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Work-Life Balance: An Update from the Frontlines

A balanced pile of stones representing work-life balance

This article originally appeared in Lēad Magazine, Issue 14: The Search for Balance.

By Marilynne Madigan, Managing Partner, Ontario Health and Benefits Consulting Practice, Morneau Shepell

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) estimates that employee burnout accounts for $12 billion in health claims every year. This staggering statistic warrants revisiting a topic that for several years now has been at the forefront of the employment world: the work-life balance – or rather, imbalance – of employees.

Digging a bit deeper, the cost to employers of lost time caused by mental health issues is about $1,500 per person, per year. In fact, every year, Canada’s private sector spends about $180 billion in short-term disability payouts, and $135 billion for long-term disability. Absenteeism, which is simply not coming to work, and presenteeism, which is coming to work while sick, costs Canadian employers about $6.3 billion every year.

The causes of work-life imbalance

So what are the causes of all this mental unrest in the workplace? The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) identifies four broad reasons: role overload, which is where an employee is asked to take on an unreasonable amount of work; work-to-family interference, which happens when one’s role at work encroaches too much on their personal life; family-to-work interference, which happens when one’s family troubles, be it a sick relative, domestic conflict, or something else, makes it hard for them to fulfill their work commitments; and caregiver strain, which occurs when one is responsible for taking care of a relative in need, be it a child, a spouse, or an elderly parent.

Of these categories, caregiver strain is often cited as a major source of work-life imbalance these days because many of those in their prime working years are charged with taking care both of their young children (whom they had at an older age) and their aging parents, dubbing them the “Sandwich Generation”. However, all four categories identified by CCOHS remain equally relevant. Simply put, the current resourcing level realities indicate that we are all being asked to do more with less, both personally and professionally.

It’s not just employees at the tipping point

The question that needs to be asked, especially when you consider the statistics above, is whether employers have really tried to accommodate their employees’ needs. The answer is that there are indeed many employers who ‘get it’; they embrace employee- and family-assistance programs and they ensure that such services aid in the holistic wellness of their workers and their workers’ family members.

Employers who remain closed to such assistance programs, or who only pay lip service to them, do so at their own peril. They will inevitably feel the strain on their bottom lines while those who acknowledge and act to lighten the load of Canadian employees will see more productivity, higher talent attraction and retention, and an overall more engaged, motivated, and devoted workforce.

The role of management is to be role models

Any organization that chooses to implement employee assistance programs mustn’t forget the importance of having visibly engaged managers. Creating a culture that accepts work-life balance needs to start at the top with senior leaders modeling the right behaviours. Only from there can employers start to create what’s called a “psychologically safe” workplace. In fact, statistics show that by training leaders to make the workplace more psychologically safe, employers can reduce costs associated with mental health issues by 15% to 30%.

Of course, once management has been trained and the programs have been implemented, it’s imperative that employers ensure their actions actually have an effect by measuring whether their employees are experiencing better work-life balance and improved mental health. How? It’s simple: just ask them. Sending out regular surveys is the perfect way to take the pulse of any workforce. Over the long term, productivity measures should be established and it should come as no surprise when those measures reflect the employees’ collective opinion on work-life balance.

What to implement and how to measure it

So what are the employers who ‘get it’ doing to improve their employees’ work-life balance? Among the most popular approaches are flexible work hours, remote working arrangements (including job sharing) and opportunities for workplace health activities. Particularly, advances in telecommunications have made many of these options more and more viable. And while some argue that those advances have actually made it easier for work to intrude on people’s personal lives, there are disciplined steps employees can take to prevent that from happening, such as creating a separate workspace at home. With that said, it is also the employer’s responsibility to actively support such arrangements via a formal work plan program and by investing in innovative virtual solutions that allow for group work and regular team contact despite physical distances.

A harmonious future ahead

Throughout my career as an HR professional, I have witnessed friends, family, colleagues, and clients juggling work, school, family responsibilities, and a personal life. However, only in recent years have I seen employers accept the fact that changes must be made to support employees experiencing those same struggles. Employers are understanding more and more how work-life imbalance is impacting their businesses. As a result, they are creating cultures that are more supportive not just of balance, but of harmony. And while every individual’s idea of harmony is different, there is a generational trend to keep in mind. More so than the Baby Boomers did, Generation X and Generation Y covet work-life harmony and are not likely to work for (or at least stay with) organizations that do not value and embrace that philosophy. That’s why it pays (figuratively and literally) for employers to remember that employment is a two-way street.

About the Author

Marilynne MadiganMorneau Shepell is the largest Canadian-based firm offering industry-leading pension and benefits consulting, outsourcing, and health and productivity solutions. As the Managing Partner for Morneau Shepell’s Ontario Health and Benefits Consulting practice, Marilynne boasts more than 30 years’ HR experience and over 20 years of extensive domestic and international experience in the areas of Strategic Benefits, Retirement, Investment, and Compensation for Fortune 100 organizations.

About Lēad 

Since its first issue in 2007, Adecco Canada’s Lēad Magazine has been keeping employers on the cutting-edge of developments, trends, and breakthroughs in workforce management. Featuring articles from some of Canada’s foremost economic, legal, diversity, political, and HR experts, Lēad is an invaluable guide through the dynamic and ever-changing world of employment affairs. To view past issues, please visit our Lēad archive.

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