Thursday, 28 October 2010

After 20 years, a whole new set of work-life issues

by WFC Resources

Jobs Vacancy, Employment, Job Vacancies

This year WFC Resources – and arguably the entire work-life field – celebrates its 20th anniversary. Back in 1984, “work and family” was a brand new term, totally focused on childcare. There’ve been some dramatic changes in the past 20 years, changes in the field of work-life, and in the focus of the work-life professional.

Some things have not changed. Quality care for children of all ages is certainly no less important. In our rush to please Wall Street, it often looks as if American society has forgotten that without healthy, nurtured children there will be no future.

Eldercare and other caregiving programs are more important than ever, and will continue to grow in importance as our workforce ages.

And it is still vitally important to help employees meet their other personal and home life obligations in order that they may be fully present when they're at work.

So we're not suggesting that we work-life professionals change our focus. We are suggesting it be broadened to include the basic needs of all workers. Here are some thoughts about what some of those needs are, and where we believe we work-life professionals must put our attention.

Wages

Wages may be the most critical work-life issue. This spring, a study by Northeastern University researchers reported that while output increased 7.3% between 2002 and 2003, hourly compensation grew only 1.2%. In every other economic recovery since World War II, labor compensation increased at a greater rate than corporate returns. This time, while corporate profits have achieved healthy growth, the real hourly and weekly earnings of the average wage and salary worker increased by only 1.6% over the past two years, from $15.10 to $15.63. As the attention of financial executives focuses on human capital, more work-life professionals are being called to the table where business decisions are made. Let's not let them forget while we're there that people must earn a living wage.

Health care

Health care is a key work-life issue for several reasons. First, of course, there are the uninsured, a group that’s growing by leaps and bounds. And now the link between high health care costs and jobs is painfully clear. Economists are saying that the unaffordable cost of health insurance is one of the main reasons job growth hasn’t kept up with the rest of the recovery. It’s also one of the reasons, along with wages, that U.S. jobs are going to India and China (although that’s a more complicated issue). The latest Mercer study says providing health care benefits could cost employers as much as 13% more in 2005 on top of the huge increases over the past few years. Many firms will shift as much as 4% of that increase to employees. Work-life professionals had better join the lobby for government help on this one; employees and employers must be confident about affordable health care that includes prevention as well as catastrophe protection.

Workload, stress and the focus on productivity

Every study ever conducted on the matter has linked stress with higher health care costs! Employers are trying hard to reduce employee angst with “stress management” programs, but there is no “program” that can counterbalance 70-hour weeks and the stress of unmet expectations and obligations both at home and at work. Researchers are finding that the benefits of stress management programs are, at best, short lasting, said a recent article in the Science Times section of the New York Times (9-7-04). With the assistance of Blackberries, Palms and WiFi, work obligations have pushed “like a climbing vine” into almost every corner of private life. An article by American University professors Joan Williams and Ariane Hegewisch published last month (9/6/04) in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (and originally in the LA Times) points out that the U.S. “productivity advantage” is just another way of saying that we work more hours than workers in any other industrialized country except South Korea. Our lead in the world vanishes when productivity is measured per hour worked. One mission for work-life professionals should be to encourage their employers and clients to know what a normal day's work is and enforce it.

Demographics and the quandary of the older worker

Each month our collection of news features more and more articles about the older worker, and it's a confusing state of affairs. Some companies are still offering early retirement packages to get rid of them and others are knocking themselves out to keep them as long as possible. Here are three factors involved in the decision:

1. As workers get older, their benefit costs rise (again, health care raises its ugly head) decreasing their value.
2. It behooves companies to hold on to those expensive older workers and keep their experience. Whether or not we agree that there is a severe labor shortage ahead, there seems to be no disagreement about the approaching shortage of leadership skills and experienced workers, as the Gen Xers, fewer in number, move into leadership positions.
3. You can’t fire a worker just for being old, and fewer are going to be enticed by a retirement package unless it replaces the savings they lost in the recent recession. More will feel forced to stay in order to replenish their savings.

Put them all together and they add up to an older workforce, and once employees begin to age, they need some accommodation. While there may be some costs involved, next month’s Trend Report will show that not only are companies doing that, they're also demonstrating a firm belief that the cost is nothing compared with the payoff. Work-life professionals should be ready to offer advice and counsel on how to go about it.

Flexibility and control

We all know by now, 20 years after the birth of our field, that these are two of the most important words in a work-life professional's vocabulary. We must help employers see that if they want employees to take responsibility, they must treat them like responsible adults, not school children. That means collaborating and agreeing on goals, making results measurable, and giving employees flexibility and control over how the work is done. And it means redesigning jobs so that those tasks that demand to be done in the office can be separated out wherever possible, leaving a "job" that's appropriate for flexibility. Work-life professionals can help.
Once we thought that if we did a good job, companies would catch on to the importance of hiring whole people and allowing them to have a life, and we work-life professionals would put ourselves out of business. Twenty years later it looks as though that's not going to happen any time soon. While work-life may be integrated into other areas of the company, and may even be called by names like "talent manager" or "retention strategist," the tasks of the advocate are expanding rather than contracting, and the stakes are only getting higher.


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