Working the Second Shift in Corporate America

For many men and women today, the work day doesn't end when they leave their offices at five or six or seven o'clock. They go home to their "second shift" where they put in the many hours of extra work created by the demands of home and family.

Now that the number of U.S. families in which the mother is not employed outside the home is less than 7 percent, there's more and more work to be done every day - both in the workplace and at home. Across the country, working people are searching for ways to balance career paths and goals with family life. And employers, worried about losing top talent and anxious to attract the best possible candidates to their companies, are looking for workable solutions. In many of these companies, it is HR managers who must deal with this situation.

What Can HR Managers Do?

When work-family conflict occurs, it is inevitably accompanied by stress and poor performance. But it also provides an opportunity for the employer to gain an advantage by helping their people solve the problem. Whatever the cause of work-family conflict, business suffers the consequences of lost performance; and good work-family relationships mean improved work performance.

To get that improved performance, companies have to make as much of an effort to create a supportive family workplace as they do to provide training or benefits. Surveys conducted within companies already indicate that their efforts are often cost-effective and result in productivity gains.

Studies also indicate that the needs are great. Many parents have difficulty in finding childcare that conforms to their work hours, and the problem is compounded when they have a sick child. They'd like to be able to go to teacher meetings and attend school activities, and coping with an unexpected school closing is enough to send them into a panic. These parents need policies that do things like extend sick time to cover children's illnesses and offer flexible hours so they can occasionally be present at events that occur during the school day. And when companies provide these desperately needed benefits, they foster loyalty that is invaluable in today's tight labor market.

What are some specific actions that HR managers can help companies take to improve the work-family balance of their employees?

  • First, communicate clearly about current work-family practices and policies that already exist.
  • Make managers and supervisors more sensitive to work-family issues. Make sure they understand company policies relating to these issues. 
  • Incorporate work-family topics into training. 
  • Give employees the time they need for family responsibilities by using schedule innovations —part-time work, flexible work arrangements, telecommuting. 
  • Reexamine your organization's career planning process in light of work-family responsibilities. 
  • Exercise leadership in the community to improve the availability of quality childcare. Some companies have even been instrumental in helping to create near-site childcare centers and in providing seed money for after-school and summer programs. 
  • Solicit the participation of other businesses, government agencies and community organizations to address childcare programs.

Making it work

There are few who would disagree that implementing the above items can take a lot of pressure off employees who are struggling with work-family conflicts. But how do they impact the organization? Where flex-time, for example, can be a viable option in a large corporation, it may pose problems for a small business without the resources to cover an employee absence during work hours.

Flexible solutions have to work for both the company and the employees, and the individuals involved have to take on their share of the responsibility for success. Perhaps each department prepares calendars and schedules to make sure that all the work is covered. It's not so much a matter of management directing them as it is a matter of working it out for the good of all concerned; they do the negotiation with each other. If somebody needs to be out for a family-related reason, they have to figure it out with the team. And if it isn't workable, it won't be because the boss said no, but because the peers said no.

The same formula for keeping work-family issues in balance won't work for every company; they have to be tailored to fit individual companies and businesses. One of the reasons that some of these issues have not been resolved yet is that no one has figured out how to make it work fairly and how to handle expectations. Involving employees in a task force to determine policies may help to solve these problems neutrally. It becomes their mission to figure out how to make it work.

In today's flourishing economy with its increasing worker shortages, Americans seem to be working longer hours than ever. Yet one of their greatest concerns is the lack of time for their personal lives and their families. Finding the solutions that will relieve the pressures of this dilemma is one the greatest challenges that HR managers currently face. And the companies that creatively devise those solutions will have the greatest advantage in finding and retaining the talent they need to thrive and grow in the years ahead.

What workplace benefit is most important to you?

workers benefits graph

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