Australian women account for approximately 47% of the workforce. Women hold nearly 14% of chair positions, 26% of directorships, 17% of CEO roles and just over 30% of key management positions. These stats are improving year-on-year, but gender equality in the workplace – not only at senior levels but across organisations – is still being held back by the persistent challenge of work-life balance.
A visit to the careers page of any major employer in Australia will most likely find a section spruiking the organisation’s work-life balance policies. It’s increasingly recognised as a key element to improve workforce retention and attract talented women, but in practice, Australia ranks a disappointing 27th out of 35 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in terms of work-life balance.
So what can organisations do to better support and retain talented women in their workplaces?
The challenges facing women in the workplace
Whilst many of the challenges around work-life balance can impact both men and women at any stage of their careers, there are some specific factors that make it particularly difficult for women to find a balance.
- Walking the talk: Marlene Cassar, CVCheck’s National Employment Services Account Manager admits that in her career, she’s been the type of manager who insists all team members leave work on time, but will sometimes stay back in the office to get projects finished. “It’s a bit hypocritical,” she says.
- Trying to be the best at everything: “For me, the main challenge is overcoming the expectation that you have to be the best at everything,” says Marlene. “Being the best mother, the best employee, the best leader, the best partner and the best at looking after a household is unrealistic, and leaves no time for looking after yourself. If you want to avoid burnout, something has to give.”
Melinda Tyro, CVCheck’s Enterprise Sales Manager agrees, adding: “We don’t need to be excellent at everything, but women tend to put too much pressure on themselves. Women in our position rarely say that their life is their own; instead, our life is segmented, with each segment belonging to other people. It belongs to our children, our partners, our friends, and our employers.”
As Monique James, CVCheck’s Development and Improvement Coordinator points out, a breaking point is inevitable for women who try to do it all. “You will burn out,” she says. “You may want to be, and do, everything but at the end of the day, we’re still human and it’s only possible to fit so much in to 15 hours.”
- The always-on economy: Connectivity has proven to be a double-edged sword when it comes to work-life balance. While email, instant messaging and other platforms have opened up the possibility of working anywhere, technology has normalised the practice of 24/7 availability and working extremely long hours.
“Workplaces are getting more demanding. In the past a job could start at nine and end at five,” says Melinda. “Now, you can work until midnight every night, and work on the weekends, and still feel like you’re never getting to the end of your task list. I don’t think any high-achieving woman ever goes to bed with the thought, ‘I’ve finished everything that I have to do!’
- Choosing balance over career opportunities: There’s a temptation to plan a career path around jobs that will offer the most flexibility rather than the jobs that would be best for a career. Women seeking work-life balance will often track sideways or sit for years in jobs that are flexible rather than pursuing opportunities for promotion.
- Hiding your personal life: An article in the Chicago Tribune noted that “for years, many high-powered execs did not discuss their children, fearing it would look weak to remind bosses of a personal life or needs outside the office.”
Hiding one’s personal life detracts from efforts to improve work-life balance. Instead, all employees (not only women or senior execs), should be comfortable speaking about their children or elderly relatives they care for, talking about a child’s sports day that they’ll leave work early to attend, or keeping family photos on the desk.
- A lack of flexibility in the workplace: Overwhelmingly, women site inflexible working environments as a key barrier to achieving work life balance.
“When the office management is very rigid with their rules and regulations and are not flexible enough to adjust to your family situation then that becomes difficult for women,” says Suma Gowda, CVCheck Client Service Officer.
Esther Tamaalli, CVCheck’s Client Services Manager agrees adding: “There are amazing fathers out there in the workplace, don’t get me wrong, but the school will typically call me when something’s up with my daughter. I feel if you’re working in an environment that recognises these other commitments, and gives you the flexibility to attend to them when necessary, work-life balance improves, as does achieving a higher level of productivity.”
The side-effects of poor work-life balance
Poor work-life balance hurts both employees and their employers. It can lead to a decrease in productivity, a lot of overtime, high stress levels, burnout, emotional and physical exhaustion, high rates of absenteeism, sickness and employee turnover.
As Jaimini Shah, CVCheck’s business Analyst explains: “A lack of work-life balance can cause women a lot of stress because they’re trying to achieve at work, and they’re also trying to achieve in other areas of their life, and this can affect their health, productivity and relationships.
Three different research papers released in 2019 found:
- Women aged 36 and under were found to be suffering “very high levels of anxiety, stress and sleep deprivation fuelled by competing demands of work and family” Comparatively, 25% of men report experiencing high levels of anxiety.
- Two-thirds of surveyed mothers were considering leaving their job within 12 months of commencing a new role due to stress caused by the conflict between work and caring.
- Increasing numbers of young women are deciding not to have children because they are discouraged by the lack of work-life balance demonstrated by working mothers around them.
Health impacts are a key concern, too. “Being overtired and stressed affects both men and women, but women have the extra burden of dealing with hormones,” says Melinda. “It can lead to anxiety and potentially depression, or bouts of depression where you can feel somewhat manic-depressive. This has a flow-on effect and can trigger other health issues.”
What can organisations do?
With flexibility now seen as important as salary among job-seekers, offering work-life-balance is crucial for attracting and retaining top talent. Organisations can consider the following:
- Offer flexibility to remain competitive
It is increasingly recognised that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to work-life balance, because everybody’s individual needs are different. For example, a female employee with a toddler will have a different schedule than one with a teenager.
For some, balance can be found with flexible hours at the office, while others prefer flexibility in their work location.
“I live 55 kilometres from the city and it rarely takes less than an hour and a half to get to the office, so having the opportunity to work from home is just fantastic,” says Melinda.
Whether an employee’s decision to live so far from the city is based on lifestyle or affordability, Melinda notes that the long commute means parents are away from the home for so much longer. A recent survey found on average, Australians living in major cities spend over an hour commuting to work each day. It also notes those commuting long distances are less satisfied with their working hours, work-life balance and pay; are less productive and engaged; and are more likely to suffer physical and mental strain.
“Working from home is an incredibly effective way of addressing this,” Melinda says.
Other flexible working options include job sharing and part-time work.
Work-life balance is a two-way street, and there needs to be give and take on both sides. Employees should understand their organisation’s busy periods – for example, if April to May is notoriously busy time, it may be a good idea to spend more time physically in the office before returning to work from home in June.
- Don’t penalise parenthood
Attract top talent with leading-edge return-to-work programs, generous parental leave and (if possible) subsidised childcare. Policies need to be supported by a positive culture: one of the reasons Australia ranks so poorly in this area is that people are still penalised (usually subtly) for taking parental leave or prioritising flexibility.
- Discourage long working hours
While it takes a shift in thinking to discourage your employees from working too hard, this is a necessary step in building a balanced culture at your organisation. Keep in mind that the cost of burnout and high employee turnover are significant. It’s also important to encourage employees to take their annual leave rather than letting it build up or go unused.
“Employers need to take the lead with promoting a healthy workplace, and this includes discouraging people from working unsustainably long hours,” says Melinda. “If a team member tells you they worked until 10.00pm the previous evening, their efforts should be acknowledged but they shouldn’t be congratulated! Instead, this should trigger a conversation about why they felt they had to work such long hours – do they have too much on their plate?”
- Define flexibility versus availability
Working from home doesn’t mean the home is now an extension of the office 24/7. Be clear about expectations in terms of answering calls and emails out of office hours. Be careful to avoid a culture of “everything is urgent”: most emails can wait until the following day.
“It’s important to have that discussion, because then we’ll start talking about their current workloads and why it’s leading to unsustainable working hours,” says Marlene
Wondering where to start?
The first step in building a culture that supports work-life balance is to talk about it. Discussions can take place at an executive level, in team meetings, or on a one-on-one basis such as performance reviews.
“We’re very lucky at CVCheck that we have flexibility, but this has to start at management level,” Esther says. “Companies need to be adopting family friendly policies, which help primary caregivers, regardless of if they’re male or female, so they don’t feel guilty about having to go and attend to a family, or life, emergency.”