Managers play an important role in employees' work/life balance

There are numerous benefits to helping employees achieve balance between their professional and personal lives, experts say.

Even in today’s trying budget environment, federal employees continue to show an intense commitment to their jobs. In many cases, they are so driven to fulfill their agencies’ missions that they work long hours and often overlook the need for a vacation, experts say.

“There’s a lot of stress in federal work,” said Judy Welles, author of the new e-book “Get a Life, Try This!,” a former fed with more than 30 years of government experience and a former columnist for Federal Computer Week on work/life topics. “People who do the work are so dedicated.… Federal employees take their work very seriously, and it’s hard for them to take time to refresh or take a break.”

Experts say that’s why achieving a healthy work/life balance should be approached as a management strategy.

Welles said federal managers must understand that they have a role to play in helping their employees strike an effective balance between their professional and personal lives. Doing so will lead to greater employee productivity. But it’s not just about efficiency: Work/life benefits have increasingly become a way to recruit and retain talented employees, especially younger ones.

Welles recounted the story of one federal manager who said his generation of baby boomers had a work ethic while younger employees have a life ethic. In other words, employees in their 20s and 30s are looking for more flexibility and prefer to complete assignments when and where they want.

“Their view is that the work gets done — that’s the important thing,” Welles said.

Indeed, surveys have shown that emphasizing a work/life balance can enhance recruitment efforts. In a 2008 survey of 50,000 private- and public-sector employees worldwide by the Corporate Executive Board, respondents ranked work/life balance as the second most important attribute in attracting them to a job.

In addition, 30 percent said work/life balance was one of the top five reasons they stayed at their jobs.

Adam Cole, director of the organization’s government practice, said work/life balance is a broad issue, yet the government addresses it in a “fairly narrow manner.”

To illustrate his point, Cole noted that the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey only includes work/life questions related to telework, alternative work schedules, and health and wellness programs — or what he called “big programs that cost a lot of money.”

Although those programs are important, Cole said the government should also focus on tactics for ensuring that employees have an appropriate workload.

Government “executives are continually referring to the idea that they have to do more with less,” he said. “They are asking more of their employees. That’s OK as long as ‘more’ is still realistic.”

Cole said managers should forecast near-term workloads for each of their employees. That gives employees a sense of predictability in their roles and flexibility with their hours so they don’t have to rush to make last-minute adjustments at work or home.

Making jobs sustainable

Individual employees are responsible for their own work/life balance, but it’s also essential for managers to remind them of its importance and make them aware of the resources available to them.

Welles said many feds aren’t aware of the array of benefits the government offers, which is why managers can have an impact. They should be knowledgeable about work/life opportunities and regularly share that information with employees, sources said.

When allowing employees to take advantage of certain work/life options, such as telework, it might be beneficial for government leaders to manage by outcome and productivity rather than attendance, said Josh Sawislak, a senior fellow at the Telework Exchange.

Managers can do that by talking with their employees about their goals and setting clear expectations, he added.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to successfully balancing one’s work and personal lives. In general, managers ought to get to know their employees’ competencies and let them have a say in how, when and where they do their work.

“What all of our research points to is that everybody wants work/life balance,” Cole said. “It’s about making a job sustainable over time.”

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