The work-life movement has won an impressive number of skirmishes in the war it wages for the hearts and souls of the American workforce, yet shows signs of losing ground. Overall, a decade of celebrating National Work and Family Month feels like a solid accomplishment. There is no question that the awkward term "work-life" has acquired "stickiness' in the sense that Malcolm Gladwell describes so eloquently. Far from being a fad, the simple notion that when employees thrive, business prospers has proven to be a survivor, refusing to retreat in the face of all manner of insult and even global economic collapse. Paradoxically, the worse things get for workers and the workplace, the faster it takes root, tenaciously clinging to what little nourishment it finds.
The engine driving this success is the growing accumulation of evidence that relatively modest investments in supporting the work-life juggling act of everyone who works yield worthwhile returns, both quantitative (ROI; stock value, productivity) and qualitative (engagement, morale, successful accomplishment of mission). Building and maintaining a robust work-life portfolio is no longer the exclusive prerogative of Fortune 500 companies. This profit-generating endeavor has now spread to medium and small work environments across the land, as demonstrated by FWI/SHRM's When Work Works and AWLP's Work-Life Seal of Distinction projects. This trickle down phenomenon is significant because it proves that respecting the holistic needs of people who work is not unduly expensive.
According to new data we are aggregating from the growing cadre of AWLP's Work-Life Seal of Distinction applicants, implementing a work-life portfolio that provides support for life events across the entire career lifecycle costs between 3-10 percent of the human resources budget and yields an average return on this investment of about $3 for every $1 spent. What other organizational functions provide a similar demonstration of value? We'd like to hear from you, because this is an important conversation to have in this era of scarcity, where every dollar must pull its weight in supporting key business drivers.
Work-life training and certification is now available, so that the work of creating healthier, more flexible work cultures can be taught and best practices shared with a new generation of practitioners.
So why the angst about losing ground?
Invisible but inexorable forces are transforming the workplace faster and more profoundly than we can perceive, much less respond. Demographic trends, technological advances, global transformations, extremist political forces at home and abroad, economic upheaval, even the climate is aggressively reshaping the world we thought we knew. Not all of the consequences are positive. Financial and physical resources are scarcer than before. " Twenty-four-by-seven," an appropriate description of the boundless capacity of the machines we originally designed to serve us, has become an impossible expectation for human labor. Once again, the memes we create threaten to take control. Distraction, demands to multitask, the sensation of being overwhelmed are constant states. Recovery time, including adequate sleep cycles, has eroded. The consequences are becoming harder to ignore. As overwork increases, the American work force is becoming more stressed, sicker, less engaged.
Foundational, credible institutions are in transition. Several have closed or changed their focus, including the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Workplace Flexibility 2010, The White House Project, and, most recently, Corporate Voices for Working Families. Several work-life organizations have incorporated into or combined efforts with human resource associations, whose lobbying and advocacy efforts are often neutral to or in active opposition to work-life initiatives that we know are foundational to family and business success.
So if you are encountering difficulty keeping your balance, you are not alone. But rest assured that, like the Little Engine That Could, the work-life profession keeps chugging up hill, with a great deal of help and encouragement from you and everyone else who works and has a life.