John Steele: Stressed workers aren't good for the bottom line

From a speech given by British Telecom's group personnel director at the Work-Life Balance conference, in London
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The Independent Online

Working life is undergoing major change; markets are fast-moving and aggressive and technology continues to change at unprecedented speed. Demands for goods and services must be satisfied 'around the clock'. The traditional nine-to-five day no longer meets customers' expectations or the needs of our increasingly demanding society.

Within this environment the only true competitive advantage is the ability of our people to anticipate change and the speed with which we react to it. This has profound implications for employers both in terms of service delivery and recruiting, retaining and motivating high-quality employees.

If employers are to attract, retain and motivate such employees, we need to respond innovatively and proactively to the pressures that they are dealing with in achieving a balance between work and personal life. We must also select from the widest possible talent pool, recognising the positive impact of flexibility in employment and attendance. After all, today's technology means that, for many, work is what we do, not somewhere we go.

The healthiest, happiest and long-term most productive employee is the 'rounded' employee – the one who has an active, involved and interesting life outside work as well as a successful business role. Employers who believe that business is about getting as much work done at the least possible cost to the organisation, irrespective of the damage done to employees or the communities in which they operate, will fail.

Recent research, both externally and within BT, shows that a greater number of people are looking to achieve a better balance between their professional and personal lives. Increasingly, this is becoming an important factor when deciding whether to apply for jobs or promotion. The societal impact of years of imbalance through the 1980's is emerging in today's graduate market, which is telling us that achieving a work/life balance is a key differentiator in deciding for whom the best will work.

In two surveys carried out in autumn 1998 with senior BT managers, 62 per cent recognised that their life is imbalanced in favour of work, as a result of long hours and time away from home. In addition, a third declared in both surveys that they would not be prepared to accept promotion or greater responsibility, because of the possible impact on their private life. This imbalanced lifestyle, driven by a culture which encourages long hours and 'presenteeism', is actually having a real and detrimental impact on the bottom line. What business can afford to 'switch off' a third of its high flyers, lose scarce skills and restrict its ability to recruit and retain the best? Certainly none that are interested in the bottom line – and I've never come across one that isn't!

To be an employer of choice, we must win the war for talent. Achieving work-life balance is a key differentiator, especially amongst graduates and women returning from career breaks.

As well as being an important element of recruitment strategies, work-life balance is a key retention tool, not just for women returning from maternity leave, where, for example, the introduction of increased flexibility has seen BT's return rate following maternity leave rise to 93 per cent, but also for those for whom flexibility is an essential part of their employment package. The overall result is decreased turnover and a reduction in recruitment costs, with partners in Employers for Work-Life Balance showing a £3m saving in recruitment costs in the first year alone.

I believe that the business case for work-life balance is not just compelling, but a commercial imperative. We must have focus, leadership and work with our employees and trade unions to develop practical implementations. Organisations who wish to build long-term sustainable quality businesses that will thrive because their people are fulfilled, empowered and motivated will ignore work-life balance at their peril.