Supporting employees’ family lives reaps rewards in loyalty and talent retention

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South Africa’s working fathers are entitled to paternity leave for the first time from earlier this year, and companies that offer family-friendly workplaces and employee benefits are more likely than ever to be employers of choice and ensure employee loyalty, performance and talent retention.

It’s not just offering benefits that matters — organisational culture and management support for work‒life balance is key to reducing conflict for employees between their work and family lives, leading to more job satisfaction, less stress and risk of burnout, and improved individual and organisational performance.

Society is increasingly embracing “equal parenthood”, and Generation X and Millennials, who make up the majority of the current workforce, are seeking flexibility and benefits relevant to young families where both parents are pursuing careers.

Two-thirds of South African professionals reports turning down offers from employers that did not offer a work‒life balance and a family-supportive environment. A family-supportive workplace offers flexible work arrangements such as flexi-time hours and the option to work from home. Employees are not expected to work additional hours or take work home as a rule, and employees’ careers aren’t prejudiced when they take maternity, parental or family responsibility leave or turn down promotions or transfers due to family responsibilities.

For companies to attract and retain talented, high-performing individuals, it is increasingly important to acknowledge that employees have a life outside of work and to show respect for their family commitments. The introduction of paternity leave means that organisations now have even more reason to pay attention to the family needs of both male and female employees.

Work‒life balance strategies go beyond simply making benefits available. Organisations should equip managers to understand their contribution to a ‘family-friendly’ workplace culture and, ultimately, employee engagement and retention. This is critical for companies as they prepare to implement paternity leave.

However, more important than being written into policies is how these benefits are applied and supported by supervisors, managers and colleagues — that is what creates the family-supportive culture that, in turn, influences employees’ commitment to the organisation.

Research shows that employees’ perceptions that taking up family-related benefits wouldn’t have negative consequences in the workplace were associated with higher levels of commitment and attachment to the organisation, and made employees less likely to look for greener pastures.

A family-supportive company culture reduces the stress-inducing conflict for employees between their work and home obligations, lowering the risk of burnout, and is ultimately beneficial to the employer in retaining employees able to continue at peak performance.

In a first for research on work‒family balance, my research focussed on working-class parents in South Africa in relation to their family commitments. Much of the research on work‒family balance in the western world (USA, Europe, and Scandinavian countries) has focused on middle- to upper-class families and university graduates. 

The South African context is vastly different in terms of our political system, our economy and our multicultural, multiracial society. This highlighted a gap in the academic literature, and an opportunity to explore, within an African context, whether a family-supportive work environment and the attitudes of colleagues and supervisors might influence employees exercising their right to parental leave.

A further gap, is that most research focused in the past on women, with little attention to the perceptions and experiences of men, even though men are increasingly involved in the traditionally female realm of childcare and housework. Getting this balance of involvement right is important, as research shows that, for both men and women, perceived unfairness in home- and family roles can lead to depression, thoughts of divorce, and breakups, as well as affect employees’ commitment to their employer.

The relationship found between management recognition and support of employees’ family responsibilities, the reduction of conflict between work and family obligations, and an increase in employee commitment has practical implications for organisational policies and employee well-being, requires a deeper understanding.

Organisations need to develop sound policies to support a family-friendly workplace that is sensitive to social issues affecting different groups of employees. Based on our findings of higher conflict levels and lower levels of commitment and attachment amongst management-level employees, organisations should give special consideration to ensuring that burnout is prevented and these employees’ work‒life balance is preserved. 

Bernadine de Winnaar is an MBA graduate of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB). Her research was conducted ahead of the introduction of a legislated 10 days’ parental* leave in South Africa this year.