Like many women, Sue Shellenbarger has balanced motherhood with a career. It just so happens that her job is to write about work/life balance. She has been the Work and Family columnist for The Wall Street Journal since 1991. She is also the author of “The Breaking Point: How Today’s Women Are Navigating Midlife Crisis.” In this interview Shellenbarger provides tips that leaders can use to improve work/life balance for their employees.
I understand that you went through some work/life changes between when you served as bureau chief for the Journaland when you started writing the Work and Family column. Tell me about that.
I ran our Midwestern bureau based in Chicago. I really enjoyed that responsibility and the company was very supportive. I had three stepchildren and managed to balance my role as a stepmother with my responsibilities as the bureau chief.
When I had my birth children in 1987 and 1990, the conflicts were very tough for me to reconcile. I found I didn’t get to spend as much time with them as I wanted and decided to cut back and step down to reporting; and then cut back again to a part-time position with the Journal. Finally, I quit to freelance, all in an effort to find what I felt was the right work/life balance for me to oversee my kids’ child care.
As I was leaving the staff to freelance, I proposed to the Journal to start a column covering work/family conflict, child care, elder care, workplace quality, stress – all the issues that people face when they’re trying to have a healthy life outside of work while also doing a good job for their employers. The column proved very popular and it actually became my second career.
You rejoined the staff at the Journal in 1994, working on the column full-time. How were the mindsets of business leaders and employees changing when it came to approaching work/life balance?
Well, at the time there were only two or three of us in the country [in the newspaper business] who were focused on work/family balance and work/family issues in any central way. It was great fun to develop the beat as a workplace quality beat. What I found as I began to cover work and family was that employers that did a good job on work/family issues also tended to be very well-run companies and had very effective workplaces. The two seemed to go together. And I found that if employees felt respected at work, and engaged and involved, they also tended to feel fairly satisfied with their work/life balance. So it was fascinating to see that unfold not only in my own beat but in people’s minds.
From what you’ve learned in researching the topic and advising your readers, what are a few simple things that employers can do to help their employees find a suitable work/life balance?
Two things come to mind, and they’re both fundamental. First, flexibility in work hours and work location is incredibly important to employees today. If they have flexibility, many people can solve their own work/life problems. To the extent that individual jobs allow it and employees’ performance merits it, if employers can take steps toward allowing flexible scheduling and flex place, it’s a huge step toward helping employees balance their lives.
That’s not to say that employers should give away the store – flexibility must be done to serve the business. And employees can help in this process in their proposals to their bosses. They can say to their bosses, “Here’s how it will serve the business if I’m allowed to work flexibly. Here’s how I will contribute more to the business if you allow me to work today from home.”
This leads into the second thing, which is to respect employees’ work/life dilemmas. A major way for executives to do this is simply to ask employees, in annual surveys if possible, “What are your issues? Do you feel respected, involved and engaged? Do you feel you have the flexibility and the tools you need to do your job well?” Time after time, companies are surprised to see that work/life issues are getting in the way of people doing their jobs.
You’ll be contributing an article to the Journal Report on Small Business that comes out on October 1, which will feature the Top Small Workplaces winners, and you’ll also be delivering the welcome address at our conference on October 4. Can you give a preview of what you’ll be writing and speaking about?
I’m really looking forward to talking about the bottom-line impact of good workplace policies, and how what many small and medium-sized business owners have known intuitively for years is now being proven in studies and respected on Wall Street. In fact, big companies are slowly and in some cases clumsily moving toward what the best small businesses have been doing for years, which is to respect and engage their employees, to systematically reward them in a way that matters to them and in some cases to open the books and share financial information with them.
These are all things which research now shows, really gets employees to deliver extra effort, whether it be helping a customer in a way that the customer remembers, or thinking about cost savings and ideas that will help the business.
These are new times in this arena of workplace quality. In the past there were a few voices crying in the wilderness. Now it’s really become a chorus of executives in businesses of all sizes [asking employees], “How can we make our workplace a better place for people not only to work, but to develop their lives around their work?”