Before her son Ben was born last summer, Sepi Farivar Varon remembered reading a story in Newsweek about the nightmarish demands placed upon a working parent.
"I kind of panicked," said Farivar Varon, a manager in the global health economics department for Thousand Oaks-based biotech firm Amgen. "The perception was that enjoying your kids and career was impossible, given all the pressures of today's workplace."
Thanks to safety nets such as the Family Medical Leave Act, and Amgen's on-site day care, Farivar Varon's fears never came true. Her husband, Michael Varon, a defense attorney in Encino, reorganized his schedule to help ease her transition back into the workplace.
"Amgen's culture is a big part of my work/life balance," Farivar Varon adds. "When my cell phone rings in a meeting saying Ben is sick in day-care, my boss, who has four kids of his own, understands."
Farivar Varon may be the exception. Two other women in her San Fernando Valley-based new mother's support group left firms that refused them flex time or reduced hours.
Today's workplace presents complex conundrums for employees and employers pursuing life balance while remaining productive. New communications technology such as e-mail makes 24/7 contacts with colleagues possible, but that can often mean increased demands. The increased efficiency might enable a worker to complete a project more quickly, but that means another is waiting, and the sanctuary of the home is a thing of the past. Small firms and startups are typically the most sympathetic to workers' needs, but they need maximum hours and efforts from their staff to survive.
The fact is, that even with a great human resources department and an understanding spouse, the work-life balancing act is more challenging today than ever.
Not so progressive?
It begins with the region. Although perceived as employee-friendly, Southern California placed just two firms San Diego-based Scripps Health and Ventura-based Patagonia Inc. on the 2005 Working Mother Magazine's 100 Best Companies, a comprehensive rating system that has become the gold standard for work/life quality.
California is the only state in the nation to mandate paid family leave, which allows for more time bonding with new infants, or caring for an ill relative, while still getting a paycheck. But Diane Halpern, Director of the Berger Institute for Work, Family and Children at Claremont McKenna College, says the state's Paid Family Leave (PFL) program hasn't impacted those who really need it and that the business community has been resistant to PFL since it became law in July of 2004.
"The two groups that business said would abuse PFL the most," Halpern said, "are new fathers and working caregivers. Our data shows that getting 55 percent of your salary for up to six weeks (as the law mandates) can't support those wage earners' needs in any event."
Not that most workers can afford to take any time off. According to Department of Labor statistics, since 1970, real wages have declined for all but 20 percent of the nation, the highest paid one-fifth of the working pool.
In recent years, take-home salaries have lagged behind cost of living increases and inflation. High-school educated employees with an $8-per-hour job are still among the working poor, according to social economists, even though their paychecks are above the federal minimum wage requirement.
"Those at the top and those at the bottom are working more than ever," Halpern explains. "The structure of the modern workplace has virtually eliminated the middle class, which is counter-productive to sound business practices."
Wayne Cascio, a professor of management at University of Colorado in Denver and an HR expert, says Americans work more than anyone in the world, with employees adding an average of 58 hours to their annual totals. He notes a 2002 survey by online travel agent Expedia.com that revealed U.S. workers actually gave back to their employers almost $19.5 billion in unused vacation time each year.
Cascio says flexible scheduling, on-site health care, and back-up childcare are employee-friendly policies that can tangibly improve a company's stock performance and overall productivity. In a text edited last year by Diane Halpern and Susan Murphy titled "From Work-Family Balance to Work-Family Interaction: Changing the Metaphor," Cascio offered data that tracked the stock performances of the Working Mother Magazine's 100 Best Companies listing over seven years, as they outperformed the S & P; 500 and the Russell 3000.
Is working at a Fortune 500 company the only way to balance career and family? Not necessarily, but it definitely helps, according to Jennifer Happillon, a recruiter for L.A.-based search firm Morgan Samuels. Large firms are more likely to have the resources to dedicate to high-ticket perks like on-site day care than local outfits, she said.
"A company like Washington Mutual has been recognized for their work/life balance because their culture sees the employee as a whole person," says Happillon, whose clients include Yahoo Media, the Walt Disney Co. and HBO. "You can't expect a small startup to emphasize a work-life balance when its workplace is all risk-reward and the company's survival is at stake."
Whether it's new media, entertainment, technology or insurance, recruiters say quality of life issues are being raised earlier in the search process. "People are realizing it's simply not sustainable to work so intensely all the time," Happillon said. "More companies want to bring in senior level executives who've had already had success bringing balance to the workplace."
What's primarily driving workplace changes, for better and
worse, is the proliferation of new technologies. E-mail, cell phones and teleconferencing on the Internet have helped to expand the office water cooler into a 24/7 platform and blur the differences between the
weekend, mumbly Monday, hump-day Wednesday, little Friday (that's Thursday) and getaway day (that's Friday). But what kid at soccer practice wants to share time with dad's BlackBerry?
"I'm both more mobile and more tethered," says Rhea Turteltaub, 46, interim Vice-Chancellor, External Affairs and Associate Vice-Chancellor, Development at UCLA. "Any down time in line for groceries, in the elevator going to a meeting is now an opportunity to do more work."
Turteltaub has had to set up ground rules. No cell phones or e-mails from the moment she comes home, around 6 p.m., until her two sons, Max 8, and Ross, 5, go to bed. She'll often work until midnight to ensure the weekends are devoted to her family.
"I've made it clear to my staff that I don't expect them to be up until midnight sending e-mails because that's what the boss is doing," Turteltaub said. "That's a product of my work-life balance, and the best way to make my family a priority."
Like many senior executives, Turteltaub's love-hate relationship with the wireless office has had her dreaming about a return to basics.
"During a recent senior development retreat," she said, "I asked that all devices be turned off, or be put on vibrate. Not only did we stay focused on the topics at hand, but I got a lot less e-mails that day because none of us had access to our Treos!"
For many professionals, finding a balance has become a matter of determining what you can do without. Cecily Lerner, 36, a corporate fundraiser for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, says she works the same schedule now about 50 hours per week out of two locations that she did before her daughter was born.
"The difference," Lerner says, "is that I've had to pare back the stuff that would cut into work or family time." She says the compromises have actually made her a better mother and fundraiser.
"My time is so much more valuable in that I don't let anything steal away my focus when I'm in those two worlds."
Farivar Varon agrees, saying the urge to put in 15- to 20-hour days can be strong at time. "A one-minute e-mail after dinner can easily turn in to a two-hour home work session," she said. "So you have to set up boundaries that work for you."
Where lunches with friends were once common, Farivar Varon now eats at her desk. Out-of-town meetings where she isn't a key element, or conferences centered on industry info, are a thing of the past.
"I even resist the urge to visit Ben in day care," she said. "Being away from my desk means more work that night at home, and that would cut into my family time."
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.