Allison Harrell

What Is This Work/Life Balance Everyone Keeps Talking About?

Working overtime and stressfully climbing the corporate ladder is not part of this equation.

July 18, 2011
by Allison Harrell, CPA

For years work/life balance seemed like a myth in the accounting world. We are accountants — work IS our life or at least that is how we have been thought of for years. This is just simply not the case anymore for our profession and every other profession out there. More and more of the employees entering the workforce are not willing to put in the overtime and stress to climb up the company ladder at the expense of their family and personal lives. The workforce is changing and it includes increases in dual-income families, single-parent households, working mothers, single-person households and eldercare responsibilities. Everyone is striving to achieve that perfect balance between excelling in their careers and maintaining quality of life.

Generational Divide

The most popular theory about why work/life balance is such a hot topic now is because the younger generations (X and millennial) value their personal lives more than the baby boomers. While this may be partially true, there are a lot of factors that contributed to this theory.

Reader Note: Don’t miss Allison Harrell’s session at the upcoming AICPA E.D.G.E. Conference in New Orleans, LA, August 10-12.

In the last century, each generation has had economic events that have impacted the way they work and live. For instance, baby boomers are all products of parents who lived through the Great Depression. Baby boomers saw the hardships their parents went through, which influenced their work ethic of the more they worked, the better the payoff down the road. Thus baby boomers applied their competitiveness and industrious work ethic into furthering their careers.

When baby boomers were working all of those long, hard hours climbing the corporate ladders, their children (generations X and millennial) were taking notice. Then the recession hit. The majority of the baby boomers were laid off from the jobs into which they put so much time and effort. People have said that once generations X and millennial entered the workforce, they were jaded. Their parents had missed their school plays and little league games due to their jobs and for what? Just to be laid off, when times were hard. This is what helped form Gen-X’s and millennial’s work ethic. Gen-X and Millennials want to work hard, but not at the cost of their personal life. They are willing to put in the time, but not ALL of the time. They want to excel in their careers, but the motivation of overtime pay is not as much of an incentive. Personal satisfaction with their jobs is what motivates them. There is nothing negative about the boomer, Gen-X and millennial’s work ethics; they are just different approaches.

Seeking Balance

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not just the Gen-X and millennial generations who are seeking that balance between work and life. Each generation’s priorities are changing over time. Baby boomers have aging parents to care for and grandchildren to enjoy, while Gen-X and Millennials are just starting to raise their families or still enjoying their weekend activities.

How do we achieve balance? Will we ever be satisfied with the amount of work we put in a week vs. how much time we dedicate to our family and outside activities? It is all on a personal scale. No two people, no matter what generation they are from, have that same level of balance. Employers are facing the challenge of figuring out what is right for each person. It depends on gender, age, family/personal situations and community involvement.

There are some great tools out there to help you on how to achieve balance. CNN’s website has a balance calculator to help you figure out which hours of your week you have available to plan activities. Other techniques include going through life-compass activities and rating your activities with enjoyment and capability factors to understand which ones you could do without or would want to change.

Businesses are realizing that professional and personal successes are not separate endeavors. In recognizing this trend, employers are taking action in a variety of different ways. The employers are benefiting by finding effective solutions that allow them to find the best applicants, while also retaining their current talent.

Flexible Work Arrangements and Other ‘Balance’ Initiatives

Flexible work arrangements are more prevalent now where employees can work compressed work weeks, part-time or create their own schedules. For some employees, working 10-hour days Monday through Thursday, getting the job done and having a three-day weekend to relax and enjoy is the ideal situation. On the other hand, for certain working parents, the ideal situation is having a reduced hour workweek that makes time for their children’s school and extracurricular activities.

In addition, people are becoming “virtual workers.” Paperless technologies and remote connections have made it possible to work from home without going into the office. This makes the looming deadline a little more manageable when you are not required to be in the office until midnight, but can get it done at home and e-mail it. Another added benefit of the “virtual-worker world” is being able to get work done, while you are not at home but maybe sitting in an airport waiting for a flight or taking care of a sick out-of-town relative. Long gone are the days of hauling suitcases full of papers, binders and office supplies. As long as you have a computer and an online connection, you are good to go anywhere!

Other ways employers have improved the work/life balance is through onsite daycare, reimbursement for emergency back-up childcare, longer paternity/maternity leaves, gradual return to work after paternity/maternity leaves and including hours of community activity as part of the regular work week.

Fine Line Between the ‘Family Person’ and ‘Non-Family Person’

While employers are coming up with more and more ideas to help out the “family person” spend more time with their family and creating better maternity leave policies and return programs, they have to be careful not to ignore the “non-family person.” Not every employee’s priority is spending time with their family especially when that employee does not have a spouse or children. This does not mean that these employees do not want to reap some of those same benefits that working parents are getting.

Not every business has gotten the message that single workers and the “non-family person” want a life too. Time to go out on dates, get to the gym and volunteering are all valid life issues that are important. These are the employees who are afraid to voice their opinion for fear of people accusing them of not supporting the mothers and children. This is a unique circumstance that the employer does not realize until the employee speaks. Some employers have been taking an approach that lets these employees present their idea of what a work/life balance is. It is usually approved for a trial period in order to see its effectiveness. Most employers are now willing to work with all types of situations in order to retain good employees.

Is Life Getting in the Way?

With all of the work/life balance hype, many employers are wondering whether they are losing productivity in exchange for happier employees, while employees are concerned about hurting their chances of promotion if they are in a flexible working arrangement. Truth is, happier employees make better employees for the most part. Studies show that happier employees are less likely to leave and more likely to recommend their place of work to a friend. If everyone is seeking some sort of work/life balance, then would it not make sense that it could not get in the way of promotions? Or maybe the emphasis is shifting and job satisfaction on a slower promotion track is becoming more important than fast tracking to partner. Who knows? Only time will tell as the workforce continues to change.

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Allison Harrell, CPA, is an audit senior manager with Tallahassee-Fla.-based accounting firm, Thomas Howell Ferguson, P.A. She currently serves on the AICPA Young CPA Committee and was also a member of the AICPA’s Inaugural Leadership Academy.