Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Choosing the Right Metaphor to Ensure Work-Life Quality for All

by WFC Resources

Jobs Vacancy, Employment, Employment Jobs

Innovation and creativity advancing the work-life agenda

A great leader seems to be able to find just the right metaphor that clarifies the idea and minimizes distortion. - Warren Bennis

Work-Life Balance/Integration/Harmony/Effectiveness – around the world we’ve gathered the evidence, made the business case, presented the ROI (Return on Investment) arguments, and demonstrated the tangible and intangible impacts on performance and productivity and human resource management priorities like recruitment and engagement. So why it is still so hard to get the attention of corporate leaders or to get managers to create supportive work environments? And, why are individuals around the world still struggling to find solutions for predictable work-life pressures; forced to make sacrifices instead of informed choices; opting out instead of following alternative career paths; compromising personal values related to family and community involvement instead of aligning them with progressive employers?

If metaphor describes the relationship between two unlike objects, ideas or situations, then clearly, metaphor is essential for describing the complex relationship between our jobs, work experience and careers and the rest of our lives--our multiple responsibilities, personal commitments, interests, preferences and priorities, and our dreams and aspirations. If metaphors are the connections or mutual influences among words, mind-sets, and behaviors, then organizations need carefully selected, culturally appropriate, simple and clear metaphor.

Mental models influence the design of our institutions, the nature of our relationships, and the way we communicate with each other. The fields of change management, leadership development and chaos theory all rely on metaphor to explain complex theories. In The Tangled Bank, author Stanley Edgar Hyman (1974) examined the work of Darwin, Marx, Frazer and Freud, and concluded that the ‘language of ideas is metaphor.’ If we want to change behaviors, we need to first change mind-sets; to change mind-sets we need to change the mental images; to change mental images we need to change the metaphors we use in the work-life field.

To get leadership team attention, manager buy in, and employee engagement, we need the right metaphor. In the eighties we tried to balance work and life; whether balance makes you think ‘balance sheet’ that you are trying to reconcile (taking from the life side to add to the career side, or vice versa, in hopes of finding the ever-illusive magic formula), or a balance beam or tight rope, (precarious at best and near impossible when you are running full speed ahead, while being pulled in all directions), the ability to achieve it is frustrating, if not impossible. To be successful you need to work really hard, master new skills and rely on your individual effort. Not surprisingly, we were able to introduce innovative programs and policies but were unable to change attitudes, behaviors or cultures.

In North America in the nineties we tried to integrate and harmonize work-life responsibilities. These metaphors produced images of blending, merging, combining different aspects of our lives—resulting in one giant pot of stew. We worked 24/7, had no boundaries and found it difficult to succeed at anything because we were always doing everything. It was hard to distinguish roles and responsibilities between employers, managers and employees, and impossible to assign accountability. So we followed the integration metaphor with work-life effectiveness which defined the multiple aspects of our lives as unique but inextricably linked.

Today, innovative organizations are increasingly looking for business related metaphors; harder, more familiar, less risky. So now we’re talking about work-life quality; quality of life and quality of work and work experience. Achieving work-life quality requires the involvement of employers, employees, labor organizations, governments and communities. The idea of work-life and well-being is certainly not new but some of the language is being updated. Work-life quality integrates health and fitness, mental health and well-being and non-work commitments, as well career aspirations and job satisfaction.

For example, instead of starting with the premise of “I need balance in my life so I need a flexible work arrangement” employees are now starting with “In order for me to serve the client to the best of my ability (meet our obligations…fulfill our commitments…ensure consistently high quality service…be the best possible litigator…reach my full potential…), my optimal workload is 80% or 37-42 hours per week including billable and non-billable hours.” Then they start negotiating terms of engagement with their employer.

From an organizational perspective, the quality of work environments and work experience is linked to increased productivity and profits and reduced benefits costs. From an individual perspective, the quality of life, health and relationships are key contributors to peak performance and job and life satisfaction. From a community perspective, work-life quality leads to increased economic performance and enhanced social outcomes.

International work-life quality drivers

The international work-life quality agenda is being driven by shared work-life experiences: more people are working longer hours, stress leaves are on the rise, and more people are saying it’s hard to achieve work-life balance. We are all getting older, work demands continue to increase and expectations continue to rise. Employees are saying “enough is enough” and disengaging, demanding support, or leaving. Employers are paying a heavy price for presenteeism, absenteeism, regrettable turnover and loss in productivity.

Organizations are responding by shifting their efforts from a programmatic to a strategic approach — addressing work-life and well-being issues holistically and linking initiatives to organizational priorities, HR objectives and existing workplace supports. Comprehensive strategies are being designed to engage employees, reduce turnover and maximize individual and organizational performance.

The focus is shifting from accommodating employee needs to leveraging employee potential. This means creating supportive work environments that respect individual interests and commitments outside of work, setting reasonable timelines and manageable workloads, providing adequate and appropriate resources to meet challenges, clearly communicating expectations, ensuring employees have control over how, where and when work gets done, recognizing and rewarding contributions, promoting health and well-being and facilitating work-life harmony.

New perspective-new positioning based on recent research

In a report released earlier this year, Who Is at Risk? Predictors of Work-Life Conflict Work, Canadian professors Linda Duxbury and Chris Higgins explain that non-work demands, such as child care, elder care and home chores, are not substantive predictors of work-life conflict. In fact, the key predictor is corporate culture and work environments. When employees perceive that it is not acceptable for them to say “no” to more work, and that family responsibilities limit career advancement, staff will experience higher rates of work-life conflict.

Innovative practices

Organizations now see work-life quality less as a “program” and more as “a way of doing business” day in and day out, and they’re realizing that wellness cannot be just a head-office solution.

Focusing on workload management Pfizer Consumer Healthcare Canada launched Freedom 6-to-6 (no e-mails after 6:00 p.m. or before 6:00 a.m.; no meetings after 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon). They are helping employees draw boundaries between work and life and finding ways to create a quality work environment that nourishes and rejuvenates.

Focusing on reaching all employees, not just professional staff the City of Burlington in Ontario now provides a variety of wellness opportunities for all employees, including transit workers, firefighters, road crews and parks and recreation staff. And, although IBM traditionally does not have fitness centers at its work sites, it does have a very strong commitment to organizational health and wellness, so it has introduced TriFit’s web-based fitness program for at-home use for 20,000 Canadian IBM employees.

Focusing on manager awareness in 2005, Xerox Canada introduced a 2.5-hour mandatory training session on mental health, helping them identify the signs of mental illness and instructing them on how to take appropriate steps to have a positive influence on the situation.

As the historian Thomas Kuhn once observed, "You can't see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it." As work-life transitions once again to another metaphor, we are at, or near, a “tipping point” with respect to work-life quality. Organizations are aware of the issues, taking action, being innovative, and measuring results. Employers are approaching work-life quality comprehensively, equitably and strategically. Expect more innovation, creativity and progress in the months ahead.

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