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July 2011 Archives

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Most employees who return to work after maternity leave face a difficult adjustment period. After recuperating from giving birth or a long adoption process, sleepless nights and diaper changes, a new addition to the family brings much joy, but also hard work. Then, it’s time for mom to go back to the office. The stress of transitioning back into a 9-5 routine can take its toll on mom’s health, as well as her job performance. Organizational leaders who help employees ease back into their jobs after leave are more likely to inspire productivity and better work-life fit. It also sets a good example from the top-down that your organization is supportive of parents, which helps define an organization’s status as an employer of choice.

The best part is that helping employees through this transition period is (relatively) easy. There are no laws to change or rules that need to be broken – just managers extending flexibility and understanding to a mom that is returning to work can go a long way. TIME touched on this topic last week in an article titled Study: Why Maternity Leave Is Important. The researchers pointed out that for new moms, a smooth transition back to work is the key to better long-term maternal health, mental health and healthier children.

What helps make back-to-work transitions easier? One thing the maternity study authors suggest is time. More specifically, having enough time to go from being pregnant or adopting a baby, to returning to work. How much time is enough? It depends. If you consider that the U.S. has one of the least generous maternity leave policies in the world, that’s a good indicator that American employees could use more. Here’s a list of countries and their maternity benefits, which is interesting to look at for comparison. Other ways managers can help their employees ease back into work include telecommuting, temporary part-time schedules and Fridays off. What will be most successful however, is what works best for the individual employee, depending on their work and personal preferences, while also taking into consideration the needs of management and co-workers.

What’s the upside for organizations that offer an extended maternity leave and/or a slow transition back to work? Healthier and more productive employees. Moms who have more time before returning to work benefit and by extension, so do organizations. Having additional time off before returning to work helps support breastfeeding, which benefits a mom’s health, baby’s health and saves organizations money because breastfeeding moms take fewer sick days. Another recent study supports that the longer maternity leave mothers take, the more likely they are to breastfeed, and for a greater period of time. Even if you cannot extend an employee’s maternity leave, there are plenty of ways to help them transition slowly back into work, such as telecommuting.

Employees, especially parents or parents-to-be value organizational benefits such as maternity leave and flexible work arrangements. In fact, there was a recent discussion on The Juggle about negotiating maternity leave benefits for a future pregnancy as part of accepting a new job. Unpaid maternity leave affects employees and their families, and that new mom is coming back to work with added financial stress on her shoulders. The “cushion” of a flexible or telecommuting schedule could help those employees financially by saving money on new clothes, transportation, food and the stress of adjusting to a new childcare provider arrangement.

Employees who plan to take maternity leave should work out a return to work plan before going out on leave. Although it is not possible to anticipate everything in advance of a baby’s arrival, arranging a plan that works for both the employee and manager will benefit the employee and organization. Managers should check with HR to see what options exist, and also to ensure that proper procedures such as accommodations for breastfeeding mothers are followed. See 8 Tips for a Smooth Parental Leave for ways to get started.

Photo Credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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It's the height of summer and everyone is either on vacation, planning for vacation, or wishing they could go on vacation. However, many employees may be reluctant to take time off with the uncertain economy. Messages they receive from their managers about taking a vacation may empower them to feel it's permissible to request time off.

So what's in it for your company to encourage employees to take some vacation time?

Recently, CNN (May, 2011)  published an article entitled "Why Your Brain Needs Vacations" based on the research, among others, of Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, and William Maddux of the business school of INSEAD. In the article, writer Elizabeth Landau points out that a number of subtle changes occur to your brain when it is unplugged and on vacation which are greatly advantageous.  

While on vacation, there is a detachment from the familiar and the rote. The effect is even greater if you travel abroad to encounter a new language and culture. There are extraordinary benefits to the individual and those can return dividends to the company.

  • Gaining new perspectives in everyday life, especially if the vacation is not at home, as you see things from a detached, outsider's perspective.
  • If you completely unplug from work on vacation, and seek a new environment, many people report having epiphanies, according to the article.
  • Traveling abroad increases your creative thinking as you must incorporate cultural expectations and rules in new situations.
  • In research, Maddux and Galinsky found that traveling abroad gives you a more nuanced understanding of yourself as well as a better sense of who you are. This is particularly the case when you truly immerse yourself in the culture.
  • To gain some of these benefits when not on vacation, use mindfulness techniques to focus on daily interactions and new things you see and learn.

So while working long days and pushing deadlines may be a part of worklife, including vacations, and encouraging those for your employees may also help your company's bottom line.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/obvio171 / CC BY-SA 2.0

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Most people who have read my blogs know that I am an advocate for improving the engagement experience. I am also an advocate for finding ways to improve the work-life interface of employees. Much of my current work centers on this issue. And there are many others out there who focus on similar things.

Occasionally, in the context of both engagement and work-life balance, I hear people throw out the term ‘happiness.’ Sometimes, happiness is used as a synonym for work engagement or job satisfaction, and other times I hear it used as an outcome of achieving ‘work/life balance.’ I don’t consider either engagement or work/life balance to be the key to happiness, and I certainly don’t consider them to be synonymous with happiness.

But, here’s an even bigger issue. Happiness, as an end-goal pursuit, may actually be a maladaptive goal. A recent article entitled “A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good” actually suggests that the pursuit of happiness as a goal may cause people to end up more unhappy than people who do not pursue happiness as a goal.

Huh? Would you mind explaining that one?

I will do my best. According to empirical research, people tend to experience positive emotions when they achieve their goals and negative emotions when they fail to achieve them. Happiness, as a state, occurs when we experience positive emotions in the absence of negative emotions.

When we achieve a tangible goal (e.g., receive a promotion), we experience a state of happiness. However, if happiness itself is the desired end-goal, then individuals will live in a constant state of disappointment. That is because it is impossible to always experience positive emotions and never experience negative emotions. As such, if happiness is the end-goal you are pursuing, you are never going to achieve it.

To make matters worse, check out some of these results that were highlighted in the article (remember, these are all based on empirical research):

  • When people are primed to value happiness, they tend to experience less happiness in positive situations (like watching a happy movie).
  • When people place a higher value on happiness, they tend to report feeling lonelier.
  • People who actively try to avoid negative feelings end up demonstrating more symptoms of depression than those who don’t.
  • People who experience happiness too frequently tend to demonstrate less creativity and adaptability and greater risk taking and mortality.

When I teach or consult around the issue of goal setting, I tell people that their goals need to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and timebound). Happiness, as a goal, is just not SMART. It is a state of being that will ebb and flow, which is why the pursuit of happiness will increase your chances of moving from one disappointment to another.

In that way, I would say happiness, engagement, and work-life balance all have a lot in common. They are elusive targets that cannot be achieved permanently – because they will ebb and flow based on the dynamics of life. Yet, if those are the goals you are pursuing, you may end up sorely disappointed.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/niemster / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0