Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Work-Life Movement and its Place at URI- Part 1

Barbara Silver, Ph.D.
Assistant Research Professor
Research Coordinator
Noel Burgess
MS Candidate,
Labor Relations & Human Resources

Part 1. What Workers Need Today: Addressing the Workplace-Workforce Mismatch
Demographic shifts have re-shaped the American workforce. Increasingly, the intersection of work, family, and life responsibilities provides challenges for the majority of workers. Workplaces across the country are responding. This series will cover: Part 1. What Workers Need Today: Addressing the Workplace-Workforce Mismatch; Part 2. Work-Life Initiatives Across the Country and Here at URI; and Part 3. Workplace Flexibility Close-Up: How One URI Office is Making it Work

This Ain’t Your Daddy’s Workforce

The workforce is looking dramatically different than it did a few decades ago, and today, the intersection of work, family, and life responsibilities provides challenges for the majority of workers. First, the workforce is nearly gender balanced: women comprise 49% of the workforce, and this includes 72% of mothers with children under the age of 18.1 Fully 80% of married/partnered employees live in dual-earner couples, outnumbering breadwinner/homemaker households 3-to-1.2 Second, it is older. By 2015, 20% of the workforce will be over 55, and between 2006-2016 labor force participation by workers 65 and over will increase a staggering 85%.3 Third, it is more ethnically diverse. From 1980 to 2020, the white working-age population is projected to decline from 82% to 63%, but during the same period, the minority portion of the workforce is projected to double, from 18% to 37%.4 Fourth, it is working harder. In 2006, middle-income families worked an average of 11 hours more per week than they did in 1979.5 Men are contributing more to household and care giving responsibilities than in the past, and women less, but women are still doing more than men. Today, 59% of those caring for an elderly parent or friend are simultaneously managing work and care giving responsibilities. The number of unpaid caregivers for the elderly is estimated to reach 37 million by 2050, an increase of 85% from 2000, as baby boomers reach retirement age in record numbers.6 Elder care is expected to be one of the most important issues facing American families in the coming decades.

In short, this literally ain’t your daddy’s workforce, one that defined the time when traditional workplace policies and practices were created. Rigid workplace policies are still largely designed to meet the needs of a 1960s traditional breadwinner-caretaker family model, in which the ideal worker is someone (typically male) whose family or personal responsibilities do not interfere with work expectations or job performance. The mismatch between this traditional workplace and a workforce that is older, more diverse, technologically savvy, and in which the majority of workers have (or will have) some care giving responsibilities, calls for a paradigm shift in how we define when and how work gets done.

Workplace Flexibility –  A Must

Fully 90% of employed mothers and 95% of employed fathers now report some kind of work-life conflict.7 Workplace flexibility ranks among the top 2 or 3 most important job characteristics to employees, just behind compensation. In one poll, nearly 80% of employees said they would use and benefit from more flexible work options if there were no negative consequences at work.8 Employees report that the ability to balance work and home significantly impact their career choices and influence their decisions to accept a position or to remain in one.9

Researchers and progressive businesses and organizations recognize that attending to the work-life challenges today’s workers face, including providing flexible working options, has become a business imperative and improves an organization’s bottom line. It is shown compellingly time and again that flexibility is an economic driver, increasing productivity, retention, job satisfaction, engagement and commitment, and improved physical and mental health.10a,b,c For example, businesses like Best Buy, Dow Chemical, IBM, American Experess, Sun Microsystems, to name only a few, report increases in productivity between 32 and 50% with telecommuting programs.11 Concurrently, it results in lower operational costs and a greener workplace, as well as less stress, absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover.12a,b In short, there are robust findings that support the many positive human capital and business outcomes that result from embracing a work-life integration agenda, and providing flexibility options to employees.

It is crucial to recognize that workplace flexibility and work-life integration efforts serve two parallel goals. They serve economic goals, producing significant positive business impacts and serving as powerful recruitment and retention tools. However, they also serve important equity goals. Traditional, rigid workplace practices disadvantage, among others, care givers (the majority of whom are still women), older workers, and lower wage workers. Indeed, it is the lower wage family that arguably has the most severe challenges meeting competing work and home demands, and the ones who often have the least access to flexible work options. As Joan Williams, noted work-life legal scholar has written, these are the workers who are “one sick child away from being fired.”13

Supervisory Support is Key

There are several perceived drawbacks to providing flexible work options, all of which have been effectively disproven. These include cost, fear of abuse of policies, loss of productivity and absenteeism, difficulty in supervising employees, and others.14a,b Partly because of these perceived drawbacks, maintaining a traditional organizational culture and resistance to change on the part of supervisors and organizations presents perhaps the most challenging obstacle to promoting a flexible workplace. Even where policies may exist, in many workplaces they may be not well publicized or encouraged, producing a disconnect between policy and practices, or an "implementation gap."15 And, along with managers, employees are also often resistant, fearing negative repercussions from using available leave policies. Indeed, the Families and Work Institute’s 2002 National Study of the Changing Workforce revealed that fully 39% of employees surveyed perceive the use of flexible work options as having a negative impact on their job advancement.16  In one recent national poll from Workplace Options, a national work-life services provider, more than two-thirds of working fathers have experienced negativity or problems with their current employer due to conflicts between their job and duties as a caregiver.17

While it may be challenging, manager resistance, employee skepticism, and cultural resistance to changing the old industrial work model can be overcome. A better understanding of the issues and the strength of the business case for flexibility, supervisory training in best practices, performance-based management strategies (rather than a reliance on “face-time”), and open, consistent communication between supervisors and employees will go a long way toward overcoming these obstacles. There are scores of ways work-life initiatives, policies, and practices can be implemented. Thinking creatively and tailoring options to meet the varying needs and job requirements of different categories of workers takes careful planning, but reaps rewards. There are many, many solutions, and they need not be cumbersome or costly. Employers must think flexibly about flexibility.


1   U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Current Population Survey, 2007. Retrieved from:
2    US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Labor Force Characteristics by Race & Ethnicity, 2010. Report 1032, August 2011. Retrieved from:
3    US Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Spotlight on Statistics: Older Workers. Retrieved from
4   National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Policy Alert, November 2005:
5   Mishel, L., Bernstein, J. & Shierholz, H. (2009). The State of Working America 2008/2009. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
6   Georgetown University Law Center, Workplace Flexibility 2010. Older Workers and the need for workplace flexibility fact sheet. Retrieved from:
7   Williams, J. & Boushey, H. (2010). The three faces of work-family conflict: The poor, the professionals, and the missing middle. Center for American Progress and Center for WorkLife Law. Retrieved from:
8   Galinsky, E., Bond, J.t., & Hill, E.J. (2004). Workplace flexibility: What is it? Who has it? Who wants it? Does it make a difference? New York: Families & Work Institute
9   Corporate Voices for Working Families (2005, November). Business impacts of flexibility: An imperative for expansion. Washington, D.C.
10a Corporate Voices for Working Families (2005, November). Business impacts of flexibility: An imperative for expansion. Washington, D.C.
10b Galinsky, e. Bond, J.T., & Hill, E.J. (2004). Bottom-line benefits of work/life programs.   HR Focus (July):3-4.
10c Pitt-Catsouphes, M., Matz-Costa, C., & Besen, E. (2009). Workplace flexibility: Findings from the age and generations study. Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.
11  Lister, K., & Harnish, T. (2010b). Workshifting benefits: The bottom line.
12a ibid.
12b Halpern, D.F. (2005, May). How time-flexible work policies can reduce stress, improve health, and save money. Stress and Health. Retrieved from:
13  Williams, J. (2010). Reshaping the Work-Life Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
14a Bond, J.T., Galinsky,E., Kim, S.S., & Brownfield, E. (2005). National study of employers. Families and Work Institute. Retrieved from:
14b McNamara, T., Wong, M., Brown, M. & Pitt-Catsouphes, M. (2009). States as employers-of -choice. A collaborative project of the Twiga Foundation, Inc. and the Sloan Center on Aging & Work. Retrieved from:
15  Lewis, S. & Haas, L. (2005). Work-life integration and social policy. In Kossek, E. & Lambert, S. (Eds.): Work and Life Integration. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
16 Bond, J., Thompson, C., Galinsky, E. & Prottas, D. (2003). Highlights of the national study of the changing workforce. New York: Families & Work Institute.

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