employees meet their obligations both in and out of the office is becoming compulsory for most employers to remain competitive in today’s marketplace.

Mandatory Tender

There have always been generational differences in the office, but Campbell says what is happening now—often having three generations at once—really highlights the degree of disparity with new workers.

“The younger generation is much different because of how quickly technological innovations have changed their experiences,” she says. “It has made them different people with different sets of expectations. Millennials say they don’t even get why there is a problem with flexible schedules. They don’t understand why anyone would care because it is second nature to them.”

Candidates fresh from college are asking for flexible work arrangements during their interview process at Booz Allen Hamilton, says Natalie Jackson, work/life program specialist for the McLean, Va.-based company. “The younger workforce is smart and they know what they want and are demanding it,” she adds.

Base wages and conventional benefits are still important, but employees are looking for more, says Lillian LeBlanc, director of work/life effectiveness for Baptist Health South Florida, a health care organization that covers Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

“From everything we read in the literature and hear from the employees, these traditional benefits are important,” says LeBlanc. “But so is a compassionate manager that treats me as an individual and who understands that getting to my kid’s soccer game is important.”

The Business Perspective

Employers seem to be tuning into the fact that a positive work/life balance is requisite to remaining competitive. But many are also seeing an additional return on their investment.

Benefits of good work/life programs include improving employee engagement and retention, reducing absenteeism and tardiness, and increasing on-the-job focus, says Frank Briamonte, senior director of corporate communications at The McGraw-Hill Companies.

“People appreciate working for an employer that has made an investment in employee services,” says Briamonte. “If our employees and their families stay healthy and get the assistance they need, we will have a smarter, stronger, healthier workforce – today and in the future.”

In work/life studies performed at McGraw Hill, Briamonte says that a vast majority of the company’s employees said they have the informal flexibility needed to address personal issues.

Campbell realized firsthand how a happy balance can improve productivity after she began to set boundaries. When employees are healthier and happier, they are able to “crank things out more efficiently.”

“If you are fatigued and stay at work three hours late staring at a computer screen, your ability to get through stuff sharply has got to be diminished,” she says. “If I get more sleep and come in late, what might have taken one-and-a-half hours will take 45 minutes.”


Denita Willoughby came from Wall Street, where she says women didn’t get pregnant. “They didn’t even think about it until they reached a point in their career where they had greater flexibility in their job – flexibility they knew they’d need both during pregnancy and beyond.”

Denita Willoughby with her sons, Michael and Ryan, and husband Anthony

Denita Willoughby with her sons, Michael and Ryan, and husband Anthony.

So when she became pregnant shortly after beginning her job at Pacific Bell (now AT&T) 14 years ago, she was worried about the repercussions on her job. She was shocked when her manager hugged and congratulated her. And when Willoughby returned from maternity leave to find that one of her staff members was pregnant, she was gladly able to do the same.

“I enjoy working at a company where it feels like they expect us to be human and normal,” she says.

One of the pieces of advice Willoughby offers to women is to make sure they are working at a job where the priorities are aligned with their own. Work somewhere you may be able to telecommute during the week; find a position, like sales, that offers a flexible schedule; or look for a company that is technology-focused so you will have tools like PDAs that allow you to be away from your desk during the day and videoconferencing to avoid excessive travel.

A company’s goal is to make money for their stockholders, and they expect employees to perform at a high level, Willoughby says. So, if you want flexibility to take care of an elderly parent or take a child to the doctor, it is important to communicate with an employer so they trust that “what you are doing is in their best interest and when they are being flexible, you are not being abusive.”

Campbell says the university recently created a formal policy for flexible schedules, something that has come new to the “old school” institution. They have been wrestling with the concept for about five years and finally drafted a policy that says anyone can inquire about a schedule change and if it works with their job.

But even with a policy, she says people feel like management doesn’t always support it and they are “looked at sideways” when they eat lunch outside of the office.

“It’s something in the culture we need to discuss as management and make sure we are not giving lip service or tolerance to this issue,” she says. “We need to make sure we are truly embracing it because we believe in it and not just because we feel like we have to.”

Campbell says companies can look at those who have already blazed a path like Google and Best Buy to see the range of possibilities. Instead of implementing something like “Funny Fridays” and calling it a cure, she recommends really trying to make a cultural shift.

She also recommends getting leadership involved in open dialogue with everyone at the company to find out their ideal picture of good work/life balance.

“You need to find out where people are at, how they feel they are doing in this area, and what they feel work/life balance would look like for them,” because everyone’s situation is different.

Outside of the Box

In lieu of taking a shot in the dark, many organizations are trying to tailor their work/life portfolios toward the specific demographics, schedules and needs of their workforce.

Along with their traditional benefits, Booz Allen offers forums to help individuals mentor and share similar experiences, Jackson says. The programs encompass areas such as learning creative ways to manage time within a flexible work environment or, for new mothers, suggestions on how to transition back to the job after having a child.

The work/life program at Baptist Health South Florida is based on tending to the staff to help reduce burnout, says LeBlanc.

“Traditionally, women in healthcare are caregivers on the job and they go home to that same role,” she says. “We have had a focus on nurturing these caregivers so they can come to work with the right mindset and approach patients without being emotionally drained.”

While nurses used to prefer 10- to 12-hour shifts to shorten the workweek, LeBlanc says, a study performed in 2007 found that their nursing population, now skewed toward a 50-plus demographic, prefers shorter shifts. To accommodate them, they are being more creative with their schedules, often splitting 24-hour shifts into six-hour increments.

“What Baptist does very well is have the ability to respond and change to the demographic area and cultural needs of the workforce,” she says. “It is all about individuality.”

Setting Priorities

When Campbell hit rock bottom, she sat down and made a list of all of her priorities as well as things she is involved in professionally. She began to figure out what she was doing that made the most impact, and found that a lot of her time was spent on busy work. This helped her make better choices about where to spend her time.

At one of her jobs, Willoughby had to be up at 4:30 a.m. and spend a lot of her time dining clients. She figured out quickly that this was not going to be a job where she could raise a family so she, too, made a list. One side of the page listed things that are important to her, and the other, how she spends her day. And her goal was to align those two as much as possible.

Today, the way Willoughby does this is through planning. At the beginning of the year, she makes her doctor’s appointments to make sure they are scheduled; she has yoga planned for certain days a week; and she plans vacations to make sure she has “memorable time with her family.”

When her children asked why she wasn’t at school as frequently as some of the mothers who don’t work, she explained to them that they live in a two-career family and asked them what they thought was important that she attend. So whether it is a basketball game or field trip, she has made those things a priority.

“I can’t always be there; I miss things sometimes, but I always try to be present when I am there,” she says. “I just had to learn how to say no and focus on what is on those two sides of the paper.”

By Tammy Worth
November, 2009

Tammy Worth is a freelance writer from Kansas City, Mo.

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