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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Need for “Worker Friendly” Employment Policies

Dr. Gary Roberts
Robertson School of Government

For most members of society, it is self-evident that life is more complicated and busier than ever. This constantly increasing pace reflects global change in societal values, information age technology, shifting family composition, elevated work demands, higher levels of mobility, and increased economic pressures, among others.

The progressive and responsible employer understands that the cumulative impact of these changes exerts great pressure on employees while contributing to the erosion and weakening of their support network. Workers begin their day shouldering a host of problems including strained child and elder care, higher levels of debt, and mental and physical illness of family members.

In prior decades, the social support network was more diverse and stronger given the presence of seven key elements: a 1) higher percentage of single parent earners with “stay at home mothers,” 2) a higher percentage of extended family households, 3) close geographical proximity of family members, 4) supportive and accessible neighbors, 5) higher levels of faith community involvement and church membership, 7) and greater levels of civic engagement through volunteering and fraternal organization membership. In addition, Americans are more mobile than ever before and Census Bureau statistics indicate that the yearly personal mobility rate is 15%, which generates very high transient levels over time.

Let us address changing family structure in more detail. Census Bureau data from the American Community Survey indicates that 27.5% of all households consist of a single person and that married households comprise only about ½ of all families. Our social isolation is increasing as demonstrated in a 2006 study in the American Sociological Journal. The authors reported that the percentage of the socially isolated doubled over a twenty year period (1985 to 2005) from 12% to 25%. In addition, there was a reduction in the mean number of close friends from 3 to 2. Only eight percent of respondents indicated that a neighbor served as a close confident. The loss of personal support is partially compensated by the increase in electronic social networks (Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc.), but these are poor substitutes in times of trial when a “flesh and blood” physical presence is required.

Given these developments, what can employers do to help struggling employees? Cleary employers cannot change the underlying social dynamics, but they can assume a meaningful role in reducing employee stress and strain.

The first step is for employers to conduct a needs assessment of their employees to determine the specific constellation of support risk factors. Younger workers are more likely to require child care assistance while more mature workers necessitate elder care support. Once the specific set of needs is identified, empower and involve employees in developing solutions to the problems. The range of effective personnel practices includes flexible work schedules, compressed work weeks and flexi-place arrangements that enhance employee autonomy and ability to tailor work schedules to life demands. The research data demonstrates excellent return-on-investment (ROI) ratios for these types of programs. Even more than the dollar and cents return, is the enhanced well being and reduction in employee stress thereby demonstrating the employer’s Golden Rule concern and support. When employers demonstrate their love of employees by word and deed, it produces a reciprocal response of loyalty and commitment that benefits not only the workplace but the broader community.

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