The State of Work-Life Policy

Welch Jack Welch, the former GE chief executive, recently caused a stir when he said, "there's no such thing as work-life balance." Is he right?

Work-life policy are laws or business practices that enable people to better manage their work and family responsibilities. Examples of work-life policies are increased use of part-time labor w/benefits, flexible jobs, time-share positions, telecommuting, corporate daycare centers, paternity leave, fully paid maternity leave, and so on. These policies would also include protections for individuals who were unable to work due to full-time care taking responsibilities.

While work-life issues have gotten front page coverage in recent years and have even been mentioned by the president, there is no evidence that there has been any change in business practices and certainly no laws passed that would encourage these practices.

There have been no signs of change in either academia or Wall Street, fields that both Steve and I work in. Steve goes to mandatory seminars on work-life issues, but nobody takes them seriously. The general feeling is that flexible jobs will be the first to be cut during a recession.

The recession has freed up time at home. I'm working from home now, and Steve gets home a half hour earlier. He walks in the door at 6:30, rather than 7:00. That half hour makes a HUGE difference. For the first time ever, we eat dinner together. The food is put away, and we can actually do something with the evening.

But policy aside, is it possible to successfully balance work and family? Sure. But a balance means compromising on both ends. You can't lead a major industry and drive the kids to soccer practice. You can't make dinner from scratch with organic vegetables and read the entire series of Harry Potter to the kids, when you've got late night meetings with Tokyo.

For many people though, they are willing to take that middle ground between workaholic and homemaker. We just need more opportunities to take that route.

Loved this response by Conor Friedersdorf, who is guest blogging at Andrew Sullivan.

It is no coincidence that in our current corporate structure, a lot of
CEOs and law partners lead miserable lives rife with lost friendships,
dysfunctional relationships, divorces, alienated children, ludicrous
attempts to use consumption as a stand in for actual happiness, etc.
Perhaps if we stopped viewing these jobs as what we're aspiring to
reach, and begin seeing them as fool's gold largely sought by folks
with too narrow a conception of ambition, men and women who never reach
the C suite would better count their blessings.


23 thoughts on “The State of Work-Life Policy

  1. Amen to Friedersorf. At every opportunity I have chosen the slightly less responsible/ambitious career choice. I end up (within a decade of retirment) with a good, remunerative enough job, healthy kid and happy marriage and a decent retirement (but not great because of job relocation issues). Many people can and do make these choices between the two coasts. Sometimes good enough is the best choice.

  2. I have a different view. Having met CEOs, law partners, etc, at my advanced age, I tend to think that they all were that way from birth. The competitive world of work sorts them out. They aren’t created by our corporate structure, but a certain type of person will be drawn to those career tracks, and they will thrive if they choose the right one–for them.
    Life-work balance, as an issue, becomes more important as you age, particularly if you have a family. College graduates, though, usually have no idea how miserable they will be in their mid- to late 30’s, if they choose the wrong career track.

  3. Well … I think it’s pretty common for people to consciously reset their life goals after getting a taste of what’s required to be CEO.
    What bothers me more is what feels like a creeping reality: that to even remain in the middle class you have to abandon work-life balance. In my office, which is filled with desk workers, you are expected to pull 50s at least, and you are absolutely required to stay late at a moment’s notice. If you don’t, you’re on The List. (And we all know how that ends.) These are not future CEOs. They are analysts, mid-level product managers, software developers. They would love more work-life balance, or even to just have their college debt paid off. And maybe that can happen if the economy rebounds.

  4. Yes, that’s really true, Jen. If you include commute time, Steve puts in 12 hour days. He’s mid-management and he’s not a stock broker. If he took off for school events or came home for soccer games, he would be on The List. The tough job market means that he’s just lucky to have a job; switching to a more laid-back work environment or disregarding office norms is just not an option.
    So, you make an excellent rebuttal to conor.

  5. I also agree that the real work-life issue to be addressed is the creep of “CEO” requirements to every level, or at least every level that isn’t afforded explicit worker protections. And, even in those there’s constant pressure to get around laws limiting hours worked/time off/etc.
    I think it’s part of the entrepreneurship society that many Americans believe in, at their core, the why shouldn’t you be allowed to sell your kidney if you want to attitude towards work.
    In a down economy with high unemployment, the employer clearly has the upper hand — but workers play into the system when they bargain for money alone when they have the upper hand. But, money is the only fungible resource — promises to pay for benefits/time off/etc. in the future can’t be meaningful without long term relationships between worker/employer.
    And, the workplace won’t change as long as families arrange their lives to enable it.

  6. Dave wrote in the other thread that “all things being equal, the person who works more hours will get more done” and be more valuable to the employer. That’s true in the abstract, but, of course, all things are never equal. One of the arguments made by work-life advocates is that adapting to work-life issues will benefit the bottom line, basically because all things are never equal. People quit when work-life balance becomes impossible, and then you loose their training and their skills. People work inefficiently when work-life is out of balance, because they are stressed out an unbalanced. I think the advocates have to make stronger cases of how the bottom-line is improved.
    Then, we might find that for some jobs/industries/workplaces it makes sense to implement the policies. If some industries remain impervious, I suspect it’s ’cause those workers are fungible, resources to be destroyed while you move on to the next group of “human resources.” We can think about regulations to protect those (as we’ve always done).

  7. I think there is a lot of arguing past one another on these issues. No one thinks that the CEO of GE can be a part-time who took ten years out of the workforce to raise his family. Similarly, no one thinks that a rank-and-file union job paying should be closed off to a person who needs to take a few days off for child care.
    Where you draw the line between them probably depends a lot on where you are on the income scale. Law firm partner? Tenured professor? Middle manager in software development? A household income above $88,000 (both spouses combined) puts you in the top 20% of household incomes. If the average worker is working about 40 hours per week, then shouldn’t the Top 20% be working more?
    It may seem ridiculous to some people that Jen’s “analysts, mid-level product managers, software developers” have to put in 50+ hour weeks, but what percent of these people are in the top quintile of household income? Probably a lot of them.
    So my question is, would you be willing to trade perfect work-life balance for a total household income of $50,000 (the U.S. median)?

  8. I know these discussions of income are always extremely tied to geography, which makes it hard. But I would argue that, in Chicago at least, to live a middle class lifestyle you *must* be in that top quintile. (Cue the arguments about what constitutes middle class.)

  9. The employee who works long hours IS more valuable to the employer than one who works parttime. And to that I’d say, so what? Is that the primary measure of value? Right now it appears to be as work/life balance is so difficult to achieve for most employees.
    I have felt for a long time that trying to “sell” work/life balance to employers on the basis of “you’ll get more bottom line out of it” does not make sense. Employers will always do better with employees who work round the clock. Heck, the robber barons made more money when their employees worked 6 days a week and they could be shot for striking. Luckily that fell by the wayside 80 years ago or so.
    The basis for promoting work/life balance is a shift in values from solely money to money AND family. Or money AND personal life.

  10. Jack Welch is of course completely right. However this is a matter of policy and politics, and it can be corrected. It won’t be corrected until the unions regain some of their power – who else holds the countervailing power to our corporate oligarchs ?
    (That is a serious question, not mere rhetoric).
    “The general feeling is that flexible jobs will be the first to be cut during a recession.”
    My company has from time to time allowed employees to go to part-time work. However in the last six layoffs, the part-timers are ALWAYS the first to go. Several of them were among the best at the job, so it had nothing to do with their qualities: only the tax incentives that make part-timers more expensive than full time.
    Ragtime, it’s unfortunately a fantasy that the $50k families have a work-life balance. Many of those are working two jobs per earner, and taking meth to stay afloat. See Prof Warren’s book “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke”, and
    methland vs mythland
    Here, it takes all the running you can do to stay in one place..

  11. Jen,
    You are likely close to correct (although probably still a little overstated), but I think your putting the rabbit into the hat by picking the geography as a given.
    Chicago is a big, fun city and so it costs more to be there. That is a lifestyle choice just as much as a McMansion or a Beach House. You can probably have a better work/ life balance if you choose to live somewhere else.
    So my [now revised] question is, would you be willing to trade perfect work-life balance for a total household income of $50,000 in a small town relatively far away from a major metropolitan area? And if not, why should “society” subsidize your hip, urban lifestyle choice?

  12. Hmm, must respectfully disagree Ragtime. My profession (health care software development using very specific SW dev tools) is not available outside of large metro areas.
    Don’t get me wrong — I like Chicago. But there’s not as much choice involved as you might imagine.

  13. And, I don’t think Jen asking for her choices to be subsidized. She said that 50K/year doesn’t buy a middle class lifestyle in Chicago. I think that’s true, but I also think that the “median” doesn’t buy what most people think of a middle-class lifestyle in many communities. A statistician might be willing to demand that people set their median lifestyle expectations based on median of all Americans, but most people do it differently. They set their medians after excluding the down-and-out, the people who arrived as refugees, the mentally ill, the retired, . . . . A statistician who asks us to use the whole US as a sample (and that means region & class) isn’t being any more reasonable than the one who asks us to use the whole world as a sample, and sets the “median” income based on the entire world, and suggests that as a reasonble income/lifestyle to aspire to.

  14. “Heck, the robber barons made more money when their employees worked 6 days a week and they could be shot for striking. ”
    That’s going to be true for some jobs and professions, the ones where replacing your workers after you’ve shot them is cost-free. Many jobs don’t fit in that category, therefore, I think that in general it’s not in employer’s interests to kill their workers off (with the exception that, as in the olden-days, the threat of being killed is a pretty effective technique for repression).
    I do support worker protection laws — but I think that when the laws shift from prohibiting workers from being significantly exploited and into dictating the worker/employee relationship in general we end up with significant unintended consequences (like the role that “tenure” can play in protecting inefficient and incompetent workers).

  15. How much free will is involved with work-life balance? If we avoid top level management jobs and move out of the hip cities, will we have more time with our kids? Or is it all out of our hands? Do we have to wait for business culture to change?
    For those with a certain education, flexibility is tough. There aren’t many appropriate jobs outside the city. If you move to the suburbs, a long commute time must be tack on. There is only one career track — high intensity. I’m not really sure if it’s solution to tell a computer programmer to move out of the city and get a job as a nurse, which is much more flexible and has union protections.
    There’s also little wiggle room for some with little education. They may have few family supports, so when the worker has to stay home with a sick kid, she is instantly fired.

  16. Let’s look at some examples of work life balance. General Motors. The New Jersey civil service. Vallejo. France. The US Post Office. DC public schools.
    Couple of common threads here: the customers want to escape. Don’t buy a car made on a Friday or a Monday, hookers in the break room, the line stops when something goes wrong at one station. Car buyers will pay a premium to get a Toyota. People are sending letters through Fedex to make sure they get there. Vallejo can’t meet its pension obligations and has gone bankrupt. Parents are desperate to get vouchers to get out of the DC schools.
    Work life balance is a wonderful thing, and many of the ways it has been attained have been lethal for the institutions in which it’s been attained. Not sure I have an answer, but that’s the question.

  17. There is no evidence that companies that better work-life policies are more inefficient. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that they are more efficient and have higher morale among workers.

  18. “Do we have to wait for business culture to change?”
    I’m not sure exactly what the “business culture” is, but I suspect it’s somewhere around what your marginal employee is willing to/ feels obligated to do.
    Much like the conversation about improved conditions for adjuncts, where the solution to “make the lives of adjuncts better” inevitably means “make the lives of some adjuncts better, while some others become unemployed,” I think that increased work/life balance can be had, but at the expense of increased unemployment due to less flexible labor markets (like in Europe).
    I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it is a definite trade-off. High unemployment rates (concentrated in some countries in insular, North African immigrants, and in others on older workers in former Communist countries) lead to huge social problems in those countries.
    Imagining a more French-style system sounds good to many of us, because when “We” extrapolate ourselves to France, we picture ourselves in one of those great jobs that are comparable to the job we have now — not one of the people who are structurally unemployed Algerian immigrant totally reliant on the dole, or an Italian man living with his parents until he is 35 because Italians have lots of vacation time, but can’t afford to get married.

  19. @Dave S., I don’t believe the Postal Service is any better an example of “balance”. If you’re not doing a good job, that’s not work/life balance either. That’s out of whack in the other direction, and no one benefits from that. Seeing what happens in school districts, at General Motors, all that stuff makes me uneasy about the power of unions. What I see is that union power can just as easily end in a lack of balance.
    I want to reinforce a comment that was made way up-thread: some of the drivers behind wanting to work your employees to death are actually driven by policy. The way we deliver health benefits and cover social security and unemployment set-asides in the States provides a direct monetary advantage to any employer who can eke more hours out of the same head count. Last time I ran these numbers, as an employer providing benefits you are actually paying something like 130% of an employee’s gross salary to employ them. That percentage goes *down* as the employee salary goes up, because of social security caps and the fixed cost nature of health insurance coverage. If a full-timer negotiates a 20% drop in salary in order to go down to 4 days a week, their employer is taking a sizable hit on their hourly cost because the employer is still on the hook to cover that employee’s insurance and FICA set-asides. At some employers it’s even worse if the employee asking to go part-time has spouse/dependent health coverage.
    If an hour of labor were equivalently priced regardless of who it came from (full-timer, part-timer brought in to supplement, etc.) then it really would boil down to a question of education and training. That’s where we need to head, IMHO. I’ve been really disappointed to see that in-process health insurance reforms are not doing more to decouple health insurance from employment status and its correlative bias towards full-time work. Especially for working moms it’s a big problem.

  20. I did a really long and detailed comment about this policy issue and how it stacks the deck against part-timers ages ago on halfchangedworld, here.
    Although those numbers were from 2005, the calculations have essentially not changed. Health insurance cost has undoubtedly gone up, and the cap on how much of your pay is taxed for social security has changed too, but the guts of it remains.

  21. “There is no evidence that companies that better work-life policies are more inefficient. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that they are more efficient and have higher morale among workers.”
    I’ll take another stab at clarifying what I was trying to get at upthread…you know, since none of you are in my head! I look at work-life policies as similar to operating ethically WRT the environment. In the short to medium term, operating with good environmental practices will cost more. Operating in a manner with work-life balance for your employees will cost more.
    But that is fine as they both are part of operating as a corporate entity whose stakeholders go far beyond shareholders/investors and for a term that is much longer than the medium term. It’s the “right” thing to do – treat employees with respect so that they can earn a living wage AND be good parents/citizens.
    Perhaps it can be reframed as an extension of health & safety issues – providing a standard of living for your employees so that their mental/emotional/family health is good.
    And as an aside on the health care debate, as a Canadian who is covered no matter what, health care should be divorced from employment.

  22. I have a friend at National Instruments were the strictly regulate worker hours to be less than 50 a week, up and down the food chain. The employees love it and the company does very well. They aren’t the highest paying jobs, but it is enough to live on. The problem, in my view, is that the people who are setting policy are the workaholics who get to the top. I have no problem with them being in charge as it is appropriate for those positions, but the imposed style is almost certainly not helpful. What works for those people doesn’t make sense for others, but good luck persuading them to understand that. Give me 40 productive hours over a forced 50 or 60 and 90% of the time the company is better off. It is extremely naive to assume that what is done is what is most profitable. It’s what the top guys think will work and there is very little experimentation, rest assured.

  23. Why are companies so reluctant to hire part-time workers? Among the reasons are high fixed costs. (Always follow the money!) And maybe the biggest of these fixed costs is health insurance. The link between employment and health care needs to be broken as a first step towards establishing a more flexible work culture.

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