Making it Work for Working Families

01/20/2015 04:19 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

As mobile technologies and globalization extend professional workdays around the clock and hourly employees see their schedules change unpredictably, many workers increasingly dislike their workplaces -- a problem for employers who need them, and for the larger economy.

The threat of losing a job during the recession exacerbated a trend in which working families across a wide range of income segments feel harried, squeezed and stressed. This impacts every facet of their lives. The costs are not purely personal. They ripple across society and business in a variety of ways -- from individuals dropping out of the workforce, to absenteeism, diminished creativity and productivity, deteriorating health, and dysfunctional family lives for parents and their children.

In fact, there is a strong economic argument for broad adjustments to the daily grind. We -- and this rebalancing requires a partnership between private enterprise and various levels of government -- must provide more choices and flexibility to employees who are feeling boxed in, as their time devoted to working, commuting and connecting consumes the lion share of their waking hours. The average American worked the equivalent of nearly three weeks more in 2010 than in 1979.

During a similar period, the American workforce changed dramatically. One measure: The labor force participation rate for women with children under 3 grew from 34 percent in 1975 to 61 percent in 2011. According to the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 have mothers who are "either the sole or primary source" of family income. That puts stress on mothers and fathers. Some 56 percent of working mothers and 50 percent of working fathers say it's difficult to juggle work and family life, according to research by Stanford University's Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

There are various costs to those stresses. Some drop out of the workforce altogether, despite education and talent. This cost is especially true for women, and it is reflected also in pay. A recent paper by Michelle Budig of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst reports that, on average, fatherhood increases men's earnings by more than 6 percent while women experience a motherhood salary penalty of 4 percent per child.

Other countries make it easier for parents, and particularly women, to work while raising a family, or to return to one's prior employment after some time out raising children. Yet the United States appears to be going backward. In 1990, for example, the United States ranked 7th among 24 developed countries in women's labor force participation rate, but by 2012 it had fallen to 16th. So even while American women are now the majority among those receiving college education and many choose to - or must - work, they are less enabled by employers, or by our public policies, in their decision to remain working than are women in some other developed countries.

Of course, it's not just a challenge for women. In 2008, for example, 60 percent of fathers in dual-earner couples reported work-family conflict, up from 35 percent in 1977. And nearly 50 percen of working parents have passed up a job they felt would conflict with family responsibilities, according to a 2014 Harris Poll. As much time and resources employers devote to obtaining a competitive edge, many shoot themselves in the foot by ignoring the family burdens of their female and male employees. As a consequence, they lose key talent that walks out the door, or says no to a promotion.

What's to be done? Policies that support working families can help reduce turnover, improve productivity and trim capital expenditures. That's been the experience at a range of companies. Once they get over the hang-up of allowing employees to work from home or satellite offices, companies as diverse as Siemens, Cisco, Merrill Lynch and American Express saw increases in productivity of between 10 percent and 50 percent as a result of telework programs. The last decade has seen a 35 percent increase in the number of people working from home at least one day a week. IBM has long had work-at-home and mobile employee programs with a 2013 participation rate reaching nearly one quarter of their global work force.

Some policy makers get it, and incentivize employers to make it easier to juggle work and family. President Obama just announced that he will create a $2.2 billion federal fund to incentivize states that establish paid family and medical leave programs. In Virginia, employers can secure a tax credit of up to $1,200 per employee who telecommutes. New York had a similar program, with up to a $1,500 credit per employee. Similarly, the State of Massachusetts offers a tax credit to businesses that provide wellness programs -- including mothers' rooms -- to employees.

Solutions such as telecommuting work best in professional or creative environments, but the need is as vital for flexibility and predictability among hourly service workers. They often see their schedules fluctuate wildly from week to week, disrupting any semblance of personal or family life. Starbucks made headlines recently when it changed its policies to improve "stability and consistency" in worker scheduling.

We also need to make it easier for parents to step out of the workforce, and then return "re-skilled," when she or he -- and it is usually she -- is ready, given the family's life cycle. There are few re-entry programs, public or private, that enable professional women who have been out of the workforce for a few years to retool, and then rejoin the professional ranks at a level suited to their past and present skills. Deloitte offers a program designed to keep those who leave the work force "plugged in" for up to five years through on-going skills training, access to mentors and assistance in keeping professional licenses up to date. Some business schools offer "refresher" courses and targeted career services to alumni who have been out of the workforce for a while, to help bring them up to speed in their professional areas of expertise.

Let's recognize that as a country, we're obsessed with work. Close to half (41 percent) of workers who get paid vacation don't plan to take all they're entitled to. Yet, US employers ignore Americans' work obsession in the benefits they offer.

It's up to business leaders, in partnership with policymakers and, yes, higher education, to make it easier for working families to work and in so doing -- attracting, keeping and enabling the talent we need for our economy.

Judy D. Olian is dean of the UCLA Anderson School of Management and John E. Anderson Chair in Management