TIME Parenting

What Single Policy Could Ease Americans’ Time Crunch?

Work-life balance is at the core of why we all feel so overwhelmed. Here are some solutions from thought leaders and experts for how to remedy that.

You’ve probably seen that “Poolside” Cadillac commercial, which debuted during the Sochi Olympics, where a dad looks over his infinity pool and notes, “Other countries – they work, stroll home, stop by the café, take August off.” High-fiving his kid and handing a newspaper to his wife, he tells us why “we” aren’t like that: “Because we’re crazy-driven, hard-working believers, that’s why.” The ad was meant to provoke, but it also illustrates how Americans work hard, play hard, and still expect a warm family and manicured yard as part of living the American Dream.

And yet, 53 percent of working parents in a study published by the Pew Research Center last year said they found it very or somewhat difficult to balance their work and family life. Thirty-four percent of those parents say they always feel rushed, even to do the things they have to do. This is only one of a slew of studies that illustrate how overwhelmed many Americans feel trying to “have it all.” In advance of the Zócalo event “Why Can’t Americans Balance Love, Work, and Play?”, we asked experts what single cultural or policy change could ease American’s time crunch?

1. Retool school schedules and expectations

It seems to me that one cultural shift that has gone way too far is the expectation that parents will be intimately involved in the workings of schools and the goings-on of classrooms.

I realized it had escalated way beyond normality when the parent group at my kid’s elementary school organized not teacher appreciation day but teacher appreciation week. Each day, kids needed to remember to bring in something different: a rose, say, on Monday, and a card on Tuesday, and Wednesday we needed to contribute an item to the teacher’s breakfast–this, on top of endless committees having to do with art contests, silent auctions, book fairs, etc.

Most of it seems to fall on mothers. It just adds to the overlong to-do list. Parents need to say no–and I did, much of the time–but schools, and parent committees, should also ask themselves whether this or that event or request for classroom involvement is necessary. Related to this, of course, is the culture of extracurricular events, which is also its own kind of arms race: travel soccer, camps, teams, fees. There needs to be some sort of cultural pushback, some sort of ratcheting down of the number of things that parents have to do with regard to schooling.

Even more important is a whole scale re-envisioning of the school day and a culture-wide effort to have school sync up better with parents’ work schedules. More school aftercare would help. Also, what would help would be to have the above-mentioned extracurriculars incorporated into the afterschool day, so that it can happen on school grounds, and parents don’t have to do all that driving and organizing. We need a Steve Jobs–somebody obsessed with simplicity and ease of use–to tackle and vanquish the level of complexity that has come to define the raising and education of children.

Liza Mundy is director of the Breadwinning and Caregiving Program at the New America Foundation. A journalist and book author, Liza most recently wrote The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love and Family.

2. Hold employees accountable for results

Americans need to work less. As I chronicled in my book, Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, overwork is not only diminishing Americans’ quality of life outside the office, it’s making us less effective inside the office, too.

It may sound counterintuitive, but when we work more than 40 hours per week, study after study has shown we actually become less productive. Knowledge workers have four to six hours of solid productivity in a day. After that, productivity starts to decline until eventually we enter a negative progress cycle, which means we’re creating more problems than we’re solving.

Many of us know we should work less. But that’s hard to do in a culture where “full time” often means 50-plus hours a week (not including the commute), and part-timers are treated as slackers (even if, hour for hour, they are in fact the most productive people on the payroll). Roughly half of all jobs in America are compatible with working from home part-time, yet many companies still frown on this practice. Commitment to one’s job is still measured not by effectiveness, but by how many nights and weekends one works.

A simple but powerful change businesses can make is to hold employees accountable to results, rather than fixating on how many hours or days they spend at a desk. One exciting trend management experts talk about is “results-only work environments” where managers stop acting like babysitters and instead, they empower employees to decide when, where, and how to best get their work done. Businesses reap the benefits in increased productivity and morale, and decreased turnover.

Our state of overwork is bad for our health and bad for business. If companies want a competitive edge, they must create environments where employees can thrive—even if that means for many of us, working less.

Katrina Alcorn is a writer, consultant, and public speaker. Her first book, Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, tells a deeply personal story about “having it all,” failing miserably, and what comes after.

3. Make work schedules flexible – and don’t ding workers for taking advantage of that

Simply put, today’s workplace is not designed around today’s worker. Instead, it clings to the 1960s notion of an “ideal worker” – someone who is available to work whenever needed while someone else holds down the fort at home, and who takes little or no time off for childbearing or child rearing. Structuring work in this fashion marginalizes caregivers, men, and women alike.

Women who take family leave or adopt flexible work schedules to have more time with their children often encounter “maternal wall” bias, which is by far the strongest form of gender bias today. A well-known experimental study found that mothers were 79 percent less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, offered an average of $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance and punctuality standards than identical women without children. Mothers face assumptions that being committed to work makes them bad mothers, and that being committed to motherhood makes them bad workers.

Meanwhile, men face a different type of “flexibility stigma” because childcare, fairly or unfairly, is still seen as being a feminine role. Men seeking to take family leave, for instance, are not only seen as bad workers, but also as bad (i.e., less manly) men. In other words, the flexibility stigma is a femininity stigma.

This is a sobering message for employers: creating flexible work policies is only half the battle. The next step is to eliminate the stigma that all too often accompanies such arrangements. Happily, change may be on the horizon. Many, if not most, talented young men and women want to combine meaningful work with a fulfilling personal life. As the Millennial generation gains influence in the workforce, we can only hope that their values will lead to a change in workplace culture.

Joan C. Williams is Hastings Foundation Chair and Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California (Hastings). She has authored or co-authored over 90 academic articles and book chapters, as well as authored or co-authored 8 books, the most recent being What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know. You can also follow her work on Twitter @JoanCWilliams and her Huffington Post blog.

4. Teach employees how to be their best on and off the job

We need to recognize, as a culture, that we have to train people to fit work and the other parts of their life together. It’s a modern skill we all need to succeed that most of us don’t have.

According to our research, most of us are flying by the seat of our pants trying to get everything done even though the boundaries that used to tell us where work ended and the rest of life began have all but disappeared.

The good news is we have more flexibility in how, when, and where we can get our jobs done. The bad news is that no one is showing us how to capture that work-life flexibility, intentionally, and use it to be our best, on and off the job.

According to the results of our recent national survey of full-time employed U.S. adults, 97 percent of respondents reported having some form of work-life flexibility in 2013 when compared to the previous year; however, only 40 percent said they received training or guidance on how to manage it. Not surprisingly, 62 percent of respondents reported obstacles to using or improving their work-life flexibility such as increased workload or having no time, and fears of job and income loss.

Teaching people the basics of how to manage the way their work and life fit together makes a difference. For example, we showed a group of 40 employees in a large medical testing lab how to choose small, but meaningful work, career, and personal priorities and focus on these actions for the next seven days, a technique in my book, Tweak It. They planned when, where, how, and with whom they would accomplish those “tweaks.” At the end of six weeks, 92 percent of participants said they were better able to prioritize all of their responsibilities and goals, and 88 percent felt they more actively managed what they had to get done at work and in their personal lives.

Cali Williams Yost is a flexible workplace strategist and author who has spent two decades helping organizations and individuals partner for award-winning flexible work success. Her “how to” work+life fit advice for individuals can be found in her new book Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day (Center Street, 2013).

5. Five mindset changes that leaders should adopt

The pressure to work more hours and to work faster is real. Over 70 percent of both men and women say that they have to work very fast, and roughly 90 percent say that they have to work very hard, according to our research.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we’re going to help ease Americans’ time crunch among the rank and file, the leaders at organizations will need a major mindset overhaul when it comes to how they think about work for themselves and for their employees.

Mindset #1: Priorities, not balance. Balance is static, but life is not, so accept that every day is different, and anchor your day-to-day in your overall priorities.

Mindset #2: Dual centric, not work centric. Don’t put work before everything else all the time. Our research shows that executives who prioritize work some of the time and prioritize personal life some of the time – what we call being dual centric – are less stressed, have an easier time managing work and personal demands, have advanced as high or at higher levels than those executives who were work-centric, and feel more successful in their home lives.

Mindset #3: Better, not perfect. Expecting perfection limits your ability to ask for help, so set expectations that allow for getting better and you will grow.

Mindset #4: Team, not individual. Going it alone limits your options, so get the whole team work it out together. That means the team at home as well as the team at work.

Mindset #5: Rest and recover, not flat-out. Making decisions in a constant time bind affects performance, so step away before diving in.

Leaders and managers at all levels who adopt these mindsets for themselves will both ease their own time crunch and improve their performance – and change the culture at work for everyone.

Anne Weisberg is senior vice president of the Families and Work Institute and an executive who has designed innovative practices to build effective, inclusive work environments. She co-authored the best selling book Mass Career Customization: Aligning the Workplace With Today’s Nontraditional Workforce and directed the report on women in the legal profession Women in Law: Making the Case.

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