May, 2009Helping employees better manage the demands on their personal and professional lives can improve job satisfaction for workers and contain costs for employers, but laws addressing work-life balance are relatively weak in the United States. Even the Family Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to provide a worker up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a child, elder, or oneself, applies only to 58 percent of workers.
Work-Life Policies, a new Urban Institute Press book, explains that even the most generous policy does little to accommodate workers' outside responsibilities if a job's structure or colleagues' attitudes undermine the policy. Work-Life Policies details the latest research—from sociologists, psychologists, lawyers, and management scholars—and underscores the importance of tailoring effective accommodations for all employees: male or female, parents or childless, salaried or hourly, near the end of one's career or new to the workforce.
Contributors Ellen Ernst Kossek and Brian Distelberg, for instance, recommend comprehensive work-life policies that are customizable to each worker. They report that though many organizations define "work-family" very narrowly when such policies are first implemented, employers typically widen the scope over time. Instead of supporting only workers' parental roles, some employers begin accommodating elder care, community service, political activities, and religious observances as well.
Pennsylvania State University's Kelly D. Davis and Katherine Stamps Mitchell warn that employers' and peers' reverence for the traditional "ideal worker"—the full-time, predominantly male worker unaffected by nonwork commitments—can discourage employees from taking advantage of policies like flextime or telecommuting. "In spite of policies being listed as available in the books, the informal work culture may provide a very different picture," they write. Davis and Stamps Mitchell recommend creating a culture that respects employees' nonwork roles, and they stress the importance of highlighting demands other than childrearing. "Policymakers must be careful not to focus on mothers to the exclusion of other groups as targets of work-life policy. Doing so," they write, "would stigmatize this group further as the group that receives 'special' benefits."
Job structure also matters when developing and implementing work-life policies, write Kossek and Distelberg. They observe that the flexibility to work at unusual hours as long as workers get the results their bosses expect—one common approach to work-life balance—does not help workers like firefighters, restaurant staff, and retail clerks.
And yet, reports organizational management scholar Susan J. Lambert, hourly workers often are peripheral in debates about work-life balance. She notes that employers often see non-salaried workers as costs to be contained and not talent in whom to invest. As a result, many such workers do not know until only days ahead of time how many hours they will work in a week, on which days, and during what shift. These employees cannot estimate child care needs, transportation schedules, or even monthly income. Predictability, not flexibility, is crucial to taming the work-life chaos that hourly workers often face.
Work-Life Policies analyzes the factors that are vital to easing conflicts between work and home. Acknowledging the diverse of needs of workers with different ages, incomes, professions, and family responsibilities, the contributors emphasize that no "one-size-fits-all" policy is possible. Instead, they provide a lens for assessing employees' needs and a guide for weighing conventional and innovative fixes for work-life conflict.
Work-Life Policies is edited by Pennsylvania State University's Ann C. Crouter, the Raymond E. and Erin Stuart Schultz Dean of the College of Health and Human Development and professor of human development, and Alan Booth, distinguished professor of sociology, demography, and human development and family studies at Penn State.
Contributors Ellen Ernst Kossek, Brian Distelberg, Cynthia A. Thompson, David J. Prottas, Netsy Firestein, and Forrest Briscoe analyze workplace policies for improving health and well-being. Phyllis Moen, Erin Kelly, Kelly Chermack, Shelley M. MacDermid, Mary Ann Remnet, Colleen Pagnan, Jeffrey H. Greenhaus, and Anisa M. Zvonkovic assess the structure and results of workplace experiments. Susan J. Lambert, Ruth Milkman, Noemí Enchautegui-de-Jesús, and Maureen Perry-Jenkins focus on hourly workers. Jennifer Glass, Chai R. Feldblum, Ellen Galinsky, Michael A. Smyer, Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes consider the future of work-life policies and research. Kelly D. Davis and Katherine Stamps Mitchell provide an integrative commentary and conclusion.
The book is available from the Urban Institute Press (388 pages, ISBN 978-0-87766-748-3, $32.50). Order online at http://www.uipress.org, call 410-516-6956, or dial 1-800-537-5487 toll-free. More information is available at http://www.urban.org/books/worklifepolicies.