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When work hits home: few CEOs seem to realize that it pays to offer a balance.

Pernille Spiers-Lopez, 45, had her moment of truth about work/life balance about five years ago, when she found herself in the back of an ambulance, its lights flashing and siren wailing as it sped to the nearest hospital. Spiers-Lopez, now the president of IKEA North America, had been living in overdrive. With a husband who worked as a middle school principal, she was raising two toddlers and holding down a demanding, travel-filled job of her own, as head of human resources for the North American branch of the Swedish furniture dynamo. "I was going and going and going," she recalls.

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Then, one day at a meeting, she realized her right arm had gone numb. By evening, she felt so ill that she feared she might be having a heart attack. As she headed to the emergency ward, her thoughts turned to realization--and regret. "I said to myself, 'So, this is success,'" she recalls. As it turned out, Spiers-Lopez had not had a heart attack, but the scare left a lasting impression. Today, she makes time for yoga and meditation, and encourages her employees to feel free to put work in its proper place.

But she is still an exception to the prevailing pattern. Although work/life balance has been on the corporate agenda for a generation now, few CEOs actually get it. "Most are giving lip service," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, a work force research group in New York.

It's not hard to point to some of the objections that CEOs raise. The first is pure skepticism. Some believe work/life programs are not only expensive, feel-good initiatives with little quantifiable return, but also unworkable. Leaders of small companies have the least patience. When Donna Klein, president and CEO of Corporate Voices for Working Families, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, met with a group of owners and managers of smaller businesses on the subject, they said flexibility simply wasn't an option for anyone running line operations. And if one person was given a flexible work arrangement, everyone else would want the benefit, too.

Another factor may be the backgrounds of many corporate chiefs, whose hard-charging careers have left them without an understanding of the problem; they have little balance in their own lives, so offering that to employees is just not a top priority. And CEOs who have the financial resources for life-enhancing services like full-time nannies may be insulated from the stress faced by some employees.

The Business Case for Balance

That may be why American workers have been putting in more time on the job, not less. According to the United Nations' International Labor Organization, U.S. employees on average put in nine more weeks per year than German workers, for example. And that's just what goes on at the office. Some 46 percent of respondents to the Families and Work survey said they were sometimes or regularly contacted about work-related matters while away from the office. Pressures are particularly acute for working parents. Sixty-seven percent of employed parents said they did not have enough time with their children, and 63 percent said they didn't have enough time with their spouses, up from 50 percent in 1992. A vast majority of those polled said they were unable to use all their vacation time.

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There are, however, some CEOs who have gotten religion about work/life balance, investing much time and money to develop programs and flexible work policies for their companies--and they aren't doing it to be nice, either. These CEOs are motivated by a compelling business reason, one that connects the dots between flexibility for employees and the company's bottom line.

In the case of Ernst & Young, the accounting firm began noticing in the mid-1990s that it had a retention problem. "Many of our best people were women, and they were not staying," recalls Philip Laskawy, retired chair and CEO of the accounting giant. The solution, begun under Laskawy and continuing under the current CEO, James Turley, has been a sweeping initiative to make it easier for employees to balance life on and off the job. The creative measures introduced include a benefit that allows some tax professionals to take reduced-pay leave in the off-season before tax time and a policy that discourages contacting staff outside the office. The efforts show up on the bottom line: Ernst & Young estimates that its increased retention rate of women is saving the firm about $12 million a year in personnel replacement costs.

Retention has been, and will continue to be, one of the key motivators for the development of work/life programs. But, in addition, the CEOs most committed to balance can usually point to a revealing incident in their own lives. Randall Tobias, former chairman and CEO of Eli Lilly, learned to appreciate balancing home-life demands as the father of a daughter with a medical condition that required scores of hospital treatments when she was young. "I became very aware of our own family circumstances in trying to juggle all that, and of the people you might be sharing a hospital room with and how tough it could be," says Tobias, who is now the U.S. global AIDS coordinator in Washington.

Eli Lilly became known for work/life initiatives under Tobias, and in 2004 the pharmaceutical maker placed in the top 10 on Working Mother's annual list of best workplaces for mothers. Its policies today include 68 weeks of job-guaranteed leave for new mothers and a host of flex options that allow for more telecommuting and flexible schedules. A recent company survey found that employees on more flexible schedules reported less work/life conflict and stronger loyalty to the company.

The success of programs like Eli Lilly's are usually the direct result of strong support in the corner office--and the programs often fall short without it. Which is why CEOs who've learned their own hard lessons about balance tend to be most active in setting up company programs. Early in his career, Michael Morris, CEO of American Electric Power, had raised two kids with a working wife, and was the kind of father who would leave the office in the afternoon if one of them had an important sports event. His company, one of the country's largest utilities, based in Columbus, Ohio, also earned a spot on the Working Mother list, in part because of how he began his term as CEO: by telling subordinates that people so overworked that they neglect family life could also lack focus on the job.

Morris has lived to regret moments when he allowed work to take precedence over pressing family matters. When an out-of-town business meeting was scheduled the same day as the funeral of his paternal grandmother, Morris opted for the meeting. "It has haunted me since," he says. Morris doesn't want employees making similar sacrifices, and reinforces this not only through talk, but through corporate policies allowing flextime and telecommuting, among other things. "Happy employees are productive employees--period," he says.

Many CEOs are committed to providing work/life balance because they firmly believe that it leads to greater productivity for the organization as a whole. It may not be quantifiable, but it's the kind of thing you can see when you really drill down. That's what John Noel, chairman and CEO of Noel Group, the travel insurance and services company he founded, observed at a company he worked for earlier in his career. "There were these people who felt they got a red badge of courage if they worked 60, 70 hours a week," he says, "but their productivity was really lacking in substance." Noel also grew to believe that weekends he spent camping with his family were good for his own stamina. "It was a balance that allowed me to go to work that next Monday and feel like I'd given to my family, my wife," he says. "I came back rejuvenated."

Today, his Stevens Point, Wis., company, with about 820 employees around the world, is known for work/life initiatives ranging from an onsite childcare center to a bevy of flextime arrangements. These policies are part of the reason, Noel says, that the company has been able to keep turnover in its important call centers to a fraction of the industry average. "You have a more efficient, effective operation, and you answer the customers' questions with skill," he says.

Jeffrey Schwartz, president and CEO of The Timberland Company in Stratham, N.H., agrees--and believes that executives fool themselves if they fail to acknowledge that the people they manage have important needs outside of work. That's why the shoe and apparel company offers such benefits as time off on election day and six-month community service sabbaticals. It also opens offices late on the first day of school, because Schwartz thinks parents should not have to come up with "why-I-was-late" excuses for participating in such an important event in children's lives. "It's only telling the truth," he says.

Mandate From the Top a Must

Without that CEO buy-in, no work/life balance program can really succeed, because managers get the message that it's optional. "It is absolutely critical," says Michelle Thomas, director of diversity and work/life programs at Abbott Laboratories. The pharmaceutical company's work/life efforts got a boost in 1999 when chairman and CEO Miles White commissioned a study of the 15,000 employees at company headquarters to learn what they needed. The result was a huge onsite child care center at headquarters and a raft of other benefits, including a job-share program that has helped retain key members of the sales force.

Senior executives with a passion for work/life balance have found creative ways to demonstrate and vocalize their support. Gary Rosenthal, CFO of Novartis Pharmaceuticals, the U.S. affiliate of the Swiss company, sent a clear message when he spent two hours last September manning a table outside the cafeteria to talk to employees about ways to mesh corporate effectiveness with work/life balance. One idea he shared: refrain from Friday afternoon meetings.

Management buy-in is particularly key for companies operating diverse or far-flung businesses, as managers need to tailor work/life solutions to the peculiarities of their work force. "Most of the decisions that have a direct impact on our people are not those that are made by me," says Turley of Ernst & Young. "They are made every day on the ground, around the world by people working on accounts."

Turley says that Ernst & Young's growing experience with work/life initiatives has had some unexpected payoffs. One was to allow offices saddled with unusually heavy demands post-Enron to nimbly come up with arrangements that would prevent employee overload and burnout.

There are other unexpected rewards, too, according to Schwartz. He checks Timberland's security logs periodically to see if any employees are coming to the office consistently on weekends. When he spots a trend, he figures there must be a problem--lack of sufficient equipment or understaffing, for example. Problems that might not otherwise have been noticed are fixed earlier.

Sometimes, Schwartz himself intervenes. When one of his employees was stretching the workday into the wee hours for a demanding client in Europe, he urged her to talk to her counterpart to set cross-time zone hours that would make life easier. If things went on as they were, he reasoned, the work would overwhelm a valuable employee and she would leave. "Nothing is more wasteful than to burn up people," he says.

Not a bad lesson for CEOs who'd prefer to skip ambulance rides.
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Title Annotation:WORKPLACE
Author:Mendels, Pam
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
Words:1929
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