Over the past several decades, American society has undergone significant changes in its attitudes toward balancing work and family life. These attitudes have been influenced by changing demographics; a dramatic increase in the percentage of women who choose to work in non-household related areas; rising costs in the realm of housing, transportation, clothing, and food; changing societal and personal priorities; and a host of other factors. Today, both employer and employee are grappling with the challenges of balancing career and family obligations and desires in a more visible way than ever before. American media outlets (television, radio, newspapers, etc.), for instance, simultaneously extol the virtues of those who excel in the business world and lament the impact that such ambition allegedly can have on the psychological health of the individual, his or her partner, and their children.
This concern with the issue of career/family balance is reflected in the barrage of media attention that accompanies any small trend in this area. Among the trends documented in numerous articles in newspapers and magazines are such things as an increase in the number of professional women leaving work to become full-time mothers. The general society-wide movement toward simplification of life is another such trend, typically characterized as symbolic of an increased emphasis on family happiness and growth at the expense of career development.
Indeed, the debate over what constitutes an appropriate balance between family and career is livelier than ever. For example, proponents of recent trends toward attitudes that are typically characterized as "family-friendly" laud the decisions of those who choose less time-consuming careers or institute flexible work rules to increase family time. Others, though, resent the assumption that is sometimes made that people who are ambitious and driven in their chosen profession, and thus spend significant amounts of time involved in such endeavors, must have their priorities screwed up. For example, Joseph Nocera wrote in Fortune that "without question, it's unhealthy to be so consumed by work that the kids feel abandoned. But there is also something unhealthy about so sanctifying family time that we diminish the importance of work. Yet that is precisely the judgment our culture now renders on a regular basis." Nocera went on to critique the widespread assumption that "no matter what's going on at the office, it can't be more important than coaching your kid's basketball team. Well, sometimes it isn't, and sometimes it is. Sometimes other people's jobs are at stake, or a crisis has to be averted. Sometimes you need to accomplish something in your work for the sheer satisfaction of it, and sometimes that means staying late or working on weekends. Why should it be such a sin to admit this out loud?"
For the small business owner, achieving a reasonable balance between work and family obligations can be a particularly daunting task. The challenge of striking this appropriate balance can be especially acute for women entrepreneurs, who, despite tremendous changes in societal acceptance of their right to make their mark in the business world, still face disapproval in some quarters for making such a choice.
For both men and women, the demands of establishing and maintaining a profitable business are numerous and time-consuming in most instances. After all, it is the entrepreneur who is ultimately responsible for realizing his or her vision of the business, and who has typically invested a great deal of time, thought, and energy into nourishing that vision. The entrepreneur or small business owner is often the chief decision maker within the business, and is frequently the primary producer of the company's goods and/or services as well. This latter element is particularly true of smaller businesses, whether the enterprise is concerned with silk screening, freelance writing, portrait photography, carpentry, or some other area of endeavor.
Life partners and children, of course, have needs as well. Successful entrepreneurs and family counselors alike warn that a person who establishes a profitable business is likely to find that his or her victory is a hollow one if his or her relationship with a spouse or child is irreparably damaged in the process. Balancing home and career can be a bit like a juggling act and just like a juggler, if you try to juggle too many balls at once, you're bound to drop one of them. Deciding what one's goals are and setting priorities is essential for all small business owners.
Finally, small business owners have to recognize that the career/family issue is one that impacts on employees as well. Indeed, "family-friendly" policies have proliferated in many industries in recent years, as various sectors respond to general societal perceptions that the work/family balance had become unevenly weighted toward work over the past few decades. In many cases, it has become essential for small business owners to recognize the changing expectations of their employees in this area.
FAMILY LEAVE LEGISLATION
In an attempt to address some of the difficulties that employees were having in balancing work and family, legislation was passed in 1993. The law, entitled Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), covers all employers with 50 employees or more. Those employers must grant an eligible employee up to a total of 12 workweeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for one or more of the following reasons:
- The birth and care of the newborn child of the employee
- Placement with the employee of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care
- The care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition
- Inability to work because of a serious health condition
The FMLA has had wide acceptance. According to a 2000 survey carried out by the U.S. Bureau of Labor, 84 percent of employers found that the benefits of providing family or medical leave offset or outweighed the costs.
HELPING EMPLOYEES ESTABLISH AN APPROPRIATE WORK/FAMILY BALANCE
Increasingly, small businesses have shown an interest in helping their work forces manage the challenges of addressing both work and family obligations. Their ability to do so is dictated somewhat by financial health, workload, competitive pressures, and a host of other factors, but many small business owners have come to the conclusion that workplaces that insist on long hours from their employees may be sacrificing long-term health for short-term gains. "Many experts in the field of management have argued that family-responsive policies and programs will be necessary to attract and retain needed employees and to build competitive advantages," wrote Teresa Joyce Covin and Christina C. Brush in Review of Business. "Research also suggests that conflicts between work and family are related to decreased productivity, lost work time, job dissatisfaction, increased health risks for employed parents, poorer performance of the parenting role, absenteeism, poor morale, reduced life satisfaction, and depression. While work-family conflict is commonly viewed as a woman's problem, more companies are beginning to recognize that both men and women feel the impact of work-family conflicts."
There are several steps that small business owners can take to help employees manage their obligations both in the office and at home. "A number of external, structural innovations help people immeasurably in balancing work and family," stated Deborah Lee in Having It All/Having Enough: How to Create a Career/Family Balance that Works for You. These include "flexible work schedule, the availability of part-time work that is taken seriously and is respected by employers, the option of working at home or bringing a child to work. However, these options won't help much unless people also adjust their attitudes about work and unless employers adjust their expectations about what people can produce. A part-time schedule doesn't help if it contains a full-time equivalent workload or penalties such as loss of health benefits or loss of advancement opportunities." Of course, some small business owners contend that a person who takes on a part-time schedule does not warrant the same consideration for advancement as does a full-time employee, and that providing health benefits to all part-time employees puts the business at an unacceptable competitive disadvantage. Each individual business faces challenges and considerations that are unique; thus, each business owner has to decide for himself or herself what family-friendly policies (and attitudes) can be put in place.
BALANCING WORK AND FAMILY IN HOME-BASED BUSINESSES
Owners of home-based businesses face unique challenges in the realm of achieving a desired work/family balance. Whereas small business owners who commute to their place of business every day are usually freed from child-rearing responsibilities for the duration of their time there, entrepreneurs who work out of their home often have to devise methods in which they can both attend to the needs of their business and provide adequate attention to their children. Researchers and home-based business owners tout several steps that can be taken to assist entrepreneurs in meeting these twin challenges.
- Establish a family-friendly business—This sounds simple, but in reality all home-based businesses are not created equal. Some may provide a parent with significant freedom in structuring business around his or her children's schedule, while others may not provide nearly the same level of flexibility.
- Communicate with spouse and/or others—Establishing and maintaining a home-based business requires changes in the routines of all family members, not just the entrepreneur. Changes in travel schedules, household chore allocation, and other areas of family life may all need to be made. The key to making sure that such changes are made with a minimum of disruption and/or resentment is open, honest communication.
- Make maximum use of free time—Home-based entrepreneurs can dramatically increase their productivity—and keep a lid on feelings of frustration—by scheduling demanding and/or important work obligations for times when child supervision obligations are minimal. Nap times, pre-school sessions, extracurricular programs, etc. can all provide parents with valuable windows of opportunity to attend to vital work-related matters.
- Prioritize and establish a daily schedule—Business owners who work out of their home should avoid falling into a routine in which tasks—both family- and work-related—are addressed in a haphazard, "as they come up" fashion. Instead, they should try to establish a daily or weekly schedule. Work discipline can be difficult to maintain at home even without children; their presence further compounds the challenge.
- Establish an office area that is physically removed from the rest of the house—People who attempt to take care of work while situated in the heart of a child's play area are apt to experience high levels of frustration. Instead, home-based entrepreneurs should consider establishing an office in a separate area that includes all necessary equipment to conduct business. Moreover, children should be taught to respect the importance of that area. Another option which may be more popular with parents of toddlers and young children is to create a "child-friendly" office with a corner that is set aside for their needs.
- Communicate the importance of your work to children—In How to Raise a Family and a Career Under One Roof, Lisa Roberts noted that home-based entrepreneurs should make a special effort to educate their children about the importance of the work they are doing. She counseled parents to "share your victories, challenges and rewards as often as possible. If your children feel like they're a part of what you're doing, they'll be much more supportive than if they see your business as something that's just taking you away from them."
- Enjoy your family—Many home-based business owners may create a situation for themselves for the express purpose of spending greater time with their mates or children, yet find themselves feeling frustrated with the demands on time and energy that those people inevitably make during the course of every day. Counselors urge home-based entrepreneurs not to lose sight of why they made the decision to operate out of the home in the first place.
Overall, experts stress that owning a business is not something to take lightly. It requires planning to achieve an appropriate balance between work and family that all interested parties can live with. "Make time for family," Michelle Prather wrote in Entrepreneur. "Acknowledge you're taking them on the wildest ride of their lives. Find a mentor to help you through the tough times. Know your limits. Know that unhealthy relationships will worsen, and solid ones could waver."
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