By Carol Louw, CCH senior writer
A recent study of 12,000 top end Australian managers has revealed that the key determinant of an effective work-life balance is not a company’s policy in this area but the approach of its line managers.
Professor Linda Duxbury of the Carleton University School of Business in Canada presented findings of the 2008 study at Australian Human Resources Institute’s (AHRI) National Convention in Sydney.
The study showed that Australian professionals work very hard:
• They work approximately 48 hours per week
• 70% do unpaid overtime work after hours
• They do about 6 hours of overtime per week
• They spend about 11 hours a week doing childcare and 4 hours involved in eldercare
Professor Duxbury pointed out that hours spent at work is not a predictor of productivity, but a “predictor of stupidity”.
No one can work long hours indefinitely: they become exhausted, ill and begin to make mistakes. She identified four areas of work life conflict:
• Role overload
• Work interferes with family
• Family interferes with work
• Caregiver strain
A substantial number of Australian managers and professionals in the study reported high levels of role overload and work interfering with family life. Very few reported high levels of family interfering with work or caregiver strain (in the form of physical, emotional or financial strain).
Prof Duxbury criticised the use of Blackberries, which she called the “spawn of Satan”… given that the study revealed a massive increase in weekly hours of work once employees began using a Blackberry.
Role overload occurs due to time spent at work, doing overtime and travelling to and from work.
In the Australian survey 61% of women and 40 % of men with childcare responsibilities reported being overloaded.
The impact of role overload on an organisation is significant:
• About 40% of employees who were overloaded took sick days or “mental health” days
• Around 40% of employees who experienced role overload said that they would not have children
• 25% had small families.
While about 80% of survey participants with low overload reported being satisfied with their jobs, just 50% of those with high overload were satisfied.
Work interferes with family
As with role overload, the impact on an organisation includes low job satisfaction and a tendency to take “mental health” days.
Family interferes with work
Around 20% of women and 10% of men in the sandwich generation (ie, having both childcare and eldercare responsibilities) experience this. It too is hugely predictive of absenteeism.
This form of strain affects those caring for the elderly. It can take the form of physical, emotional or financial strain. According to the study it is not yet common is Australia, but is likely to increase as the Australian population ages.
Professor Duxbury predicted that caregiver strain is likely to become one of Australia’s biggest issues, and is one where there will be no gender differences.
Access to work life balance
Prof Duxbury pointed out that the various forms of work-life conflict all affect absenteeism, turnover, engagement and morale. In Canada, where employers pay for employees’ prescriptive drugs, she said that the biggest spend is on Prozac.
Importantly, Prof Duxbury pointed out that work-life policies put in place in an organisation actually have no impact on work-life balance in practice, because “the jerk you report to gets in the way”. In other words, there is a big gap between policy and practice because much depends on who you report to rather than the polices that the organisation has in place.
In the Australian study, 40% of respondents reported good access to work-life balance options, 40% reported moderate access, while 20% said they had no access. The key indicator of whether employees were able to access such options did not depend on company policy or on the type of work that was performed. The only predictor was who they reported to.
Prof Duxbury noted that “employees work for their immediate manager, not for the organisation”. So, what makes for good management?
Australian and Canadian studies both identified three types of manager:
• Supportive (40%)
• Mixed (40%)
• Non-supportive (20%)
Interestingly, the “mixed” managers were the most stressful to work for because they were unpredictable.
Managers who experienced the most stress were the supportive ones because they worked the hardest.
The bottom line
Prof Duxbury reiterated the well known fact that employees do not leave organisations – they leave their managers.
Both the Australian and Canadian data shows that management behaviour is a key predictor of an organisation’s:
• bottom line (EAP, prescription medication, which is a cost carried by Canadian employers, and absenteeism)
• ability to recruit, motivate and retain
To be competitive, Australian organisations and governments must address the work-life issue. It is no longer an issue that affects only young women with children. The situation will worsen as the population ages and more employees enter the sandwich generation and assume eldercare responsibility. With declining fertility rates a smaller pool of offspring will be available to look after the older generation.
Prof Duxbury pointed out that Australia has the highest reliance on part-time labour in the world. Part-time labour is not the solution because part-time workers tend to do more pro rata work at work than full-timers, and then do the same amount of work at home as full-time parents.
Prof Duxbury stressed the importance of dealing with workload in managerial and professional ranks. Organisations need to:
• Increase the numbers of support staff, rather than expecting professional to “do it all” from typing to cleaning their own desks
• Identify critical success factors
• Implement etiquette around the use of office technology, for example, the hours within which to expect emails to be answered.
Young people in their teens and 20s do not want the working lives that they have seen their parents experience. Flexibility must be a reality.
Prof Duxbury said that managing people is as important as managing shareholder value, operations and budget. Managers must be given time to manage people and must be trained on how to do this.
She concluded by stressing that “only the heart and souls of your people give you a competitive advantage”.