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In search of true work/life balance: in order to consistently attain work/life balance, we must change our work ethic and corporate culture through education, acceptance, communication and accountability.

Some would argue that the concept of work/life balance is a myth. You either work or you have a life, but not both. This may seem a bit extreme, yet there's more than a kernel of truth in it.

Over the past several years, we have become more aware of our need to achieve a healthy work/life balance, yet we still struggle to achieve it. The challenge for today's corporate leaders is how to increase productivity, efficiency and profitability while balancing family time, civic involvement and activities conducive to a healthy lifestyle. After all, there are only so many hours in a day.

This has been the topic of countless discussions by concerned social scientists, industrial engineers, school counselors, family physicians, parents and corporate executives. Obviously, work/life balance is an elusive concept that few have mastered.

Tom Owens, senior vice president in the Capital Markets Group at Hines, a multibillion-dollar commercial real estate company, is one executive who seems to have achieved a balance. Owens, along with three other executives from different institutions, took part in an interview project by this writer. The goal was to get an objective perspective on how successful financial executives manage demanding careers while maintaining a healthy lifestyle outside the office.

Owens has built a successful career with Hines spanning more than 30 years. Hines has a good reputation in the industry as a well-managed, privately held company that attracts high-caliber executives. Owens is a key resource for its fund and project managers. He works on special projects, from raising capital and asset allocation, to managing the corporation's private investment projects.

Until a few years ago, Owens' typical day started with an early morning family breakfast, and like many executives, he went non-stop, some days until 7 p.m. or later. He usually didn't slow down until well after 5 p.m. The rest of his day was spent reading memos, contracts and legal documents, while completing necessary reports, schedules and returning calls and emails.

Owens is equally committed to his family and community. He is currently a director for Houston Habitat for Humanity and is an active mission volunteer with an international non-profit group that travels to underdeveloped countries, helping the local people drill and repair water wells. Owens is also a director of the College of Biblical Studies, and is actively involved in a mentoring program at a local prison. He tries to exercise at least three times a week, is active in his church and walks most evenings with his wife, Patti.

How is Owens able to maintain such a full schedule and not neglect his work responsibilities? He said he learned a long time ago the art of planning and delegation. Furthermore, he had to realize his limitations and admit he couldn't do it all alone.

This seems to be a major challenge for many high level-managers. When accepting responsibility for key projects, they sometimes find it difficult to delegate. It's not uncommon for overachievers to over-commit. When this happens, family and personal time usually get pushed aside.

Tom Owens' approach isn't the only answer to achieving work/life balance; after all, Owens is not the average executive. But he has discovered his own secret to happiness, and it seems to work.

One thing is for certain: there seems to be a direct correlation between positive activity outside the workplace and maintaining high energy levels. These activities help us psychologically and physiologically reduce stress and recharge our mental and physical batteries. In turn, those enable us to work at peak performance levels. Moreover, this balanced approach to work and life outside the office keeps us energized about our careers, our organizations and our quality of life.

The interview with Owens revealed a humble man dedicated to his family, his spiritual beliefs and his community as much as he is to his career and his company. What's interesting is Owens never has to defend or justify his priorities because he is able to stay on track and keep everyone happy ... including himself.

Lots of Burnout

Employee burnout has been a serious concern for companies and executives over the last two decades. With more international competitors in domestic markets, American companies have to do more with less. As a consequence, our society has cultivated a work ethic that places our careers at the pinnacle of life.

Although this strong work ethic has helped us become a world superpower, it has created its share of problems. American families have become less connected and more dysfunctional. Stress-related illnesses are increasing at an alarming rate, costing employers more for employee health care coverage. While not all of America's social and health problems can be blamed on a poor work/life balance, most experts agree it's a contributing factor--and believe our quality of life will continue deteriorating unless we address this issue.

Only very recently have corporations realized the importance of work/life balance and how it relates to productivity and longevity. Some corporations have taken steps to address these concerns and are seeing positive results, while others are merely giving lip service.

Among the good actors are: Google, KPMG LLP, Boston Consulting Group, SC Johnson & Son Inc., REI and American Century Investments; there are many others, including those listed each year by Fortune magazine in the "100 Best Companies to Work For." These and many others have implemented programs such as flexible work schedules, job sharing, paid sabbaticals, paid educational leave, paid maternity leave and community involvement initiatives.

The challenge that corporations encounter in carrying out a proactive plan to support work/life balance is not necessarily in designing the plan itself, but in implementing and sticking to a plan over time.

Many executives try to schedule time for themselves and their families, with good intentions, but later end up rescheduling to meet work-related demands. Their planned personal and family time often gets pushed further and further down the priority list.

It is difficult in our culture for many to give equal time consideration to personal or family activities, since employment is what puts bread on the table. Sure, many will boldly proclaim that family time or worship time comes first, but their actions speak louder than their words.

In order for us to consistently attain work/life balance, we must change our work ethic and corporate culture through education, acceptance, communication and accountability. Corporate decision-makers must put the responsibility equally on themselves, as well as their employees. This will create a culture that rewards and praises executives for having the vision and commitment to encourage personal, family and community involvement.

When companies include work/life balance programs as part of career development initiatives, we will begin to see a more productive, creative, healthy and happier workforce with less turnover and lower absenteeism. Many proactive companies have already taken measures to encourage such a balance. Some possible solutions to consider include:

* Establishment and implementation of employee education initiatives focused on the importance of employee wellness through work/ life balance programs that are regularly introduced as part of the corporate culture.

* Establishment and implementation of employee career development and mentoring programs that mandate supervisor's responsibility to provide continuing development of subordinates through mentoring and delegation practices.

* Consistent assessment, follow-up and accountability of work/life programs to ensure programs are producing positive results. Then, those results are publicized to educate employees further and reflect corporate support.

It will take a concerted effort, but if we sincerely embrace these concepts, our companies and communities will reap the long-term benefits.

TAKEAWAYS

* A balanced approach to work and life outside the office keeps people energized about their careers, organizations and their quality of life.

* Over the past several years, we have become more aware of our need to achieve a healthy work/life balance, yet we still struggle to achieve it.

* Some corporations have taken steps to address these concerns and are seeing positive results, while others are merely giving lip service.

* To consistently attain work/life balance, we must change our work ethic and corporate culture through education, acceptance, communication and accountability.

HANK RENNAR is President and Managing Partner of Career Advocates International, an executive career consulting and recruiting firm in Houston. He can be reached at 281.395.9848 or hank@careeradvocates.org.
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Title Annotation:YOUR CAREER
Author:Rennar, Hank
Publication:Financial Executive
Date:Apr 1, 2007
Words:1377
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