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  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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Opinions and views in these papers are those expressed by the author(s). They are not to be taken as expressions of support for particular positions by the Department of Labor. Please do not cite these papers without prior permission of the author(s).

A COMING OF AGE: WORK/LIFE AND FLEXIBILITY

June 15, 1999 Presentation
Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes
Boston College Center for Work & Family

This paper was presented at an Economic Policy Institute symposium on June 15, 1999. The symposium was funded by grants from the United States Department of Labor and the Alfred P. Sloan foundation. Opinions and views in the paper are those expressed by the author and in no way are they to be taken as expressions of support for these particular positions by the Department of Labor, the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, or the Economic Policy Institute.


The work/life field is coming of age; we have reached our adolescence. As a parent of two teenagers, this metaphor is powerful and meaningful for me. There are three dimensions of the elements of the coming of age concept that I'd like to explore with you:

During the next few minutes, I will outline my perceptions of some of the accomplishments made in the work/life area, some of the existing signs of turmoil and unrest, and the need for re-calibration in response to the unintended consequences of the corporate "family-friendly" model that has emerged in this country.

WHAT IS A "FAMILY-FRIENDLY" COMPANY?

Today, I'm going to share with you some of the findings of a study that the Boston College Center for Work & Family conducted in partnership with Business Week magazine. This study was conducted two years in a row, 1996 and 1997. I have selected some of the results from the 1997 study which surveyed nearly 12,000 employees from 54 different companies. This was not a representative sample of all the companies in this country; rather, the respondents are among some of the most family-friendly. It is important to keep this in mind as we dig deeper and find out where we still need to grow, even at the leading companies.

Business Week magazine wanted to identify the most "family-friendly" companies in America. The Center for Work & Family was interested in pushing the boundaries about what we consider to be "family-friendly" companies. We should, therefore, start by clarifying some of the key dimensions of a so-called "family-friendly company." In my opinion, there is general agreement about a few things:

A TIME OF CELEBRATION

Have we made some important progress? It is clear that increasing numbers of companies are establishing more extensive work/life policies and programs. In 1996, Hewitt and Associates reported that 86% of the 1,050 employers in their studies offered some type of child care assistance; that was a increase of 20 percentage points from the survey they conducted a mere five years earlier. Similarly, the percentage of employers offering flexible scheduling arrangements had increased from 53% to 68% during that time period (Hewitt Associates, 1996).

A 1998 study conducted by the Families and Work Institute in New York that surveyed a representative sample of over 1,000 businesses found that there are signs of promise, but also indications that lots more work needs to be done. Here are some of the optimistic indicators:

However, despite the fact that today's work/life movement has its roots in dependent care, the percentage of companies that provide assistance for dependent care remains remarkably low. For example:

I'd like to also mention that the Families and Work study examined the relationships between the extent of unionization and companies' profiles of policies and programs. Galinsky and Bond found a relationship between the proportion of the workforce that was unionized and the scope of the "benefits-oriented" policies and programs. For example, in two-fifths (40%) of the companies where at least 30% of the workforce was unionized employers pay the entire premium for family health care insurance. In contrast, only 8% of the companies without unions offered this level of coverage. This is the "good news" of unions. However, this study found ambiguous and sometimes negative relationships between the percentage of the workforce that was unionized and flexible practices. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, flexibility has become one of the hallmarks of work/life progress. For example, companies with 30% or more unionized workers were less likely to offer part-time work options, gradual return after childbirth, and flexibility moving from full-time to part-time and back again (Galinsky and Bond, 1998).

As we start thinking about re-calibrating work/life, we need to reflect on the reasons for these relationships. Is there something about industries that tend to be unionized that makes flexibility options more difficult? Is there something about the type of work that gets done in unionized work environments that presents challenges to flexibility options? For example, in our Business Week study, employees holding production jobs were less likely than those in other occupations to feel that the culture of their companies was "family-friendly." Or, is there something about the relationships between management and unions that creates challenges with flexible work options?

Findings such as these would lead some to conclude that our progress has been mixed. When we begin to move from "policies and programs" toward "outcomes" or "impacts," it becomes more apparent that the work/life field is coming of age, but has not yet reached maturity.

QUALITY OF EMPLOYEES' LIVES

Despite the increase in the number of work/life initiatives, there are indications that American workers are skeptical that the quality of their lives is appreciably better. For example, a poll conducted by Lake, Snell, Perry & Associates in 1997 asked a sample of people whether things were getting better or worse in their lives. On the positive side, a majority of Americans (61%) felt that the economy is getting better. We were split in our opinions about whether the benefits that most employers give to employees are getting better (35% say better and 37% worse). Also, a majority of people felt that predicable things are getting worse, such as health care and crime. But the biggest loser? Nearly two-thirds (64%) of the people polled felt that the time pressures on working families are getting worse, and only 17% say that this situation is getting better.

This poll illustrates that today's working families are feeling increased stress from job demands. These findings challenge the work/life field to dig a bit deeper to understand variables in the work environment that affect employees' perceptions of "family-friendliness" and affect the quality of their lives.

TIME AND FLEXIBILILTY

I want to focus in on two factors that affect time pressures: the number of hours employees work and the extent to which employees feel that they have some flexibility concerning when and where they put in those hours. I want to submit to you that flexibility is one of the most important factors that affects employees' assessment of their companies' family-friendliness.

There has been a lot of press lately about overworked Americans. First, let me say that I do think we have some very good documentation that there are objective as well as subjective measures that certain groups of employees are feeling very overworked. Today, however, I want to share with you my belief that the relationships between work hours and quality of life issues is very complex. Let's take a look at some of the Business Week findings.

In the Business Week study, we asked employees several questions related to flexibility. One item queried, "Can you vary your work hours or schedule to respond to family matters?" Using a 5 point scale ranging from 0 (not at all) to 5 (a great deal), 41.8% indicated that they could "a great deal." However, when we asked employees, "Do you feel comfortable taking time off from work to attend to family matters?" only 26.2% indicated that they felt "a great deal" comfortable.

We combined five different questions from the questionnaire and created a flexibility index, and used this index to explore relationships with different quality of life measures. Consider the following:

I know we have reviewed a lot of data, but I'd like to stress the power of flexibility and show you that it's not just working long hours that results in feelings of stress and not having a sense of work/life balance. Rather, being in a job with little or no flexibility serves to compound dissatisfaction that may be created by working long hours week after week.

If you control for flexibility, we get some very interesting findings. For example, if you look at people who work long hours (50+ per week), you find that nearly two-thirds (61.8%) of those who work in low-flexible situations indicate that they have a great deal of stress. However, this percentage drops to 26.4% for those who work long hours but have the benefit of high-flexible work situations. Similarly, less than 1% (0.8%) of those employees who work long hours and have low-flexible situations report that they have good work-family balance, compared to 35.5% of those who work long hours but are in high-flexible situations. It is clear that flexibility can exert a powerful influence over employees' experiences at both work and at home.

RE-CALIBRATION

What can we learn from these findings?

It would appear that many employees -- even those who work for some of the most family-friendly companies in the country -- would like employers, community organizations, and the government to do more. It is important to note that the majority of respondents to the Business Week survey felt that workplaces, communities, state governments, and the federal government should all be addressing work/life issues.

Perhaps the most significant challenge to the re-calibration of the work/life agenda is that we need to come to grips with the limitations of the corporate model that has dominated the dialogue over the past two decades. This will be difficult, in part because much of the leadership has emerged in the corporate arena. Let me suggest a few of the existing limitations:

Appendix

REFERENCES

Bankert, E. and Litchfield, L. (1998) Business Week's Work and Family Corporate Ranking: An Analysis of the Data. Chestnut Hill, MA: The Boston College Center for Work & Family.

Barnett, R. (1999) A new work-life model for the twenty-first century. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. (562) 143-158.

Bond, T.; Galinsky, E. and Swanberg, J. (1998) The National Study of the Changing Workforce. New York, New York: Families and Work Institute.

Galinsky, E. and Bond, T. (1998) The 1998 Business Work-Life Study: A Sourcebook. New York, New York: Families and Work Institute.

Hewitt and Associates. (1996) Work and Family Benefits Provided by Major U.S. Emloyers in 1996. Lincolnshire, IL: Hewitt and Associates.

Friedman, D. and Johnson, A. (1996) Moving from Programs to Culture Change: The Next Stage for the Corporate Work-Family Agenda. New York, New York: Families and Work Institute.

Nash, L.(1990) Good Intentions Aside: A Manager's Guide to Resolving Ethical Problems. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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