December 2, 2004
Vol. 24 No. 6

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    SSA professor Lambert reports businesses need new supports for workers

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Susan Lambert

    Making a bottom-line-only decision for investing in personal supports for workers makes employee support programs vulnerable for elimination during times of economic downturns, said Susan Lambert, Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration.

    Lambert, a leading scholar in the study of work-life issues, notes in a new book that the business case for providing workers with supports for their personal lives is outdated.

    The book, Work and Life Integration: Organizational, Cultural and Individual Perspectives, co-edited by Lambert and Ellen Ernst Kossek, examines this business case and proposes ways it might change. “The field’s quest to make a business case may have come at a cost,” Lambert said. “Many early, formal employee supports largely operate as employer supports. They were designed to help workers keep their personal responsibilities from interfering with their job involvement and performance. The more time you spend with your children, the less time you’re likely to have for your work.”

    That attitude is slowly changing, however, as a group of not-for-profit organizations concerned with work and family issues has begun to argue that the business case should look at the bigger picture and move from “a narrow focus on short-term profitability to a longer-term strategy of investing in employee and community well-being.”

    For instance, such programs as on-site day care have been offered and promoted by some companies as a means to improve profitability by reducing employee absenteeism and turnover, said Lambert, who, along with doctoral student Elaine Waxman, also reports on research conducted in Chicago-area corporations in the book.

    Still, a business case needs to be made for accommodating family interests when dealing with employees. Employers must group work-life policies with other human resource strategies that invest in workers, Lambert said.

    The scholars who contributed to the book contend that firms should be reminded that they gain a competitive advantage when they pursue their profits through quality enhancement, rather than cost containment. In doing that, they need to discuss ways employees add value to service and production.

    “Part of making the case for the importance of workers’ contributions to firm success would be to highlight how lower-level workers are on the front lines of customer service and technological innovation,” Lambert said. That position would show that firms gain competitive advantages when they design jobs that allow employees to add value to firms through their work.

    Those changes are at the basis of broader policy improvements discussed in the book. Current research also shows that laws to improve situations for workers seeking to deal with family responsibilities have been ineffective.

    The Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows workers unpaid leave to care for newborn children or other family members with serious health problems, is available to workers at about 11 percent of the nation’s work places and covers 55 percent of the work force.

    Lambert and Waxman found that workers in lower-level jobs often do not receive sick or vacation time or employer-sponsored health insurance. “Thus, an important step in a new business case would be to focus on barriers to distributing supports that are available in many work places today, at least on the books,” she said.

    Lambert said employers who implement work-life policies and researchers should work together to develop a new understanding of the role of work-life issues. “It has been our experience that few employers systematically collect data to quantitatively or qualitatively evaluate the effectiveness of their work-life policies.”

    Longitudinal studies would help employers define the links between work and family life, and multi-method studies also could contribute to understanding the causes and outcomes of frictions between workers and the workplace, Lambert said.

    Lambert added that in general, research in the work-life field needs to become more rigorous, so, for example, definitions of various terms have more consistent meanings, and so researchers look beyond two-income, married couples and their problems to examine the issues that affect low-income, single heads-of-households.

    Researchers also have focused a great deal on individuals and their family needs and not enough on the nature of work itself, she said. Work and Life Integration: Organizational, Cultural and Individual Perspectives is intended to overcome that problem.

    “The book chapters help direct attention to the ways in which conditions of employment are critical to worker and family well-being, revealing multifaceted and reciprocal relationships,” she said.

    Lambert, a faculty member at Chicago since 1987, is a pioneer in the field of work-related family issues. Her current research is based on the Project on the Public Economy of Work, a multiyear investigation of public welfare offices, labor market intermediaries and employers designed to investigate the organizational realities facing low-income workers and families.

    Evelyn Brodkin, Associate Professor at SSA, is co-director of the project with Lambert. The Ford Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Open Society Institute have supported the project with grants.

    As part of her research, Lambert examined hospitality, transportation, retail and financial service jobs, and found a high degree of turnover and very limited opportunities for workers to organize their work life around family needs.

    Lambert also found that in some workplaces, temporary workers fill lower-level jobs that offer low wages and few benefits. These temporary workers share the workload with regular employees who have job-related benefits. In general, employers often distinguish jobs by status rather than tasks, which is leading to increased stratification in the workplace, she said.

    “Given the widening gap in well-being between citizens lodged at the top and the bottom of America’s income distribution, it seems important to develop insights into how workplaces might play a role in diminishing inequality in those opportunities essential to balancing work and family life, and ultimately, to improving the well-being of workers, their families and communities,” she said.