10/10/2013 03:31 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2013

The Sustainable Workforce: Part of a Global Sustainability Strategy

In a National Work and Family Month post last week, Eve Tahmincioglu reflected on the observations of "suits and hipsters" who are questioning workplaces that make it hard to blend work with the rest of life. Given my background developing workplace programs at Microsoft while practicing a nontraditional workstyle, Eve's comments resonated with me. But what most caught my eye was her suggestion that we look at the old work-life problems through a new lens of sustainability. While I agree that a sustainability approach has much to offer the work-life conversation, I'd like to suggest a holistic rather than a workplace-centered perspective.

For many, the term sustainability conjures up images of recycling bins and solar panels. In recent years, however, sustainability has developed a meaning that goes beyond the environment. When defined as "meeting the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future," sustainability encompasses the environment, society, and the economy. A holistic model of sustainability recognizes that the three are intricately linked and that efforts to perpetuate any one of them will impact the other two.

A sustainable workforce contributes to the fate of people, profit, and planet alike. Such a workforce provides employers with the human resources -- skills, engagement, and retention -- they need to generate a profit (which fuels the economy) and to innovate (which builds society). Sustainable work practices equip individuals and families with economic resources and opportunities for professional and personal growth, in an atmosphere that allows workers to attend to interests and responsibilities inside and outside of work. Ultimately, sustainable work practices help people find meaning through both work and non-work activities. By allowing access to happiness and fulfillment, they help people not only survive, but thrive. People who thrive give back to the economy, society, and the environment.

Like a tree whose access to water, nutrients, and sunlight enables it to provide prize-winning fruit, people need nourishment from multiple sources in order to do their best both on and off the job. Work practices that have us flitting from one task to another and leave little time for replenishment prompt the question, "Is this really sustainable?" The same question applies to employers struggling to respond to the pressures of globalization, competition, and short-term profitability. A model of work that doesn't work for either workers or organizations is simply not sustainable for anyone. In contrast, a work environment that allows people to invest in what they value will pay ongoing dividends for both individuals and employers.

The benefits of a sustainable workforce are not limited to workers and organizations. We live in a world characterized by shocking disparities in people's access to resources and opportunities and by alarming declines in natural resources. The problems of whether we can leave work early to pick up a child at daycare or ditch the laptop during vacation may seem petty in this context. The lens of sustainability helps us connect the dots. Harried, exhausted citizens are less likely than those who thrive to participate in finding solutions to problems of poverty and resource depletion. Addressing tensions between work and the rest of life will not only lead to a more sustainable and meaningful lifestyle for the privileged, but may prompt us to participate in causes that improve environmental, social, and economic conditions locally and worldwide.

Having examined the challenges of a "work-life" approach professionally, academically, and personally, I'm enthusiastic about reframing the conversation to center on building a sustainable workforce. Let's not overlook how such a workforce plays into the connections among planet, people, and profit as we strive to help ourselves and others not only survive, but thrive.

Elise Jones is a former Microsoft diversity strategist pursuing a master's in psychology enroute to a career in workplace effectiveness research and education. Her work incorporates themes from personality, gender, and positive psychology as well as organizational effectiveness and change.