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Employers gain when they give employees a chance to balance work and family

Montreal Gazette by Eva Pomeroy 8 May 2015

There’s a new line on my CV. It reads: Eight years experience at home taking care of my young children. Enough pretending that the work required to care for another human being doesn’t count. It is one of our great collective blind spots and, as we celebrate Mother’s Day Sunday, it’s time to bring it into view.

In discussing eldercare Ai-jen Poo, director of the U.S. based National Domestic Workers Alliance, describes caregiving as the work that makes all other work possible. She calls it the invisible infrastructure of the economy. Employers know this. It is they who absorb the consequences when that infrastructure breaks down, causing employees to miss work.

And then there is turnover. When parents, mainly mothers, decide to leave the workplace because the joint demands of work and family life are unmanageable, that workplace loses its investment in the training and development of that person, as well as the skill and experience she brings to the job.

If we treated care-giving the way we treat paid work, our conversations about work-family balance would be so much more productive. Flex-work, job shares and reduced workloads would simply make sense. These measures allow the employee to continue to contribute meaningfully to her organization while also meeting family responsibilities. They serve the organization as it continues to benefit from the return on its human-resource investment.

Now, of course, you can’t schedule your daughter to get gastro on Tuesday because that’s the day you happen to be at home, however you do increase your chances of being available by 20 per cent. It is more than that, though. As we all know from experience, when there is less stress in the system, there is less illness, period.

And Canadian dual-earner families are stressed. Statistics Canada tells us that around one in four men and one in three women in dual-earner families report feeling severely time-stressed. The impact of chronic stress on our health, cognitive functioning and ability to make good decisions is amply covered in the popular media. Chronic stress isn’t good for anyone — individuals, the children they parent or the organizations for which they work.

If you want lower turnover and fewer absences or burnouts, you have to create the conditions that allow employees to thrive in their work without experiencing extreme stress.

To do that, we have to think about employees’ career trajectories over the long-term.

We know that very young children require a higher level of parental presence and care than school-age children, who require less than preschoolers, but more than the teenagers they will become. In fact, days absent from work for personal or family reasons decreases significantly as employees’ children get older — from an average of three days per year for the parents of preschool children to half that for the parents of adolescents.

If a person’s career is a marathon, rather than a sprint, then pacing is key. There will be periods when the demands of family will be higher and others when these demands will decrease. Of course, it may be tempting to seek out the “unencumbered” employee, the one who will not face competing demands for his time and will remain fully available for work throughout his career, but I believe the number of such individuals is decreasing and will continue to drop. Why reduce the pool from which talent is selected?

Organizations that respect, value and accommodate the care-giving demands that will pepper employees’ career paths will attract the best talent, retain this talent and benefit from a loyal, committed workforce.

Eva Pomeroy is an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Human Sciences at Concordia University and the mother of 8 year old Isaac and 5½ year old Sam.