Q: While my organization often pays lip service to supporting a healthy work/life balance for its employees there isn’t a healthy work/life balance amongst the staff here. The managers are workaholics, and I don’t see anyone actually utilizing the work/life benefits that we supposedly have available to us. I have a small child at home and want to be able to spend more time with him. However, I’m worried that if I start changing my schedule, or leave right at 5 p.m. every day, I will be penalized and it will hurt my opportunities for advancement within the organization. Do you have any advice?

A. Unfortunately, your predicament is a common situation faced by many employees in today’s workforce. Organizations often struggle to promote the value of work/life balance. Often the key is to pair policy with a supportive culture. Creating a culture that embraces work/life balance starts at the top and many executives fail to set healthy examples for their workforce. What’s more, studies continue to uncover evidence that both men and women are penalized for taking advantage of work/life programs and reveal that work/life conflicts generate significant levels of stress.

There are no perfect solutions to this issue; however, our research and experience has shown that in order to successfully implement and maintain work/life programs that are accessible, and actually used by employees, the following key ingredients need to be present:

  • The organization’s policies, practices, and culture need to respect the fact that employees have lives outside of work, and affirmatively help them balance the competing demands of work and family.
  • Genuine efforts should be made to solicit input from employees regarding the work/life benefits most desired by them, and their implementation should be taken under consideration.
  • The organization’s culture, and not just its practices, support the concept of work/life balance.
  • Managers and supervisors must promote flexibility and view it as a business strategy to increase productivity, efficiency, employee retention rates, and overall employee satisfaction.

These components are vital to establishing and maintaining effective work/life programs, but you may still be thinking, “If only the leaders of my company could see the whole picture.”

Part of the underlying issue here is that managers and executives often do not notice these issues unless they are framed and measured in terms of business costs. The good news is that a strong business case can be made regarding the relationship between progressive workplace practices, such as work/life initiatives, and the organization’s bottom-line.

Studies continue to show that in supportive workplaces employees are more engaged. As a result, they work longer, harder, and more efficiently. In addition, highly engaged employers are significantly more likely to stay with their employers than employees who are not engaged. The specific issue of employee turnover provides a strong business case when you consider that the cost to an organization to replace an employee who quits is between 50 percent and 150 percent of that employee’s salary. This subject is of particular importance to today’s organizational leaders who are drawing from a decreasing employment pool, and the fact that “Generation Y” employees have a clear priority of fitting their work into their lives rather than vice versa.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce, in a recent Harvard Business Review article entitled “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps,” summarize this core issue in very succinct terms. They write, “Transformation of the corporate culture seems to be a prerequisite for successes on the work-life front. Those people at or near the top of an organization need to have that ‘eureka’ moment, when they not only understand the business imperative for imaginative work-life policies but are prepared to embrace them, and in so doing remove the stigma.”

Seek out constructive ways to make the “business case” to appropriate individuals within your organization. We have found that if employees can point to larger organizational needs and solutions, rather than just their personal case, it adds credibility to their case and they are taken more seriously. The best place to test the waters is probably with your immediate supervisor. You can also suggest that the organization gather metrics to assess its progress with the current work/life initiatives and programs that are in place. Ongoing assessment is a very common and integral component of today’s marketplace, and suggesting such a process should not appear to be an abnormal request.