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Kathleen E. Christensen Headshot

Exhausted? Time to Pace the Work-Life Marathon

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Any runner can tell you that you can't finish a marathon by sprinting the entire way. You've got to pace yourself, or at some point you're going to collapse and crash. I think about that maxim when I look at the way Americans work today.

Fifty years ago, the life cycle of the American worker was a relatively standard equation. You started a career in your 20s, working nine to five, five days a week. More often than not, you had a spouse who handled childcare full time. You worked through your early 60s, when you could reasonably expect to join the promised land known as retirement.

To many people, that life cycle looks like a walk in the park compared to how we work today.

For the majority of modern families, just getting by involves two parents both working jobs that extend well beyond what we used to call "full-time." Young working parents are often still finishing school, while the rapid aging of the population means more people than ever before have elder care responsibilities, too. Not surprisingly, this rapid pace has squeezed out rituals like the family dinner, healthy habits like exercise, and of course, sleep. What's more, people are doing all of this for longer than ever before, working into their late 60s and even 70s.

In short, we're sprinting through a marathon. We've sped up the pace, extended the finish line, and thrown in more obstacles along the way. Most careers are now 50-plus years, with few opportunities to focus on family and other responsibilities. And the maxim holds true: if you try to sprint through a 50-plus-year career, at some point you're going to collapse and crash.

We're seeing those crashes right now. Many industries are experiencing higher turnover than ever before, employees are dropping out of the workforce altogether, and there are negative health outcomes for those who push themselves too hard for too long. Surveys from groups as diverse as Allstate Insurance and The Shriver Report have told us that people are exhausted with the status quo and fed up with having to choose between work and family. Employees across the spectrum say they desperately need career paths that look more like their lives. Not a straight and narrow sprint to the finish, but a shifting pace that speeds up and slows down as life puts different obstacles and opportunities in front of us.

This means different things for different people. Maybe it means slowing the pace in the middle of your career, or adjusting your pace throughout so you have time for other commitments. Maybe it means taking a break to tend to family concerns and then getting back in the race full-time. Maybe it's adapting the way you work altogether through telecommuting or job sharing. But one thing is clear: unless something significant changes in the structure of the workplace so that people have more say over when, where and how they work - more flexibility - we're going to see an awful lot more people collapsing before they reach the finish line.

Now here's the good news: it turns out that pacing marathon workers is also a good thing for business. For fifteen years, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has funded research into the workplace, work force and working families. One result we've seen across the board is that giving employees more flexibility in when, where and how they work is not just good for them, it has positive outcomes for businesses. This week in Washington, many businesses that have already put flexible practices into place will be represented at the first ever Focus on Workplace Flexibility conference. These pioneering business leaders have learned that workplace flexibility, when well designed, increases productivity and employee engagement, and lowers turnover and absenteeism. They've seen that it makes workplaces more efficient, not less.

However, the vast majority of Americans are still employed in workplaces that offer little or no flexibility. Our most recent research shows a significant flexibility gap: eighty percent of Americans say they want workplace flexibility, but only a third report having it. This is unacceptable.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but many different routes to workplace flexibility. Some are very simple; many are cost-neutral. If business leaders make the effort now to figure out which type of flexibility is right for them, we can pace today's marathon workers before they crash.

The lack of workplace flexibility is an issue for all of us -- medical doctors and Ph.D. scientists; factory managers and hotel housekeepers. It affects those in their 20s just starting out with jobs and children, and those in the culminating stage of their work lives, caring for ill spouses or aged parents and planning their own retirement. As President Obama said at the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility this spring, it is an issue that affects the strength of our economy.

No American should ever feel the need to choose between work and family. And no business should ever lose an employee because they don't have the tools to put workplace flexibility practices into place. The time has come for all of us -- employers, workers and politicians alike--to focus on making workplace flexibility a reality for everyone.

Learn more about workplace flexibility -- and read program papers from the Focus on Workplace Flexibility conference -- at workplaceflexibility.org