Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=166486
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Should work-life balance be the law?

by Dayna Dion
June 08, 2010


By the time she was 25, Emily Cull was working 70-hour weeks.

A caseworker and program manager working on emergency preparedness for a non-profit agency, she was tethered to her BlackBerry on weekends, in anticipation of The Call.

 

The call that would mean dropping everything at a moment’s notice, dinner with her family, date with her boyfriend or day of relaxation, all in the name of her all-consuming job.

 

It didn’t end there.

 

Requests for time off were met with resistance and a line of questioning for the young and childless Cull: “Why do you need time off?” Cull said her boss asked. “What will you be doing?”

 

“The attitude was that it’s a recession and you’re lucky to have a job,” she said. 

 

But Cull said she didn’t feel lucky. She felt used, and the passion she once felt for her work began slipping way.

 

So she walked away, in the middle of a recession and without a job.

 

Quit.

 

Some called it a reckless move. But Cull saw it as a chance to regain her passion, and her life.

 

“I realize money is necessary to live,” she said. “But I don’t think anyone deserves to lose themselves in a job and be unhappy. You shouldn’t be forced to go to work at a place that doesn’t respect you and your time.”

 

Cull is not an anomaly. She’s part of an increasing number of educated Americans being pushed out by workplaces with scant, or non-existent, policies to preserve work-life balance.

 

“The United States loses a key engine of economic growth because our outdated workplaces push highly trained workers out of the workforce,” according to a report published this January by the Centers for American Progress and WorkLife Law.

 

Indeed, the United States lags far behind the rest of the developed world in regard to policies that promote work-life balance.

 

“Americans lack paid sick days, limits on mandatory overtime, the right to request work [hours] flexibility without retaliation and proportional wages for part-time work,” the report stated. “All exist elsewhere in the developed world.”

 

Actually, the United States has only one major labor law, said Kevin Miller of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

 

“With the exception of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which is fairly weak, the only major labor law in the United States is the fair labor standards act, which created the minimum wage and outlawed child labor,” he said. “And that was passed in 1938.”

 

Given that, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers is calling for new work-life balance policies that reflect the demands facing today’s workforce.

 

“Especially at this time, as the U.S. rebuilds after the Great Recession, it is critical for the 21st century workplace to be organized for the 21st century workforce,” the council stated in a report issued this March.

 

But that will be easier said than done.  Legislators’ attempts to pass new work-life balance laws have been met with strong resistance from the private sector.

One business advocate said attempts to change practices by lawmakers is interference.

 

“Isn’t it a little presumptuous for the legislature to determine what’s in the best interest of employees?” asked Douglas Dougherty, president of the Illinois Telecommunications Association. “The legislature doesn’t have a place to say to management that they can’t assign overtime. The workers and management work those things out,” he said.

 

Miller said another argument against regulations is that they will hurt small businesses because they’ll be forced to institute policies that cost more money.

 

But new evidence suggests employers have more to gain than lose by instituting policies that create better work-life balance.

 

“The benefits of adopting [workplace flexibility] practices can outweigh the costs by reducing absenteeism, lowering turnover, improving the health of workers and increasing productivity,” according to the Council of Economic Advisers’ report.

 

That may sound fairly intuitive, but there isn’t a lot of data to support it. And in the absence of hard, cold numbers on how work-life balance benefits the bottom line, policy makers will have a hard time convincing employers to adopt new work-life balance rules, experts contend.

 

One bill that has gained some momentum is the Work-Life Balance Award Act, proposed in April by U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who heads a congressional subcommittee that works on labor issues.

 

The act is the first of its kind and calls for the establishment of an annual award for employers that develop and implement work-life balance policies.

 

The proposed award, a plaque, may not be monetary in nature but is symbolic of the issue’s importance, said Arin Reeves, founder of the Chicago-based Athens Group, which works with Fortune 500 companies to develop employee retention strategies.

 

“What a government statute does is say, ‘You’ve got to be paying attention to this,’” she said.

 

But Miller doesn’t expect a government award to result in workplace policy changes.

 

“I don’t think having the award will result in a lot of companies instantly changing their policies,” he said.

 

What will make a difference, Reeves predicted,  is leadership from the private sector.

 

“I think that it has to be a leadership decision that is made in individual organizations,” she said.

 

State Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said he doesn’t think that creating more employee-friendly policies can be left up to businesses.

 

“I would not be one who would agree that employers are in the best position to determine what’s fair for employees,” he said.

 

“Generally speaking, I think it’s always a good idea to let businesses conduct their own affairs,” he added.  “But [employers] can’t be trusted to do it on their own without some sort of oversight, because they’re in the business of making money.”

 

In light of that, Woolsey has proposed legislation that would expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover more workers, provide leave for children’s extracurricular activities, encourage employers to allow their employees to telecommute and give part-time workers benefits.

 

But, progress has been slow.

 

“For several years now, I have introduced and reintroduced the Family and Workplace Balancing Act,” Woolsey wrote. The fact that it hasn’t passed “shows we still have a long way to go,” she added.

 

In the absence of laws that establish better work-life balance policies, employees need to take matters into their own hands, said Jessica Palmert, a Chicago-based organizational consultant.

 

“We have to demand it,” she said. “The major shift can really happen if we begin to take care of ourselves.”

 

And taking care of ourselves starts with valuing ourselves, she said.

 

Cull is a case in point.

 

“That’s what I did when I left my position,” she said. She took time off, worked as a nanny and went to nursing school before taking a job with a government agency.

 

 Palmert said, “People need to value themselves enough to see that their relationship with their employer is a mutual one.”


“People say, ‘Well the economy is so bad.’ But this is the only life that you have,” she added. “How are you going to spend it?”