Assessing the work/family ‘glue’

If you had to name just one thing that helps you maintain some sort of equilibrium between your work life and your home life, what would it be? Would it be the fact that your children’s grandma gets up at 6 a.m. every day to take the kids? Would it be the great flexibility that your boss gives you to create your own schedule? Would it be that daily donut with your morning coffee?Recently, Dr. Kristin Smith from the Carsey Institute and I had the opportunity to ask that question to a representative sample of New Hampshire working parents. While the responses we got were not necessarily surprising, they certainly got me thinking about whether or not our workplaces really are supporting the most important aspects of work/life fit.This question was part of comprehensive statewide survey of working parents that we designed over the past year and conducted during the height of the current recession. It involved more than 45 questions that were asked by phone, and although we limited the respondents to working parents, they included a statistical representation of that group in the state by region, income, age, and other factors.We asked only one open-ended question during the survey, and to me, one of the most interesting: “Thinking about all the factors that contribute to and detract from how you manage your work and family life, what is the ONE thing that keeps it all together?”As you can imagine, the responses were quite varied according to the situation of the parent being surveyed. Married parents, for example, overwhelmingly (41 percent) said it was their spouse or partner who provided their work/family “glue.” Single parents, on the other hand, relied both on “family” (23 percent) and the flexibility of their workplace (9 percent). However, 13 percent of single New Hampshire parents simply said it was their personal strength that helped the most to balance work and family.Other general responses to the question included the contributions of children, income and religion to helping parents cope with the conflicting demands of working and raising a family. There were, of course, the random responders, claiming that “chocolate” or “good whiskey” was their secret to finding work/life fit, but those were not statistically significant responses.
The lure of flexibilityWhat does all this mean to employers?For me, it indicates that helping our employees find work/life balance is not something that can come in the form of a cookie-cutter “perk.” It is, rather, a very personal need that can only be met by creating a culture and climate in your business that gives implicit permission to your employees to be creative in finding ways to be the most productive at work and the most satisfied with their family life.For example, if we know that a majority of our working parents rely on the strength of their spouses, partners or families to help them maintain work/life balance, what can we do to help them strengthen those relationships? How often have you sponsored a marriage enrichment or relationship-strengthening training program at your workplace? Do your employee programs offer family counseling?However, the most important finding from this question on the survey seems to be that the most important thing you can do is to personalize the work/life balance strategies you develop for your employees. Allow each of them to make a business case for their life needs and demonstrate how the flexibility you grant them will help them improve your bottom line. Companies that promote flexibility as a matter of choice within the parameters of what’s possible (not what’s traditional) appear to be those that attract and keep great people.The proof of the payoff for a culture and climate of flexibility appeared elsewhere in the survey. A whopping 55 percent of these working parents reported that they were staying with their current job primarily because of the flexibility it offers. In addition, 23 percent reported they had recently passed up a better job offer because they didn’t want to lose the flexibility their current jobs afforded them.The numbers are solid. Work/life balance can be best met in working environments where the culture and climate are family-friendly. From these numbers wmight conclude that family-friendly work cultures might be the real New Hampshire advantage.You can view results from the full survey at or send me an e-mail and I will mail you a hard copy.Dr. Malcolm Smith is family life and family policy specialist with UNH Cooperative Extension and teaches in the University of New Hampshire Family Studies Program. He can be reached at 603-862-7008,