Can women have it all? Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi famously disagreed. And this is why she is right.
These days, the demanding schedules of many professional women sound more and more like an unsolvable math problem: Ms. A spends two hours on the bus, nine hours in the office, four hours of shopping and housework and another hour supervising the kids’ homework, and another two hours of work when she packs them off to bed. Oh, and she should go to the gym and call her mother. How can she get it all done?
Of course the answer is, she can’t: in the end, although she might feel like the one variable in the equation, she can only stretch herself so far. Human resource experts say that for her own good, for the good of her family, and for the good of her company, she needs to find a new way to live.
But isn’t it unrealistic to imagine any other kind of life, given the relentless volatility of today’s corporate world? No. Organizational psychology experts say that a more manageable routine is not so wild a dream. Companies, the executive’s spouse, and perhaps most of all, the executive herself, all have it in their power to make her life not easy, but at least more manageable.
Sitting in a comfortable modern office might not sound like hard duty, but years of life as a high-powered executive can take a toll on health almost as high as work in a factory or a field. White collar workers may not end up with many missing fingers and blown ear drums, but long hours and the strain of responsibility can kill.
“Chronic stress has cortisol leaking, dripping into your blood at all times,” says Carol Kivler, a New Jersey-based executive coach and mental health advocate, speaking of a hormone that affects bone growth, blood pressure, the immune system, the nervous system and metabolism. “It’s much worse than when you have a big trauma. The cortisol floods with the trauma; when you’re under chronic pressure and stress, it’s a slow drip.”
Others agree that stress has become a huge issue for many companies. “The leading cause of sickness and absence in the developed world is no longer muscular… it’s mental health,” says Sir Cary Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, who has written extensively on workplace stress in Europe, the US, and Asia.
Since the financial crisis, the situation has become even worse, Cooper says, as companies try to keep their labor costs down by giving more work to fewer people. “They’re burning out—we’re seeing the impact of fewer people doing more work and getting stressed out.”
But, as the economist Herbert Stein once noted, if something can’t go on forever, it will stop. Underperformance and burnout are expensive, and Cooper believes that companies will look for ways to help their employees develop more sustainable schedules. “Something has to give,” he says.
Cooper argues that one factor that companies should try first is to give their employees more flexibility with their scheduling. Study after study has found that with a little more flexibility in their schedule, employees, particularly women, have a much easier time handling the multiple demands of home and work if given the option to work outside the office.
This is especially true when it’s possible to give the employee a telecommuting option, according to Cooper. Not only is it good for the employee, but it’s actually profitable for the employer as well. Cooper notes that study after study has shown that giving employees the option to telecommute reduces the number of sick days taken, lowers attrition and increases productivity.
The latest vindication of telecommuting is a Stanford-led study posted in November that evaluated the conversion of a Shanghai travel agency to telecommuting. Researchers found that employees felt better about the company, spent more time working and less on breaks and sick leave, and yet actually saved the company money because they needed less office space. In the end, productivity per worker rose about 21%: the number of calls each worker handled rose by 3.1%, the amount of time actually working rose 9%, the amount of office space and IT equipment fell by 54%.
Cooper says that human resource executives are becoming more and more aware of the business case for flexibility—particularly now that the growing use of data is making it easier for HR executives to prove that stress has an impact on the company’s bottom line. “As they do that, then it becomes a business issue, not a soft fuzzy [one],” he says.
Yet many companies still resist the idea, according to Cooper. Especially in Asia, a lot of bosses like the idea of having their reports close by, particularly middle managers. “The problems lie in line managers,” he says. “…Line managers want their team to be there. They want eyeball to eyeball contact.”
Telecommuting, however, does create a few new problems that require a firm to make some adjustments, according to Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University and co-author of the study.
Bloom and his colleagues found that telecommuters tend to be promoted less often. They also tend to be lonelier—a potential problem for younger workers in particular. “I think the loneliness point is important, as for many workers the office is their social life, and working from home cuts you off from that—both in terms of friends and also future husbands or wives,” he says. “If society fully embraced working from home, we would need to think about more local social outlets for people to meet. That is not particularly radical—historically, people all met and worked locally—but in modern big cities it may seem radical.”
More intractable may be the cultural factors that tilt the work/life balance more towards work in some markets. In Asia, for example, the strong work ethic gets in the way of a more livable schedule, according to Cooper, who is co-editing a forthcoming volume of essays on Asian work-life balance. “It’s a difficult thing because they feel guilty, they feel the boss wants them there,” he explains.
Managers can play a role in creating more balance. Employees tend to model their behavior at work on how their managers behave, and the signals they send can have big repercussions on the corporate culture. For that reason, Kivler advises managers not to send emails in the middle of the night, because they tend to set an expectation that everyone on the team must be available 24/7.
Charity begins at home
By and large, freedom to work outside the home hasn’t given women freedom to work less inside the home. Most studies suggest that women still do most of the domestic chores, even in families where both partners are working.
In some countries where multiple generations still live together, professional women tend to have an easier time managing their home life. However, if grandma is not around, Kivler suggests that you can make things easier for yourself by following these four steps:
- Explain to your new boss your need for a little flexibility when you first get the post.
- Talk to your husband about what the new job is likely to mean and clarify who will be responsible for what.
- Within your family, focus on what you feel most strongly about and hire help to take care of the rest.
- Decide what current activities you are willing to give up.
In the end, the most difficult adjustment may be to accept a sense of personal limits. This isn’t always easy, given the societal pressures placed on women to strive for perfection. It may be even tougher for a hard-charging manager—because by and large, it’s the energetic and capable executives who get the promotions. “You can have it all,” Kivler says, “just not all at once.