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Family Life, Job Happiness Closely Linked Employers Reap Benefits From Attention To Needs Of Parents

Old thinking dies hard, and nowhere is it more evident than at work.

Look at how our lives have changed in 20 years. Chances are, though, that you’re working for the same money or less in real terms - unless you’re among the top 5 perent or 10 percent of income earners who have grown measurably richer.

That means mom and dad both work. Even the expectations of loyalty, once common between employers and employees, have exploded.

These are fundamental shifts. Yet our workplaces, in so many ways, remain unchanged.

“Since World War II, the family has had to adapt to the needs of the workplace,” says Paul Rayman, director of the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute. “The time has come for the workplace to adapt to the needs of the family.”

The irony is that we - employees, employers and the news media - have been talking about family friendly institutions for years. No doubt, there has been progress.

You find more onsite child-care facilities. Some firms offer flex time, job-sharing and parental leaves. Recently, more businesses have been taking an interest in how our future work force is being educated.

All good efforts. But there is more, much more to be done.

That’s because family issues are still largely considered “women’s issues.” Employers still want every worker to give 110 percent. People who take advantage of family friendly benefits are still judged unambitious. And time is an increasingly scarce commodity for working Americans.

Yet few of us, male or female, can be productive working endless double shifts, at work and at home.

That’s why the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute embarked on an ambitious project two years ago to study the intersection of economics and social change. It convened economists, employers, labor advocates and legislators. It also conducted focus groups with a cross-section of Americans.

“There is a big myth that it’s either productivity, or family friendly,” says Rayman, an economist. “Not only is that untrue, but how can we have a really healthy economy if we don’t have healthy families?”

We have evidence that troubles at work can overflow into home life. Troubles at home, moreover, can lower productivity at work.

You find increased absenteeism and turnover when workers can’t afford or can’t find reliable child care. You’ll find people making more errors, whether they’re cutting metal or processing loans, when they worry about a parent with Alzheimer’s.

Yet, the temporary work force, which is mostly female, is growing. We have more folks working part time and as independent contractors. In rare instances do such jobs come with medical insurance, pensions or child-care assistance.

Here is more irony: Employers who offer family friendly benefits know there are payoffs. Rayman notes that Starbucks Coffee saw its productivity rise within months of issuing benefits to part-time workers.

“We know that the child-care facility itself won’t make money, but the institution will reap benefits,” says Luis Hernandez, who supervises Dade County, Florida’s Child Care Resource and Referral service. “When you talk about the cost of recruiting, training and retaining employees, it’s one of those pluses that can make a difference.” We have to look at the big picture. Not just employers. Not just families. Not just government. Figuring out how America can stay productive without Americans sacrificing family lives is everyone’s business.

“This is not something that one specific group can do by itself,” Rayman argues. “There is no one model.”

But anyone can contribute. Cmdr. Harriet Janosky, of Metro-Dade’s police force, has been working for two years on improving availability of child care during nonstandard work hours, and in particular during emergencies. The need became evident after Hurricane Andrew, when police officers, firefighters and others providing vital services had a hard time finding places to leave their kids.

Now, Metro-Dade is looking at establishing 24-hour child care for county employees. In the meantime, Janosky and Hernandez are working on improving the referral network and on partnerships with community agencies such as the YWCA, so child care will be available during emergencies. Janosky knows that building a facility doesn’t happen overnight. But she’s been more than pleased by the support she’s been getting.