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:: By Sara Michael

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Investigations ::

Work-life support on the job

From week to week, managers often post staff schedules only days in advance, leaving employees little time to plan for child care and coordinate other family responsibilities. Fluctuating hours are among the many challenges facing workers, low-wage in particular, trying to balance job demands with personal lives. Flexibility and other benefits built into higher-level positions aren’t always offered to employees lower on the totem pole—hotel housekeepers, sales clerks, wait staff.

“From the business perspective, companies want a reserve labor pool for when consumer demand increases, but they don’t shoulder the cost,” says Susan Lambert, associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration and coeditor of Work and Life Integration: Organizational, Cultural, and Individual Perspectives (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004). Instead, Lambert says, the burden is “all on the employee. In retail, people literally wait by the phone.” Such practices, she believes, create an organizational structure that upsets the work-life balance.

In her book, coedited with Michigan State’s Ellen Ernst Kossek, studies by sociologists, economists, and psychologists examine the work side of the equation. Where previous research has centered on ways to improve employees’ personal lives, Lambert’s project takes aim at improving the job, arguing for a restructuring that invests in worker well-being. Changes could include posting schedules far in advance and keeping hours consistent from week to week.

Achieving balance, and overcoming the barriers that stand in the way, mean more than offering child-care help, she says. “Those are nice supports for people, but they don’t change the working conditions and allow you to spend more time with your family.” Rather, she argues, “These policies were put in place to allow you to better do your job. The flip side would be flexibility policies where we are changing something about your work.”

Lambert acknowledges that talk of restructuring positions likely raises a red flag for employers focused on saving money, but she suggests that the investment will pay off over time. Companies lack that longer perspective, Kossek observes. “Right now public employers are very driven by the stock market, return on investment, indicators for performance,” she explains. “We should invest more in the program for the long term. It’s not just adding on a child-care center or a little bit of flexibility at the end of the day. It’s really redesigning work.”

Lambert hopes that Work and Life Integration will add to the debate on balancing the two, and perhaps inform government decisions. “It highlights a need for social policy,” she says, arguing that too much responsibility is left to the employers.