Category Archives: work/life balance

Walking the Talk on Time Off

thinkstockphotos-163664798Bad bosses discourage workers from taking time off. Good bosses encourage it. The best bosses also get out of the office and use their own vacation days.

That’s the takeaway from the latest report by Project Time Off, a feisty little offshoot of the U.S. Travel Association that likes to remind us of how bad Americans are at taking vacation.

As we’ve noted here before, Project Time Off has chronicled the startling decline of vacation usage in the U.S.  In 2015, the estimated average for an American worker was 16.2 days a year, down from a long-term average of 20.3 days from 1976 to 2000.

The group’s latest report — produced with analysis by Oxford Economics of government data and survey results from marketing firm GfK  —  looks at the evident hypocrisy of managers who pay only lip service to the idea of taking time off.

The good news is that 93 percent of managers surveyed say they believe employees benefit from vacations. Almost as many say they actively encourage workers to take time off. But only 41 percent used all their own time in the previous year.

Why that matters: Research makes a compelling case that how managers treat their own vacation time has a powerful effect on workers, says Ron Friedman, a psychologist, author and consultant who studies the subject.

Writing last year in the Harvard Business Review, Friedman summed it up like this: “When managers forgo vacation time, it not only places them squarely on the road to burnout, it also generates unspoken pressures for everyone on their team to do the same.”

And that not only deprives workers of a break that helps them perform, but also deprives the organization of “fresh perspectives and creative solutions” they bring back, he writes. “Simply put, you’re far more likely to have a breakthrough idea while lounging on a beach in St. Martin than you are while typing away in your office cubicle.”

There’s also a financial cost, in the form of accrued vacation time as a balance-sheet liability. The Project Time Off study looked at 10-K filings by public companies to conclude they collectively have $272 billion in vacation liabilities on their books.

Why are so many managers unwilling to use all their time? Of course some people really do have crushing loads of work that no one else can do. And sometimes — if you’re launching a company, say — it really does make sense to power through a tough year with few days off.

But those cases are rare. If Reed Hastings of Netflix, Jim Moffatt of Deloitte and Barack Obama of — well, you know — can take vacations, c’mon — what’s so special about the rest of us?

Here are some of the real reasons, I suspect, that some managers routinely skip vacation. And none of them, I’ll warn you, are flattering:

  • They’re inefficient and unproductive. They tend to run around in circles and waste everyone’s time. They don’t get much done. So they feel a need to catch up by skipping their vacation.
  • Obsessive tendencies. They spend every day pushing their folks to compete. They can’t take time off or their numbers will tank. So they don’t.
  • Free-floating anxiety. The world is changing. Who knows? Their job might disappear overnight, or a rising star might replace them. Or someone might notice they are dispensable.
  • They really don’t have anything else to do. It’s sad, but I’ve known managers who gave everything up for work. They really don’t have much of a family or a life outside the office. For them, vacation is no vacation.

None of those apply to you, right? So do yourself — and your people — a favor. Take that time.

Transforming the Workplace

I just came across this interesting piece on Forbes’ site about the different ways organizations are transforming the way business gets done in the modern workplace.

From office furniture with built-in tracking devices to measure users’ activity rates to desks that don’t stay put themselves, the experiments are indeed pushing the envelope of what’s to be expected in the workplace:

“There have also been some interesting approaches to encourage work/life balance among employees, with a Dutch startup called Heldergroen installing desks that literally get pulled up into the ceiling at 5:30 p.m. to force employees to go home.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, Greek designers NL Studio developed a desk that converts into a bed. While the aim is to perhaps encourage ‘power naps,’ it could also facilitate all-nighters at the office.”

The piece goes on to explore the merits of “encourag[ing] external people to come onto company premises,” which include:

1. They allow employees to rub shoulders with interesting people they might not ordinarily meet.

2. They allow HR folks to keep a much closer eye on potential talent to bring on board.

3. They allow those in the merger and acquisition team to keep tabs on interesting startups and spin-outs in their industry.

It’s an interesting, forward-looking piece and you can read the full story here.

Wait … Work Is Good for Your Health?

A compre200400993-001hensive survey of American workers this week offered some predictable findings about health and employment. But there are some happy surprises as well.

Perhaps most interesting was a finding that 28 percent of workers said their job was good for their overall health. That’s considerably more than the 16 percent who said it was bad.  (The rest, a slight majority, said their job had no effect on their overall health.)

Why the upbeat view? Researchers didn’t ask, and declined to share any thoughts about what respondents meant. But we can find some clues on our own by looking at this poll and other research. And those clues offer some encouragement for HR professionals.

How does your job affect your _____?
Good impact Bad impact No impact
Overall health 28% 16% 54%
Eating habits 15% 28% 56%
Stress level 16% 43% 39%
Sleeping habits 17% 27% 55%
Weight 19% 22% 57%
Social life 27% 17% 56%
Family life 32% 17% 50%
Source: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Make no mistake, there are plenty of concerns raised by this survey, which was performed by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in conjunction with National Public Radio and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Researchers polled 1,601 working Americans across a range of ages, ethnicities, income levels and industries. The margin of error for the full sample was 2.9 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

NPR stories about the survey this week have highlighted how workers with disabilities often struggle at work, how lack of sick leave can drive some families into financial crisis and why so many employees go to work while sick.

Among other troubling — if unsurprising — findings was that 43 percent of respondents said work added stress to their lives. A news release from the university quoted poll director Robert J. Blendon concluding that “The takeaway here is that job number one for U.S. employers is to reduce stress in the workplace.”

But what might workers be thinking when they say their job is good for their health?

One obvious point is that having a job means having an income and (often) having insurance. That’s definitely good for your health. But I wonder if many respondents were really thinking at that level of abstraction.

There’s also research suggesting that, in fact, work is good for your health. One frequently-cited research overview conducted in the United Kingdom concluded that meaningful, safe work generally offers physical and mental-health benefits. Being active and having a purpose is good for us.

But were many respondents thinking about arcane findings in the field of occupational health?

Perhaps a more plausible explanation is in the new poll itself — findings that suggest wellness programs really matter. More than half of respondents said their company had a formal wellness program.

Even more significant: Of those workers, a whopping 45 percent said that program was “very important” to their health. Nearly as many said it was “somewhat important.”

Wellness programs don’t offer any clues about some other surprising findings in this poll, alas. Respondents also apparently think work is good for their social life and (even more mysteriously) their family life. Let’s hope researchers some day will drill deeper to find out what’s really going on here.

Are Long Hours Making Workers Sick?

ThinkstockPhotos-179039030In some parts of the world, workaholism is beginning to look uncool. Some companies in South Korea are literally turning off the lights to get people out of the office at a reasonable hour. Desks in a Dutch design studio automatically retract into the ceiling at 6 p.m. Researchers in Sweden report increased worker productivity with an experimental six-hour day.

What’s happening in the U.S.? Long workdays remain as popular — or necessary — as ever. And now some new research suggests there are long-term consequences that employers, as well as workers, need to understand.

A study conducted by researchers at The Ohio State University and the Mayo Clinic finds people who routinely work long hours have sharply higher risks of chronic conditions like cancer and heart disease later in life. And the risks are especially severe for women.

Workers at the beginning of their careers may be happy to invest in long work-weeks, and employers benefit, notes lead author Allard Dembe, a professor of public health at Ohio State. But “you may be setting the stage for a physical breakdown later in life,” he says.

Other studies have found long hours at work can lead to stress, fatigue, reduced work performance and safety issues. But until now few researchers had looked at long-term health effects. Dembe and Xiaoxi Yao, now a research associate at the Mayo Clinic, found a way by analyzing a database that tracked both the work hours and self-reported health information of more than 12,000 people nationally from 1979 to 2011. Only full-time work was counted.

The results, published online last month in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, were particularly stunning for women: Those who averaged 60-plus-hour weeks over those 32 years were at least three times as likely to report heart disease, cancer, arthritis or diabetes. That’s compared to those who had average workweeks of 30 to 40 hours.

Men in the study showed smaller increased risk. The largest effect in men was with arthritis, which was more than twice as likely for those working 60 hours or more, compared to standard full-time hours.

Earlier research had suggested that women might see more long-term health effects, but the size of the disparity was surprising, Dembe says: “I didn’t expect the gender effect to be so, so striking … it was just day and night.”

Researchers can only speculate as to why, but Dembe thinks the most plausible explanation is that most women have greater responsibilities at home than men. “A lot of things are going on here,” he says. But one is the “multiple roles that women play in society, compared to men,” he says. “Women don’t have the time.”

What can employers do? Working long hours is “part of American culture,” Dembe says, and curbing workaholism isn’t easy. But companies can make employees aware of the consequences of long hours — and start health screening programs early, he says. Existing wellness and chronic-disease-management programs can be part of the effort .

“Talk about the issue when people are younger,” Dembe says. For employers, “this study suggests you really should think about it.”

Millennials Running a Career Marathon

There’s been a lot of talk—an awful lot—about how millennials see work differently than the generations that preceded them.

When it comes to their post-employment prospects, though, Gen Y workers apparently share the view of many of their more experienced colleagues.

In other words, millennials aren’t sure they’ll ever get to retire either.

ManpowerGroup’s Millennial Careers: 2020 Vision report finds American millennials “preparing to run career ultramarathons,” with 66 percent of 1,000 employees between the ages of 20 and 34 saying they expect to work past the age of 65. Thirty-two percent anticipate staying on the job beyond age 70, and 12 percent of these incurable optimists foresee keeling over in a cubicle, essentially working “until the day they die.”

But, however long they wind up working, millennials will be taking a breather here and there. Indeed, 76 percent of those polled by ManpowerGroup said they are likely to take career breaks longer than four weeks. The reasons for these breaks “are revealing,” according to the report, which notes that women intend to take more time out to care for others—children, older relatives and partners as well as doing volunteer work.

More specifically, 66 percent of female millennials indicated that they plan to take leave after the birth of their children, while 32 percent of men said the same. Thirty-two percent of women anticipate taking time off to care for parents or aging relatives, compared to 19 percent of men who expect to put their careers on hold at some point for the same reason.

Gen Y still hopes to squeeze in some fun, however. The report points out that both genders aim to prioritize “me-me-me time” and leisure-related breaks, with 29 percent of American millennials planning to take significant breaks for relaxation, travel or vacations.

Still, the occasional hiatus aside, it seems millennials are looking down a long road, unsure of when or if they’ll get to enjoy their golden years. They’re not the only ones, of course, and a new Willis Towers Watson survey is just the latest to reinforce this fact.

The consultancy’s 2015/2016 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey polled 5,083 U.S. workers, 23 percent of whom believe they won’t be able to retire before they turn 70, if at all.

Naturally, fretting over their retirement savings, or lack thereof, is taking a toll on these workers, with 40 percent of those who anticipate working past age 70 saying they have high or above-average stress levels. (Just 30 percent of employees expecting to retire at age 65 report feeling that frazzled.) Forty-seven percent of these employees said they are in very good health, compared to 63 percent of those expressing confidence that they’ll be able to walk away at age 65.

The connection between employees’ uncertainty about retirement and their stress levels—regardless of age—is a logical one. But, with the vast majority of workers counting on their employer’s retirement plan as their primary savings tool, organizations “have plenty of motivation to act,” said Shane Bartling, senior retirement consultant at Willis Towers Watson, in a statement.

“In addition to saving for retirement, employees are dealing with other, competing financial priorities such as housing and debt,” said Bartling, urging employers to “personalize their real-time decision-making support and recalibrate default enrollment to close the gaps in employee understanding about the savings amount required and costs in retirement.”

In Search of a Shorter Workweek

You say you’re looking for a job where the workweek is short and work/life balance is cherished?

Well, if you’re reading this at an IP address in the United States, then you may need to pack a suitcase in addition to a briefcase in order to find a job that fits that description, according to this recent post on Quartz:

Reducing the workweek has long been deliberate public policy in a number of European countries, including France, the Netherlands, and Germany. It also seems to be a rule of thumb that technological leaps come with shorter working hours. This happened dramatically in the U.S. a century ago—the standard workweek dropped to about 40 hours by the 1930s, from more than 60 in the 1870s. More recently, South Korea reduced its average workweek to 41 hours from 48 between 2000 and 2014.

There is, of course, variation in workweek hours among all rich countries, the Quartz piece notes. In fact, Germans work about 26 hours per week, according to numbers from the Organisation for EconomicCo-operation and Development, while the Japanese work 33 hours on average.

Meanwhile, “Americans spent around 34 hours per week at work, longer than any of the most technologically advanced OECD nations except Ireland.”

Many of us Americans would argue we already spend MORE than 34 hours at work per week, so why hasn’t the United States followed Europe’s lead?

For one, cultural values. America prides itself on a certain ambition that encourages long hours; to Americans this might make French workers seem lazy, while to Europeans it might seem that America is materialistic and status-obsessed.

Also:

America’s unions are also far weaker than Europe’s, making it difficult for low-earning workers to demand a bigger share of the country’s economic pie, whether that manifests as cash or time off.

Just another something to think about while you’re computing how many more hours you need to log before your next weekend begins.

Worrisome Numbers for Working Moms

Mother’s Day may be three days behind us, but the time still seems right to direct attention to CareerBuilder’s most recent poll focusing on working moms.

The Chicago-based employment website and HR software provider’s 2016 Mother’s Day survey questioned 2,186 hiring and HR managers, along with 1,002 working parents (593 working mothers and 409 working fathers) with children 18 years old and younger who still live with them at home.

The picture the findings paint looks all too familiar, unfortunately: Despite successfully shouldering the same load on the job and at home, working moms’ salaries still lag behind those of their male counterparts.

(In some cases, moms are actually taking on more responsibility with the kids, as 58 percent of working mothers said they spend four or more hours with their children every day during a typical workweek, compared to 41 percent of working dads who said the same.)

For example, at least two in five of the mothers and fathers surveyed indicated they were the sole breadwinner in their family. This survey, however, finds fathers in this role nearly three times as likely to earn $50,000 or more, and three times more likely to bring in a six-figure salary.

Naturally, all parents sometimes struggle to balance the personal and the professional, as 23 percent of working mothers and 26 percent of employed fathers say they’ve missed three or more significant events in their children’s lives in the last year.

Many mothers still feel they can strike that elusive work/life balance, though. Eighty-two percent of those surveyed feel they can “have it all.” Just 50 percent, however, feel they are equally successful in their jobs and as parents, with 36 percent considering themselves more successful as a parent and 14 percent feeling they excel more at work.

All that said, it seems working mothers—and working fathers, for that matter—wouldn’t give up the work/life juggling act even if they could. Overall, 40 percent said they would be unlikely to leave their jobs if their spouse or partner made enough for the family to live comfortably. In addition, 55 percent of working moms suggested they wouldn’t be willing to take a pay cut if it allowed them to spend more time with their kids (66 percent of working dads indicated as much).

Still, while many women balancing family obligations with professional duties feel they have a handle on both, the issue of pay equality continues to make the job more difficult.

“The pressure to succeed in both arenas can be tough, especially if you’re not earning enough money to take care of financial demands at home,” said Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder CHRO, in a statement highlighting the Mother’s Day survey findings. “More working moms today feel that they are able to balance the needs of their professional and personal worlds, but household income still remains a major concern.”

Reflecting on Uber’s Classification Settlement

Worker classification can be a major headache for companies of all shapes and sizes, but for employers embracing the shared-economy business model, it can be one of migraine proportions.

Uber_ride_Bogota_(10277864666)No one knows this better than Uber, which has been facing an onslaught of lawsuits from drivers seeking employee status. Were the drivers to win that battle in the courts, the implications for the firm’s business would be huge.

Well, as you may have heard, Uber avoided that potential outcome in California and Massachusetts when it settled two class-action lawsuits: O’Connor vs. Uber and Yucesoy vs. Uber, respectively.

In the settlement, the parties agreed that …

  • Drivers will remain independent contractors, not employees;
  • Uber will pay $84 million to the plaintiffs (and there would be a second payment of $16 million if Uber goes public and its valuation increases one-and-a-half times from its December 2015 financing valuation within the first year of an IPO);
  • The firm will provide drivers with more information about their individual rating and how it compares with their peers. (It would also introduce a policy explaining the circumstances under which it deactivates drivers in these states from using the app); and
  • The parties would work together to create a driver’s association in both states, with Uber helping to fund these two associations.

In a post about the settlements, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wrote that Uber is “pleased that this settlement recognizes that drivers should remain as independent contractors, not employees,” noting that drivers value their independence—the freedom to push a button rather than punch a clock.

Kalanick admitted that, as Uber has grown, “… we haven’t always done a good job working with drivers.”

As a story in the Los Angeles Times points out, the settlement still needs to be approved by a judge in the District Court of Northern California, which could take months.

“If approved,” the paper reports, “the payment will be distributed among drivers in California and Massachusetts who performed at least one trip up until the date of the preliminary settlement approval. Distribution will be based on miles driven while a passenger was in the car.”

The plantiffs’ attorney, Shannon Liss-Riordan, released a statement to various press outlets saying the settlement was the right move, considering the risk of having a jury rule against the plaintiffs.

Earlier today, I spoke to Thomas Lewis, a shareholder in the Princeton, N.J., office of Stevens & Lee, who told me it was probably a smart move for Uber, too.

“What’s interesting about the Uber case is that the class-action settlement came just short of effectively giving certain rights to these independent contractors that should belong to employees,” he said. “So this is telling me that Uber is clearly aware that there could be a push to classifying independent contractors as employees were it to go through the court system and there was an adjudication.”

And it’s no secret, of course, that, were Uber to come up on the losing end of a court battle, it would be costly, considering the company’s business model.

Of course, there’s no way to know if this will put an end to the worker-classification issue at Uber. Lewis noted if a new class action is filed, it would be need to be filed with a different set of facts or issues that were brought forth.

But at least for the time being, you would think Uber executives should be able to rest a little easier.

Ford’s Drive for a ‘Cooler’ Workplace

If you’re looking for additional signs of the digital economy’s impact on the workplace, check out this article appearing earlier this week on Forbes’ website titled “Ford Will Spend at Least $1B to Make Itself a Cooler Workplace.

300px-Ford_Motor_Company_Logo_svgAccording to the article, Ford Motor is reportedly looking to invest more than $1 billion into making its workplace a lot cooler.

The piece called into mind last year’s General Electric commercial, in which the main character, Owen, is surprised by friends with a cake, balloons and noisemakers. Why? Because they heard he had landed a job as a software developer. When he explains he’s going to be working for General Electric writing code for trains and planes, however, his friends seem confused, with one saying, “You mean you’re going to work on a train?”

It’s a clever commercial (a favorite of mine, I might add) that successfully gets across the point that GE in no longer just an industrial powerhouse, but rather an organization that’s increasingly depending on technological innovation to drive its businesses.

Nor is GE alone in that regard. Automakers such as Ford are also realizing they’re competing in a very different business environment today.

As Doron Levin writes in Forbes’ piece, “The No. 2 U.S. automaker has been saying that it believes digital companies like Uber Inc. and Good could overturn auto making unless it can create mobility products and services instead of just cars and trucks.”

Ford, in response, is now committed to revamping its workplace in order to make it an attractive place to work and, as the Ford press release puts it, “foster innovation and help drive the company’s transition to an auto and a mobility company.”

According to the release, the 10-year transformation of the company’s 60-plus-year-old Dearborn facilities will co-locate 30,000 employees from 70 buildings into primarily two locations—a product campus and a world headquarters campus. More than 7.5 million square feet of workspace will be rebuilt and upgraded into even more technology-enabled and connected facilities.

Changes include “a walkable community with paths, trails and covered walkways,” a new design center, autonomous vehicles, on-demand shuttles, e-bikes, new on-site employee services, wireless connectivity speeds that are up to 10 times faster than today, and more green spaces.

A second campus location—around the current Ford World Headquarters building—will feature “a new Ford Credit facility and provide on-site employee services, improved connectivity and enhanced accessibility to the expansive green space that surrounds the building.”

As Ford President and CEO Mark Fields notes, “As we transition to an auto and a mobility company, we’re investing in our people and the tools they use to deliver our vision. Bringing our teams together in an open, collaborative environment will make our employees’ lives better, speed decision making and deliver results for both our core and emerging businesses.”

It’s just one more example of how new business models, including those coming out of Silicon Valley, are increasingly borrowing from the Silicon Valley playbook and are beginning to think differently about their workplaces.

Think different? Now wouldn’t that make a nice ad slogan for someone.

Do You Walk the Talk of Work/Life Like This One?

Headshot - Shani Godwin
Shani Godwin, Communiqué USA

I just got off the phone with Shani Godwin, the fascinating CEO of a small business in Smyrna, Ga., called Communiqué USA — and, rather than wait another minute before getting her whole work/life approach into a post, I’m typing now. That’s how much her message has inspired me.

She caught my eye in an initial email spelling out the details of a policy she implemented many years ago — long before France announced its new law last April banning all employees from emailing for work past 6 p.m.

In Godwin’s case, she disallows her employees to email for work past 7 p.m. on weeknights and throughout the weekends. And she’s been doing that — and much, much more — almost since she founded her company 14 years ago because of her sincere belief that your employees are only as good as the people you allow them to be.

And that, she would tell you, includes parents who need to be at a bus stop at 2:30 p.m., or a T-ball game for an entire afternoon, or a school play or doctor’s appointment. It includes elder-caregivers who need to tend to Mom or Dad, or a spouse or significant other, or God forbid, a loved one in hospice.

It also includes any and all employees who are sick for however long it takes them to get well (I was talking to Godwin the day she returned from being out for a full week with the flu), or who might simply be feeling burned out and in need of time away from the office or maybe a two-week vacation. (If you’re wondering how far afield this vacation concept is, read Mike O’Brien’s HRE Daily post about the upsurge among millennials of what’s being called “vacation shame.”)

“People loan themselves to the job every day,” says Godwin. “If I can’t give back so these people can enjoy the first 18 years of a child’s life, then what good am I and what good are they?” In fact, she chooses to have happy, balanced employees instead of what seems to still dominate the corporate American workforce (drained, overworked and always-on, 24/7, workaholics. ) She insists on it. She even makes her email policy and work/life commitment part of every client contract.

“We don’t finalize any assignment involving clients and employees until all details are clear and agreed upon,” she says. “If the person we’re assigning the contract to needs to be at the bus stop at a certain time every day, it’s written into the contract. So is the fact that no one from our company will be getting back to the client via email past 7 p.m. or on weekends.”

How do clients feel about that? They seem to be more accepting than employees, it seems.

“We have to be very strict and policing sometimes about keeping to this commitment to balance,” Godwin says. “Employees, employers, society in general, we’re all connected. To truly have balance, you need strict boundaries, and you need to adhere to them. It’s never been the clients who need reminding; it’s actually the employees. We have to say, ‘Hey, we saw you sent that email at 8 p.m. … don’t do that again.’ ”

In the last year, “the company has grown, project by project, from five employees to 15,” she says. Albeit still a very small company, it’s big enough now to demand a more systemic, structured, formalized and policy-driven approach if everyone is going to really adhere to her be-good-to-yourself and be-free restrictions. “For my staff,” she says, “I encourage them all to decide to what extent they want to work.”

That means, if work builds up and there’s too much for an employee with small children to handle, given his or her work/life-balance criteria, Godwin says, “we just hire someone else to fill that need and our message to the current employee is, ‘Thank you for doing your personal best to create another job for another person to come in.’ Rather than simply ‘rewarding’ them with more work [which no doubt goes on in corporate America far more than we think, methinks], we create another job so that person is still protected and able to pick up her kids every day.”

So where does this most-unique position in business come from? All the way back to when Godwin was a member of corporate America herself, with advertising and marketing stints at Bell South and Chick-fil-A, as well as other large employers.

“Fourteen years ago, I could not envision how I could possibly keep up the schedule I had and ever have a life, or ever even entertain the thought of having a family.”

She remembers asking herself back then, “How can I really be there for ballet classes and baseball games? That’s simply not going to happen.”

“I personally believe we have no company without our employees and if they’re happy and living balanced lives, they’ll be energized and productive, and the clients will be treated well,” says Godwin.

“There no sense in bugging someone to give you [a report or piece of information] while they’re attending a funeral” or involved in a birth … or even just a kid’s activity.

“It’s been a personal decision for me to put people before profit,” she says, and it appears to be paying off in terms of retention, morale and employee-satisfaction results.

Could it work in the same corporate America she left 14 years ago? I guess we won’t know until we try.