Work Vs Life Vs The World

Dec. 21, 2004
Each country has different work/life issues to balance.

It all depends on your perspective. In the U.S. the biggest work/life anxiety for an employee with flexible work arrangements might be arranging his or her schedule to finish a work assignment and still see his or her son's music recital and daughter's basketball game in the same day. Elsewhere in the world, work/life concerns can be quite different -- and much more basic. Indeed, the biggest work/life issue that Mhpo E. Letlape, human-resources director, IBM-South Africa, faces is simply the anxiety that sets in, she says, while "waiting for the gates to open at my home when I have to leave work after dark" -- even though her home is only six kilometers from her office. "Crime and violence are becoming a greater problem because the same work/life imbalances -- workload problems, skills shortages, and business pressures -- that exist around the world are surfacing in South Africa for the first time, creating [social] problems," says Letlape, one of the speakers at a recent seminar on international work/life issues cosponsored by the Conference Board and the Families & Work Institute. Indeed, she worries about her teenage children going to shopping malls where she says "drugs and rape are rampant." By contrast, the most important work/life issues in Japan have been gender issues because there is little equity for women in the workplace. But even that equity issue has temporarily been pushed into the background by the economy. Now the key work/life issue in Japan -- because of the unprecedented layoffs in firms that once boasted lifetime employment -- is "simply survival as opposed to the perks and benefits" people in the U.S. often believe they are entitled to have, says Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection Inc., Minneapolis. Venezuela has similar gender issues. Women need a mentor -- and their husbands' approval -- to get a job, and it is taboo for women to be invited out for drinks, even for after-work business get-togethers, says Patricia Mrquez Otero, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Institute of Higher Studies in Administration, Caracas. "How can we talk about work/life [issues], when we are not even willing to talk about gender differences?" But unlike other countries where balancing work and life has become quite difficult, that's not an issue in Venezuela because in that culture work is secondary to or part of the social, personal, and family lives of people. "We work as part of our social life, not as a competitive thing," says Otero. In Chile the quality-of-life issues are similar to those in Venezuela. "Women have conquered new places of work," says Anbal Oyarzn-Lobo of Serviceo Medico Camara, Chilena de la Construccion, Chile, "but there is still discrimination in [the kinds of jobs they can hold] and in compensation. And because government policies mandate 18 weeks of full pay for maternity leave, free medical care for newborns, and paid time off to take care of sick children under age one, "companies don't like to hire married women," he says. "Chilean companies don't see that they have a . . . role to play in the worker's quality of life," says Oyarzn-Lobo. "They don't see the business reason, and they don't gamble. They only invest in known things, so they want you to demonstrate the results and the exact return." Surprisingly, not even countries with strong social policies with regard to maternity and paternity leave, job-sharing, and time off for both vacations and holidays are immune from the escalating demands of work and long hours attributed to emerging global competitive pressures. "Many European countries are far beyond the U.S. in terms of family leave, but [employees] are still suffering from too much work and not enough time" for all of their work and family commitments, says Seitel. It is clear that the work/life issues of time, balance, and flexibility aren't just U.S. issues. "They are cutting across most countries, but they are just playing out quite differently in different parts of the world," says Bradley K. Googins, executive director of the Center for Corporate Community Relations at Boston College. As he points out, "The notion of work/life issues is 20 to 25 years old in the U.S. and translates into work flexibility, flexible work arrangements, and support services," says Googins. "But for most people around the world, it means, 'Can I find a job, and can I provide for my family?' Our work/life issues in the U.S. are seen as a luxury to many other countries." Yet even that is beginning to change with world economic pressures, the 24-hour workday brought on by technology, the emerging role of women in workplaces outside the U.S., and global mergers such as DaimlerChrysler and BP Amoco (and now Arco). All of these factors are increasing the pressure on non-U.S. countries to begin to move toward the U.S. model of more work flexibility in order to be competitive. Indeed, the growing number of strategic business alliances taking place -- 20,000 in 1998 in the U.S, Europe, and Japan, says Philip H. Mirvis, visiting professor of strategic and international management at the London Business School -- "portend the ascendancy of the flex-firm that can shrink and grow as needed." "Balance keeps creeping up on everybody's agenda," says Mirvis. "You will need flexible staffing, flexible hours, and flexible ways of doing business. That is emerging as a global aspiration. It will be a necessity for global success and will be needed in developing countries as well." The critical question is: Will the cultural distinctiveness of each country prevail, or will there be a single global approach that evolves? "We must figure out how to reconfigure the family and the work organization to adapt to the globalization of the world," asserts Medard Gabel, executive director, World Game Institute, Philadelphia, a nonprofit research organization. That's an issue Germany is wrestling with right now. Its tradition of fewer working hours -- about 600 fewer hours per year than in the U.S -- clashes with the philosophy of many of the U.S. companies now operating in Germany. Second, despite the fall of the Berlin Wall 10 years ago, the cultures of what were East Germany and West Germany remain disparate on work/family issues, says Gisela Anna Erler, founder and president, pme Familienservice GmbH, Munich and Berlin, the largest German work/life care provider. In the former West Germany, for example, child care for children under age three is limited because it is considered a private responsibility. In the former East Germany, where women traditionally have had careers, group care is available and acceptable, says Erler. Yet, in both parts of Germany, she says, parents feel that "they are not getting support," and mothers "are torn between two concepts -- their growing wish to work more and their anxiety that this might be harmful to their children." There also are strong societal pressures in Germany for women to stay home because of tax benefits that accrue to the family. "Unless women are strongly committed to a career, they are eventually pushed by societal forces toward retreating from the labor market," says Erler. Ironically, the companies that have stepped forward with the best solutions to work/life problems in Germany are U.S. companies. But they are creating an additional work/life problem for Germans. "That is the paradox," says Erler. "U.S. companies are leading the way in solutions, but they are forcing their workers [in Germany] into long hours that are not productive and not cognizant of the German culture. They are putting time pressures on their workers because they expect people to [carry] one-and-one-half to two workloads. Erler suggests U.S. companies adopt work schemes similar to those that some German and British companies have adopted, limiting overtime and guaranteeing work hours for a year. "We need solutions [for Germany] that contain and define the work load." German workers aren't alone in wanting a solution other than increased workloads to meet business' need for 24-hour services. One of the biggest strike issues in the U.S recently has been mandatory overtime. In the last year postal workers and some regional telephone workers have negotiated agreements that restrict and reduce mandatory overtime. Still, Googins is convinced that the challenges to manage work/life issues will, without question, be "more difficult" for manufacturers in Europe than elsewhere. "It is going to be difficult for managers in Europe" because governments will be reducing their social role at the same time that worker expectations are increasing, he says. And that problem will be exacerbated by the pressures and challenges of operating in a 24-hour-a-day work world. "That intrudes on the traditional culture in Europe." A case in point: Only in the U.S., says Googins, is two weeks of vacation seen as standard. "In Italy, France, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, it is four to five weeks, and they see that as critical for them as a society. The concept of not having four to five weeks of vacation and not taking them is really unheard of." How will these work/life clashes between companies and employees, cultures, and countries be resolved? "When work and life conflict, employers will need to see that [clash] as a way to better organize how work is done" and increase an organization's flexibility at the same time, says Stewart Friedman, director of the Wharton Leadership Program and Work/Life Integration Project at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. "We need a new breed of managers capable of intelligently capitalizing on assets and creating business value with work/life programs."

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of IndustryWeek, create an account today!