The Myth of Work-Life Balance: The Sandwich Generation

February 4, 2016 | Dale Harris

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After almost 20 years of consulting, being a 46 year old husband and father of a 3-year old and a 6-month old, I have become convinced that Work-Life Balance is a myth. At this stage of my life and career, I realize there is never a balance; one is always suffering while the other is thriving. From my experience, the key is to make sure that neither gets too out of whack in relation to the other. This is especially true for The Sandwich Generation.

The Sandwich Generation is the generation of people who are raising children and helping to care for aging parents.  They are sandwiched between the needs of their kids and the escalating needs from their parents. This places special pressures on how they operate day to day and manage the pressures of home and their career. 

The fact is that some companies are good at supporting these people and some are not. And even within the same company, some managers are much better than others at enabling their employees to manage these pressures in a much more productive manner.

What is clear from most research is that companies that manage this well, have higher levels of: employee engagement, satisfaction and retention. Here are some of the best in class practices that I have found my clients doing to support their employees, especially The Sandwich Generation, who already has a high level of experience and competence.

FLEXIBLE HOURS

Dropping kids off at school, doctor appointments and other various activities often interrupt the work day. Seasoned employees usually manage this responsibly, but sometimes just need a little help to make everything work.  Companies that allow for scheduling freedom, can drastically and positively impact the happiness of their employees. And happy employees tend to be more productive employees, so everyone wins.

The fact is that there is nothing magical about the hours between 8 and 5; most people use technology to call, text and email outside of those hours anyway. It used to be “sorry honey I have to work on Saturday,” and a spouse disappeared to the office for the day.  But now it is returning emails while the kids nap, watching the soccer game or visiting an elderly parent.  Most people are connected all or at least most of the time, so give them the freedom and flexibility to get life maintenance done during the week. Employees will usually pay you back exponentially.

FLEXIBLE WORKING ENVIRONMENT

Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s there was a huge movement towards telecommuting and alternative working arrangements. While research is a little unclear as to what this does to productivity, employees do report higher levels of satisfaction when given the alternative. Since it was abused by some, many businesses moved away from the practice. However, I’ve found that companies that offer the flexibility of a hybrid approach really see positive effects. It communicates trust in the employee and allows them to accomplish life tasks seamlessly through the course of the day, while not wasting valuable time on the freeway.

Policies can be informal or formal. In smaller companies, or companies with looser policies, you may be able to allow total flexibility and just hold people accountable to work deliverables. In larger companies, and companies with more prescriptive policies, you may need to be more specific. For instance, you may specify that one day per week can be performed “from home” or “out of the office.” They key is to check with HR and make sure all policies and procedures are fair and equitable.

If you want to help your employees balance their work life and professional life, then rethink your expectations about where they have to perform the tasks in their work day. Allow them flexibility to work where they are most happy, when possible, and you will likely find them more committed to you, the work and the organization.

PAID TIME OFF (PTO)

Most of our clients are moving away from sick leave, vacation time, personal time, and floating holidays for just PTO. This is great because at its core is a philosophy that employees are trustworthy to determine what is the appropriate use of their time. Some of our clients have moved away from even giving the number of days that employees are limited to, instead trusting their employees to take time off in a way that enables them to complete all of their job requirements. This approach really empowers employees to manage their personal life as they deem necessary.

I can honestly say that I have found this freedom to be rarely abused. In fact, more often I find that high performers are not taking all their days off. They often have to be told by HR or Leadership that they must take some days off before year end, due to company regulations. This is a different problem for companies to manage. If all your high performers never take time off, then you must consider the message you are sending to more junior employees.

MODEL

Like the example of PTO, it is critical that Leadership in an organization model what they say is important. If you say that Balance is a core value of a company, then leaders need to be: using PTO, disconnecting from work during some weekends, not sending emails consistently at 1 AM, and showing other signs that they are prioritizing home life. Not all of the time but some of the time!

Most employees try to emulate their boss and demonstrate a similar work ethic. In this global business climate, many workers are faced with a 24 hour, non-stop work environment. It is increasingly difficult to “turn off” even to sleep at night.  Companies need to be mindful of the expectations that they place on employees and how that impacts the rest of their life.  Little things sometimes have big consequences to individuals.

TAKE AWAYS

While Work-Life Balance feels like an elusive dream to many, organizations can do some small things to help their employees thrive.  This has never been truer, than for The Sandwich Generation right now. It is always best to ask your employees about their needs, but here is a check list of questions to consider if you and your organization are doing all that you can to support your employees:

  • Have we considered alternative working hours?
  • Does everyone need to work the same hours?
  • Is it critical that people work from the office?
  • Do we enable employees to take the time off when they need it? Do we encourage it?
  • Does our leadership model our values?
  • Have we reviewed our policies recently and adjusted them based on the current work environment?
  • Are our policies fair and equitable to all?

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dale Harris is the Managing Principal of Apex Performance Strategies, a management consulting firm that specializes in Organizational Development and Strategic Planning.

Tags Flexibility, Work-Life Balance, Time Off


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