Work/life balance – the ongoing process of striking a balance between one's work or career and the other aspects or demands of life, including family, leisure and personal responsibilities – seems to have become a greater challenge over the years. A number of mega-trends are making it more difficult to achieve work/life balance. One factor is technological advancement, which has improved communications tremendously but has blurred the lines between personal time and work time. Another factor is demographic change, as numerous couples struggle to cope with caring for their aging parents on the one hand and their children on the other, a situation that places an even greater strain on the growing number of single parents.

The negative effects of an adverse work/life balance include burnout, stress and health problems; it can also take a substantial toll on marital and family relationships. Since these issues can have a significant effect on worker productivity and output, many progressive organizations are making it a top priority to address the topic of work/life balance, and have put in place policies and procedures aimed at encouraging employees to achieve it. This is a positive trend, because proper work/life balance benefits everybody: employees, by reducing stress levels and increasing "down time;" employers, by improving productivity, reducing absenteeism and attracting/retaining good employees; and families, which benefit from increased parental involvement and more time with each other.

Work/Life Balance in Finance
The finance industry is infamous for being one of the most difficult sectors in which to achieve work/life balance, because of its long hours and intensely competitive nature. For example, one in three financial analysts works between 50 and 70 hours per week. While financial analysts enjoy above-average compensation and growth prospects, as with any other demanding profession, there is a cost in terms of high stress levels and limited time for self and family.

Work/life balance is a universal issue, as highlighted by the findings of the "eFinancialCareers Stress Survey 2013," a survey of 3,399 finance professionals in the United States, United Kingdom, continental Europe and the Middle East. The survey found that while 45% of Americans reported feeling stressed very often or fairly often, 55% of Middle East professionals and 60% of French respondents reported this level of stress. In addition, 66% of U.S. professionals surveyed said they had achieved work/life balance, compared with only 47% of Germans.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) maintains data on work/life balance on its 34 members, plus Brazil and Russia, as part of its Better Life Index. The OECD ranks the U.S. 28th out of these 36 nations for work/life balance. U.S. workers work 1,787 hours per year, slightly above the OECD average of 1,776 hours, while 11% of U.S. employees work more than 50 hours per week, compared with the OECD average of 9%. The U.S. also scores low on the work/life balance scale because it is the only OECD nation without a national paid parental leave policy, although certain states provide such payments. Canada ranks 20th out of 36 nations for work/life balance, with Canadians on average working 1,702 hours per year and only about 4% working more than 50 hours per week.

What Employees Can Do
The results of a Pew Research study released in March 14, 2013, revealed the extent of difficulty faced by working people in juggling work and family life. 56% of working mothers and 50% of working fathers said they find it difficult to balance these responsibilities, and 33% of parents with children below 18 said they were not spending enough time with their kids. But there are ways in which one can work toward achieving work/life balance, such as:

Make Work/Life Balance a Priority
Before signing up for yet another arduous assignment that will involve working a 60-hour week, ask yourself whether you really need to take it on or whether you would be better off spending some of that time with your family. While choices like these may be easier to make for senior professionals who are high up in the corporate hierarchy, an enlightened company will not penalize an employee for turning down an assignment that involves putting in long hours. Likewise, being proactive in asking your company for some flexibility with work hours to care for a young child, for example, is likely to make you a happier and more productive employee.

Look for Companies that Encourage Work/Life Balance
Most of the biggest and best companies encourage work/life balance because retaining talented employees is a critical part of their growth strategy. But it's not just the Fortune 500 companies that offer this balance. Numerous smaller companies do so as well, so focus on this aspect while conducting your job search. Glassdoor.com, for instance, releases an annual list of the "Top 25 Companies for Work/Life Balance," based on employee feedback. Companies that made the cut in 2012 included not-for-profit organization MITRE, consulting firm North Highland, Agilent Technologies and LinkedIn. Finance-related firms that made it to the Top 25 included FactSet, Discover Financial Services and Morningstar.

Be a Leader for Change
"Deloitte Dads" is a support group for working fathers that was started by a couple of consultants in the accounting and consulting giant Deloitte LLP. The group got its inspiration from "Career Moms," which was organized in 2007 by another Deloitte consultant to help working mothers. If your company does not yet have someone to champion work/life balance, consider taking the lead.

What Employers Can Do
While retaining the best employees is a perpetual challenge for most companies, it is proving to be especially so for financial firms in recent years. One of the consequences of the 2008 market meltdown was that Wall Street came under an increasing degree of regulatory scrutiny, while compensation levels in areas related to capital markets also declined. As a result, Wall Street is no longer the destination of choice for talented young people, many of whom are opting to start their own technology company instead.

So what can employers do? Fostering a culture of work/life balance is crucial for attracting and retaining good employees, since an increasing number of people may prefer the flexibility and low-stress nature of such an environment to the rigidity and stress associated with a more conventional workplace. There are numerous ways in which companies and employers can develop a better work/life balance. These include telecommuting, flexible work schedules, mandatory vacations and elective sabbaticals, access to childcare, workplace facilities such as a gymnasium and subsidized cafeteria, etc.

While there are undoubtedly costs involved for a company that offers these benefits, the return on such "investments" – in terms of better productivity, lower absenteeism, recruiting talented employees, retaining them and developing greater commitment to corporate goals and objectives – will more than justify the expenses in most cases.

How Some Companies Are Encouraging Work/Life Balance
Flexible working hours appears to be one of the benefits most valued by employees. TD Bank Group, one of Canada's largest banks and voted one of the "Ten Best Companies to Work For" by the Financial Post, recognizes this by offering its employees a variety of flexible work options. These include the flexibility to change times for starting and ending work, reducing the workweek, changing the number of days worked while keeping hours the same, job sharing with another employee and the ability to work from home for a certain number of days per week.

MITRE, which ranked first on Glassdoor.com's list of best companies for work/life balance in 2012 and second in 2011, was cited for its flexible schedules, paid time off and on-site cafeteria and gym. Among U.S. financial service companies, financial data provider FactSet won kudos for its excellent benefits, flexible scheduling and free food and snacks. Discover Financial won accolades for its wellness programs, flexible schedules, generous benefits and new learning opportunities.

The Bottom Line
While maintaining work/life balance is a challenge for most professionals in the finance industry, where working long hours is the norm, employers need to foster a culture of work/life balance to attract and retain talented employees. The negative effects of an adverse work/life balance include burnout, stress, health problems and the breakdown of marital and family relationships. Conversely, the positive effects of a healthy work/life balance include higher productivity, lower absenteeism and decreased employee turnover, thereby benefiting all parties involved – employees, employers and families.

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