Although the concept of work-life tension has become commonplace, many employers still operate mostly under the pretense that nobody has a life outside of work. Even in the bad old days it must have been blindingly obvious that this wasn’t true.
Notice the pleasantries hitting your email box right around now. Variations on “How was your summer?” introduce or close most messages I receive and, to be honest, many that I send. Technically summer isn’t over, but Labor Day weekend has come and gone and kids are back in school. And on some level, whether or not we have school-aged children of our own, we all still live in a childhood world in which summer means vacation and the start of September means “back to work.”
Surely the cycles of work—even in our workaholic nation—have always reflected the cycles of our personal lives in this way? Try getting a colleague on the phone in late August. Or during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Or the day before Thanksgiving. And that’s just vacation. Most everyone who’s ever worked recognizes the phenomenon of the 3 p.m. phone call, as working parents and kids check in with each other after school. (These days it’s in the form of a text exchange for a lot of us, but that’s just semantics.) What about the quietly ignored “gotta run to an outside meeting” ritual, as we or our co-workers sneak out to catch a Little League game or transport a kid to piano lessons?
So why do so many employers persist in sticking their corporate heads in the proverbial sand, refusing to recognize that people have lives? Doesn’t it seem counterproductive? Surely if they just admitted people were going to want to take more vacations at certain times of the year, or a certain percentage of their population was going to get distracted right around 3:00, they could plan accordingly?
Some workplaces actually do close for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. There’s even at least one company (I’m talking to you, TED) that has a mandatory closing in August. Of course, flexible scheduling is an option for some employees at some companies (although not nearly as available as you might believe from all the hype). And fortunately, increasing numbers of employers are adopting time-off-with-pay, instead of sick days, or extending sick days to cover care of others—thus admitting what we’ve always known: people with caregiving responsibilities sometimes need to “call in sick” when they’re not the ones who are stricken.
But I’m not talking just about bringing on policies that support—rather than ignore—these common life rhythms. That’s a good thing to do, and while it’s not happening enough, it is happening a whole lot more often than it once did. What I’m getting at is building a culture that stops ignoring what these common life rhythms signify. It’s right there in your faces, employers: everyone has a life.
Because the fact is, Americans continue to not take enough vacation. And in many company cultures, even those lucky few who are officially “permitted” to leave early to take that kid to his lesson will feel guilty doing so, and might even continue to pretend they’re leaving for another, more “business-like” reason. And sadly, there are still abundant reports of employees forced to make miserable work vs. family choices, even at companies with a reputation for family-friendliness.
In other words, even as more employers are paying lip service to work-life balance, from what I read and the real-life examples I come across in my professional life, the majority still operate as if employees were just another office supply ( a “human resource!”), with lives no more three-dimensional than a post-it note.
The truth, of course, is that none of us sheds our other dimensions when we enter our places of work. And the cost of trying, as Jeffrey Pfeffer has pointed out, is terrifyingly high. On the other hand, plenty of research points to the profound business benefits of not only recognizing but welcoming employees as whole human beings, with multi-faceted lives outside of work. And I have no doubt at all that the benefits to society of this approach would be profound, as well.
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