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Work/Life Balance

Special Coverage Work/Life Balance

Blurred Lines

During the pandemic, work arrangements were, in some ways, clearer than they are now — in short, remote work was the norm. Now, however, businesses and their employees are grappling with balancing company needs and culture with workers’ desire to maintain flexibility regarding when and where they get their jobs done. At the center of all of this is the amorphous, yet critically important, concept of work-life balance — and how, in some ways, remote work has made it even more challenging to achieve.

The employees at Paragus IT

The employees at Paragus IT have been returning to the office — but will be allowed to keep working at home some days.

 

Getting work done during the pandemic was … messy, Delcie Bean said. But it got done.

“In the heat of the pandemic, we had to have maximum flexibility and understood that everyone was doing their absolute best to get done what needed to get done and make sure the clients were taken care of,” the CEO of Paragus IT told BusinessWest. “It was going to be messy, but we had to get through it.”

Emerging from COVID-19, then, has been a time for employers to assess what happened and what they learned about the many different ways people can get their work done — and still have time for themselves.

“What did we lose having everyone remote, and what did we gain?” Bean said. “We realized it was some of both columns A and B — there were certainly some benefits and some risks.

“Really, we found it’s very employee-specific,” he went on. “Some employees really need the structure of the office — they get up, commute, work in the office, commute, relax at home. That’s what helps them separate work from life. Others were really flourishing with a blend, doing work from home; they were good at setting up boundaries and not having their work bleed into their life.”

Despite the evidence showing that many workers flourish at home — achieving work-life balance by establishing firm boundaries — that blurring of lines between work time and family time is a concern, according to area company leaders we spoke with. The result, oddly enough, can be even less balance than before.

“With more people working from home and having increased autonomy over their work schedule, it becomes more challenging to differentiate between work time and personal time,” said Patricia Coughlin, Human Resources director at Wellfleet in Springfield.

In Bean’s case, the post-pandemic strategy that developed was to require employees to work in the Hadley office at least three days — a gradual shift, actually, beginning with one day in June, two days in July, and three days starting in August. Anyone who wants to be on site every day is welcome to do so.

Patricia Coughlin

Patricia Coughlin

“With more people working from home and having increased autonomy over their work schedule, it becomes more challenging to differentiate between work time and personal time.”

“There are certain things that are lost when you’re 100% remote,” he said, giving examples like mentoring new employees and collaborative projects. “But if remote is working for you, we don’t want to stop you.”

He understands that some people need to be in the office to function because they have too many distractions at home.

“It depends on their personality. My home is not a distraction at all — once the kids are in school, my home is quiet, with nothing to distract me,” he said, adding, however, that there’s also nothing there to energize him.

“I need energy from other people to function at my best. We all work a little differently, process things a little differently. A lot of flexibility is good, as long as that flexibility works for both the employees and the company — but working at home can lead to issues with work-life balance if the work never goes away.”

Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank in Holyoke, said the bank’s leaders learned the organization can be effective while incorporating different types of work arrangements.

“When the pandemic hit and we had to move to a remote workforce for much of our corporate team, there was no question that our associates were dedicated and would get the job done,” she noted. “We had concerns about remote work as it relates to data security, customer impact, and overall engagement of our workforce. But we saw pretty quickly that we were able to operate, meet the needs of our customers, and keep our team engaged.”

For that reason, the bank is now working to establish a hybrid model for many roles and will continue to evaluate increased flexibility for team members. “We may also consider fully remote roles, but at this time those will be very limited.”

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank wants to develop strategies with its employees to avoid overly blurring the lines between work and family time, especially when working at home.

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank wants to develop strategies with its employees to avoid overly blurring the lines between work and family time, especially when working at home.

Like Bean, she noted that collaboration can suffer when people are not physically working together. “It’s such a big part of our day to day that we have to ensure people can easily get things done and make decisions as a team from anywhere. We feel this is an important aspect of any sustainable hybrid work model.”

Coughlin agreed that the pandemic made Wellfleet’s leaders more aware of the different ways people not only work well, but collaborate with their peers and find satisfaction in their work. As a result, the company plans to offer hybrid work arrangements and telework options as part of its model going forward.

“We learned from our employees that there is no one-size-fits-all methodology in creating an effective work environment,” she noted. “Throughout the pandemic, it became apparent that the ‘typical’ work arrangement may not be effective for all people.”

She added that this flexible approach is an attractive model that will allow Wellfleet to expand its talent pool while improving overall job satisfaction and increasing opportunities for growth and effectiveness. Again, however, the key is communication and setting boundaries.

“Supervisors and employees should set clear expectations of work schedules, availability, and when responses to e-mails are expected,” she said. “Maintaining this communication reduces the likelihood that employees feel the need to be available while on their personal time.”

 

Unhealthy Relationship

That latter concern is one employment experts across the country have been pondering. Constance Grady, a staff writer for Vox, recently penned an article titled “How Capitalism and the Pandemic Destroyed our Work-life Balance,” arguing that, in a precarious, COVID-disrupted economy, workers became even more attached to their work, in often-unhealthy ways.

“Those of us who were lucky enough to have jobs we could do from home brought our work into our living rooms, our kitchens, our bedrooms,” she wrote. “We pivoted. We shared strategies for how to be productive and overcome the stress of trying to work during a global health emergency. We challenged ourselves to meet and even exceed our pre-pandemic goals, against unfavorable odds. Despite everything, we prioritized work.”

But treating work as a sacred object has consequences, Grady argues. “We have treated work as something to be taken home and cherished. Work is our lover. And this year, we took it to bed.”

Bean understands that risk. “We’ve always strongly encouraged employees to have work-life balance as much as possible and encouraged people to unplug at the end of the day and not resume work until they’re back in the office again,” he said. “That worked much better in the pre-pandemic world, where there were cleaner lines between work and home.”

Paragus has long offered employees ‘discretionary time’ for personal obligations and appointments, which they can make up later. “We try to give employees freedom to schedule their work around what works for both them and the company.”

But over the past year, those lines blurred, with more people shifting their schedules or even working sporadically, a couple hours on and a couple off — especially when they were helping their homebound kids navigate the world of remote learning.

Hopefully, a return to something approaching normal, even if it does include some remote work, will sharpen those lines a bit. What helps, Bean said, is making firm decisions on what the home is actually for, especially at night.

“I’m very strict. When I get home, the phone goes on the counter and stays there until I go to bed. It’s rare for me to check e-mail at home, and it’s rare for me to work weekends. I try my best to model that you don’t need to work all night and on weekends to keep up; you can do your job during your work hours, then be with your family. You need that balance, and your family needs you there.”

Beyond that, he added, employees need to decompress from work in order to be productive the next day. “You need that separation time to process. You’re never able to let it sink in and reflect when you’re just going, going, going.”

Roberts agreed. “We are concerned about the blurring of lines with people who are working at home,” she said. “We are looking at this issue to determine if there are other ways we can ensure this balance with our plan for long-term workplace flexibility.”

Ideas include encouraging employees to work in a dedicated space, and at the end of the work day, leaving that room behind and closing the door — in other words, stick to the set work schedule.

“Obviously, if a customer issue occurs at the end of our day, we aren’t walking away, but in most cases we have seen that people have done a good job maintaining their normal work hours from any location — home or office.”

Understanding employee needs helps them to create balance while meeting the company’s needs, Coughlin added.

“When people have the flexibility to manage their schedule — for example, to attend a personal appointment and make up time later in the day — that can have a really positive impact on productivity. And everyone’s different; some people are more productive early in the morning, some are more productive in the evening, and others work best within a very set schedule.”

From a company perspective, she went on, it’s important to establish general standards that allow all employees the opportunity to achieve a healthy work-life balance — and it’s important to engage with employees to better identify what is meaningful to them.

“Work-life balance, and what that means, can really vary from person to person,” she noted. “One employee might be driven by the satisfaction in completing a task, while another takes satisfaction from counting hours ‘clocked in.’”

 

Creating a Culture

The bottom line, Coughlin said, is that Wellfleet’s people are fundamental in creating its culture, so it’s important to engage with them, through various platforms, to identify and implement ways to support a healthy work-life balance.

To that end, it offers education and trainings to improve work efficiencies, as well as communication regarding company benefits workers can utilize for personal purposes. Supervisors also work closely with employees to coach skills like prioritizing tasks, setting realistic goals, and time management.

“Wellfleet believes a healthy work-life balance fosters a culture in which employees are able to perform their job duties in a productive manner,” she added. “Good balance and increased flexibility in the workplace can help prevent burnout, reduce stress, and promote overall wellness.”

The company also offers employees the flexibility to adjust their work schedules to attend appointments and encourages them to use paid time off for their personal well-being, Coughlin said. “We saw the need to internally emphasize this message throughout the pandemic, although the ways we promoted this adapted to the circumstances.”

Wellfleet isn’t the only company re-emphasizing the need for workers to take time off, even if they’re not taking as many week-long vacations as before. HR Daily Advisor recently published a story on work-life balance that included input from several employers across the U.S. noting that employees have been de-emphasizing long vacations in favor of three-day weekends, staycations, and mental-health days off — as well as taking less time off overall.

“We have always focused on promoting a healthy work-life balance, and I don’t think remote work will change the way that we encourage our team to pay attention to this balance,” Roberts said. “Some of the ways that we promote this balance is our official work week being 38 hours, generous time-off plans, and fun team events and activities throughout the year. Our managers also do a good job of making sure they balance their expectations to ensure that a healthy work-life balance is a real thing.”

At the same time, Bean said, workers at any number of companies may have begun seeing those remote and flexible work models of the past 16 months as a permanent aspect of work-life balance — or, at least, they hope so. That could cause tension down the line, as employers, already struggling to retain talent in many industries, may have to negotiate such arrangements moving forward.

“However, another part of me knows behaviors and habits don’t change easily,” he added. “We, as a country, have 200 years of working 8 to 5 and going home. I don’t know if the pandemic was long enough to permanently break this muscle memory.”

If he’s right, companies adopting hybrid models now may eventually shift back to the typical, on-site work schedule of the past.

“Maybe people will work from home more than before,” he said. “But I don’t think this was that disruptive that we’ll fundamentally change the way we do work. It comes down to a lot of factors.”

Those factors range from employee desires to company needs and what type of culture an employer wants to promote. And the day might come when the current job surplus lessens and employers feel they have more leverage.

“How comfortable are you with making a decision, if an employer tells you to come back to the office or find new employment?” Bean said. “We’ll see how those things play out, and we’ll find out if the changes are temporary or long-term — and, if they’re long-term, how impactful they’ll be.”

Until then, employees will continue to get their work done in whatever way their company allows — and, hopefully, not take it to bed.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Work/Life Balance

Avoiding the Pitfalls

Tim Netkovick calls it the “kicker” in the law — and it’s a kick that could bruise an unsuspecting employer.

The law in question is the state’s new Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) law, portions of which went into effect on Jan. 1, with others to follow on July 1. The law essentially makes Massachusetts the most generous state in the country when it comes to allowing workers to take leave for medical and family-care reasons.

And employers need to be careful how they respond to claims, said Netkovick, an attorney with the Royal Law Firm in Springfield.

“If somebody has utilized PFML, there is what I call a kicker in that statute that says, if there’s any adverse action taken against the employee within a certain period of time, then it’s presumed to be in retaliation,” he told BusinessWest.

Indeed, if an employee challenges an employer’s actions following leave taken under the PFML law, the burden is on the company to prove there was some justifiable reason for taking the adverse action that had nothing to do with the leave request.

“The law does have a very strong anti-retaliation provision baked in. Often, these types of laws do have an anti-retaliation provision, but this one is a little unique,” said John Gannon, an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser in Springfield.

“If an employer does take some kind of negative action against the employee — termination, suspension, demotion, even a negative performance review — within six months of the last day they took leave, there is a presumption that the employer retaliated,” he explained. “The employer can rebut that presumption, showing the motive for the decision is not linked in any way to paid family or medical leave use, but it does open the door to more potential litigation in this area.”

It’s a challenge to prove the action was justifiable, though not impossible, Netkovick said. Still, it’s not a headache employers really want to deal with.

“That’s a challenge we’ve seen come up a few times, where there were issues with the employment relationship before that, and then, all of a sudden, someone goes out on PFML leave,” he said. “There’s not really a lot of guidance on that yet. It might be assumed to be in retaliation, but if you can show something concrete that has happened, hopefully you can get someone to agree with you in the court system. You have to make sure you have your documents in order.”

The PFML law runs concurrently with other applicable state and federal leave laws, such as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act. Similar to the federal FMLA, a Massachusetts employee who returns to work after taking leave under PFML law must be returned to same or similar position as he or she had prior to their leave.

The new law requires employers to provide eligible employees up to 26 total weeks of leave in a benefit year. Currently, employees may be entitled to up to 20 weeks of paid leave to manage their own serious health condition, and may also receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a child who is newly born, adopted, or placed in foster care, and up to 26 weeks to care for a family member in the Armed Forces.

On July 1, employees will also be able to receive up to 12 weeks to care for a family member — the employee’s spouse, domestic partner, child, parent, sibling, grandparent, parent of a spouse, or parent of a domestic partner — with a serious health condition.

“There’s a department called the Department of Family and Medical Leave that oversees this whole program, and approves and denies claims,” Gannon said. “They’ve done a pretty effective job of getting the word out there about this program, particularly back in 2020 and early 2021 when it was going live. I remember seeing radio ads, print advertising, a lot of online ads as well.”

As a result, employees tended to know about it, and many held off on, say, elective surgery or put off parental leave for a newborn until after Jan. 1, so they could access the full benefits of the new law, he noted. “We did see a spike [in taking leave] in January and February, and we anticipate we’ll see another spike in July or August of this year when the family-leave components go live, and employees can take leave to care for family members with serious health conditions.”

 

A Rising Need

Patrick Leary, vice president of Work Benefits Research at LIMRA in Windsor, Conn., noted that interest in PFML started to rise several years ago, but has accelerated in recent years, especialy last year.

“More people became caregivers for their parents or other family members affected by COVID,” Leary said. “On top of that, parents took leave to care for their children when remote learning kept them at home.”

Peter Miller, a partner with Millbrook Benefits and Insurance Services in Springfield, added that Massachusetts’ PFML law offers benefits similar to a short-term disability benefit, but won’t replace the need for employers to provide short-term disability insurance.

Leave under the PFML program applies to most W-2 employees in Massachusetts, regardless of whether they are full-time, part-time, or seasonal. Unlike the federal FMLA, the Massachusetts PFML law says an employee is not required to work for a minimum length of time in order to be eligible for leave. However, an employee must meet minimum-threshold earning requirements in order to be eligible for leave under the law.

Notice requirements for the new law work both ways; employers must provide written notice of the PFML program to all employees within 30 days of the employee’s start date, while employees must inform their employers of their need to take leave under the law at least 30 days before the start of the leave, and before filing an application for leave with the state. Where reasons beyond an employee’s control prevent them from giving such advance notice, they must inform their employer as soon as is practical.

Employers don’t have to offer their workers the state benefit; they can opt out of it and apply for an exemption from paying PFML contributions, but only if they purchase a private plan with benefits that are as generous as the state’s plan, and which provide the same job protections, including the anti-retaliation provisions.

“You have two options — you can deal with the state Department of Family Leave they set up, or you can have your own third-party administrator,” Netkovick said. “The private plan has to be set up to match the state plan. There’s no requirement it has to be better, but it has to at least match with the state plan.”

One reason a company might do so is because a third-policy benefits administrator offered that service, and the employer may prefer communicating with that entity over dealing with the state.

Gannon agreed. “One of the perceived advantages to going with private plans is that you do have a little more control over the administration of the plan,” he said, noting that it can be frustrating when the state gets it wrong — for instance, if an employee has been granted 22 weeks of leave rather than 20 because of an administrative error, to cite a hypothetical example.

“There’s nothing you can do to reverse that, which is frustrating for employers,” he told BusinessWest. “With private plans, at least in theory, you can reach out to the plan administrator and ask, ‘why did you approve this for 22 weeks as opposed to 20?’ With the state, it’s more challenging to do that.”

One thing is clear — in allowing employees to take amounts of leave not typical across the country, the state is layering on an additional staffing challenge at a time when companies in myriad industries are already challenged by worker shortages.

“If the state department or your third-party administrator makes the determination this person qualifies under PFML, then there’s really not much you can do,” Netkovick said. “I know that’s created staffing issues for a couple of our clients, but they’ve been able to work that out. If there’s some kind of mandated ratio, I could see that becoming an issue — you might have to hire people on a temporary basis.”

Gannon agreed it can be a hurdle, particularly since employees are eligible for leave starting from day one on the job.

“It has been a challenge from a staffing perspective, especially these days,” he said. “Staffing would be a challenge without all these job-protected forms of leave, and now we have PFML, too.”

 

Know the Facts

One key requirement of the PFML law is that employers need to put it in writing for their workforce.

“It doesn’t have to be in the handbook, but it has to be in writing, advising people of their rights under PFML and the qualifications,” Netkovick said, adding that some companies have made it a part of the handbook because they were revising that manual anyway. “But others have made it as a standalone policy that everyone has to sign off on.”

Gannon has also seen employers approach the communication question in different ways. “We’ve had clients doing a complete update of their handbook, not just to make sure they’re compliant with this law, but to determine whether other policies need to be changed,” he said, such as call-out procedures that give an employer enough time to manage absences from a staffing perspective.

Of course, those written policies need to make clear the anti-retaliation elements of the law, too. If an employee files a lawsuit against an employer for violation of the PFML law and the employer is found to be in violation, numerous remedies are available to the employee, including reinstatement to the same or similar position, three times the lost wages and benefits, and even the employee’s attorney’s fees.

That’s why training managers and supervisors on all aspects of the law is especially important, Gannon said. “They’re the ones who may not realize how strong the anti-retaliation provisions are. Depending on the size of the business, an employer may rely on managers and supervisors, and if they unknowingly retaliate against someone, it could be a problem for the entire organization. It’s important for those in supervisory or managerial roles to understand the law and how strong those anti-retaliation provisions are.”

Netkovick agreed, adding that yearly trainings on all aspects of workplace law, including Paid Family and Medical Leave, is a good idea.

“Companies need to be aware of that retaliation provision — I think that’s the key,” he said. “It’s worthwhile to keep that in mind at the beginning, so you know what the lay of the land is in case something comes up after the fact.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Work/Life Balance

Cold Comfort

The holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving into January is, in many ways, a cheerful time, one of togetherness, connection, and giving. But, in truth, many people dread the season for the stresses it brings — to finances, relationships, workload, you name it. While those stresses can’t be eliminated, they can often be managed through a combination of mindfulness, realistic expectations, and simply seeking help.

The holiday season is usually a magical time for kids — a month of anticipation, togetherness, and warm feelings they’ll remember forever.

The problem is, years later, those memories often collide with adult realities like balancing work and home responsibilities, strained finances, and relationship conflicts. In short, it’s not always the most wonderful time of the year. Rather, the holidays can rank among the most difficult.

“There’s a lot of demand that comes from expectations — from our families, or what happened last year, or what we see on TV — or simply what we want to happen. There are a lot of expectations, but the best thing is to remain mindful of the reality of family, finances, and other situations that change from year to year,” said Dr. Edna Rodriguez, a clinical psychologist with Providence Behavioral Health Hospital.

Especially challenging are the expectations people feel from the outside — whether it’s to maintain a perfect home, make appearances at gatherings when they’d rather stay home, or further tax finances already stressed by family gift purchases.

“It’s important to learn to say ‘no’ to that extra party or secret Santa or Yankee swap, which can put your budget on edge and make you feel stressed out when resources are limited,” Rodriguez noted.

Dr. Stuart Anfang, chief of Adult Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center, agreed.

“As fun as the holiday season can be, it can also be stressful,” he said. “Lots of drinking and eating, lots of entertaining, lots of spending — it’s important to do these things in moderation. If we get too tired, if we eat and drink too much, if we’re too stressed by preparations or shopping, all of this can take a toll, both mentally and physically, that can really dampen our holiday celebrations.”

Anfang noted that increased family contact may also be stressful.

“Sometimes bringing together family members can lead to too much togetherness — fighting at the dinner table, re-opening old wounds, triggering buried conflicts,” he noted. “It can be helpful to give yourself a little space, try to de-escalate tense situations, and remember that this is supposed to be about fun and celebration.”

 

Dr. Stuart Anfang

Dr. Stuart Anfang

“If we get too tired, if we eat and drink too much, if we’re too stressed by preparations or shopping, all of this can take a toll, both mentally and physically, that can really dampen our holiday celebrations.”

 

Sometimes that means just stepping away for a few minutes, Rodriguez said.

“People have to spend time with family members — maybe family members you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with. So if you have to remove yourself from the area, do it — maybe go to the bathroom, breathe, and come back. Checking in with yourself is the most important thing.”

That ‘checking in’ applies to most stressful situations, she added, around the holidays or not.

“Research shows that, by doing that at least two minutes a day, you will have better stress management and remain more present in your day. With apps on smartphones, people can set up alarms to remind them to take a deep breath and focus on their breathing. In fact, it can be breathing or taking a walk or just taking a break from overwhelming situations.”

Business, Not Pleasure

Those holiday stresses, of course, often creep into the workplace, which has its own specific set of challenges to begin with. According to a study by Virgin Pulse, a leader in the field of employee well-being, 70% of employees are significantly more stressed during the holidays, and more than 10% said they’re between 60% and 100% more stressed.

“It’s no secret that, for many, life is getting more complex and stressful each and every year. It’s become increasingly vital that employers help their teams better manage their stress and priorities — especially during the holidays — for each person to be their best and brightest selves, at work and in life,” said Chris Boyce, CEO of Virgin Pulse. “This time of year, it’s important we help employees stay on top of their work priorities and holiday checklists. Supporting their health and happiness using tools, resources, and programs that drive all aspects of their well-being will help them better keep their stress and health under control.”

Katie Sandler, a wellness and professional coach, told Inc. magazine that it’s important to put aside time for oneself.

“Put aside 5, 10, 15 minutes a day to do something for yourself with intention,” she said, which may include taking a walk or listening to a favorite song or two. “No one ever took a few intentional minutes to de-stress and said, ‘dang, I wish I hadn’t done that.”

Rodriguez said parents often get overwhelmed spending time with family and keeping the mystery and magic of Christmas alive for their children. “Having another set of expectations at work increases stress and defeats the purpose.”

 

Dr. Edna Rodriguez

Dr. Edna Rodriguez

“If you have to remove yourself from the area, do it — maybe go to the bathroom, breathe, and come back. Checking in with yourself is the most important thing.”

 

Managers have their own set of challenges, she added. “When all your employees are getting time off and you need to handle the work, that’s when your wife, husband, or partner may be a little on edge, because you’re absent at times they wish you were present.”

That’s when drawing lines becomes important — or at least using technology and other means to get out of the office and connect with the people who matter most.

Avoiding a Blue Christmas

The American Psychological Assoc. offers the following tips to handle stress around the holidays.

Take time for yourself. There may be pressure to be everything to everyone. You’re only one person who can only accomplish certain things. Sometimes self-care is the best thing you can do, and others will benefit when you’re stress-free. Go for a long walk, get a massage, or take time out to listen to your favorite music or read a book. All of us need some time to recharge our batteries, and by slowing down, you will actually have more energy to accomplish your goals.

Volunteer. Find a local charity, such as a soup kitchen or a shelter, where you and your family can volunteer. Also, participating in a giving tree or an adopt-a-family program, and helping those who are living in true poverty, may help you put your own economic struggles in perspective.

Have realistic expectations. No Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or other holiday celebration is perfect. View inevitable missteps as opportunities to demonstrate flexibility and resilience. A lopsided tree or a burned brisket won’t ruin your holiday; rather, it will create a family memory. If your children’s wish list is outside your budget, talk to them about the family’s finances this year and remind them that the holidays aren’t about expensive gifts.

• Remember what’s important
. The barrage of holiday advertising can make you forget what the holiday season is really about. When your holiday expense list is running longer than your monthly budget, scale back and remind yourself that what makes a great celebration is loved ones, not store-bought presents, elaborate decorations, or gourmet food.

Seek support. Talk about your anxiety with your friends and family. Getting things out in the open can help you navigate your feelings and work toward a solution for your stress. Don’t isolate.

Holidays are also a time when people put a lot of value on materialistic things,” she told BusinessWest, which can lead to anxiety. Doing random acts of kindness can be a way to counter that — whether it’s lending an ear to neighbor or co-worker going through difficulties or contributing to a local soup kitchen.

“That keeps us grounded and focused on the true meaning of the holidays; it keeps us connected with each other, being human and being together. That’s another way to manage stress,” Rodriguez noted.

It’s true, of course, that the urge to do good deeds can be another way to create stressful expectations, but acts of kindness don’t have to be time-consuming, she said; just looking for moments in the day to show kindness is often enough.

Feeling the Loss

For many individuals — both those estranged from their families or those who have suffered a loss — the holidays can be a particularly lonely and isolating time. While it may seem like everyone else is celebrating, they’re reminded more than usual of loved ones they miss.

There’s nothing wrong with such emotions, Rodriguez said, but she added that some may find it helpful to actually schedule some time daily — even five to 10 minutes — to give themselves over to grief and reflection and even a good cry, before tackling whatever else their day brings.

Many people get ‘blue’ at this time of year, and that can be normal, Anfang added.

“It is also harder for some people when the days get shorter and colder,” he noted. “We get concerned when symptoms start causing significant functional impairment, making it harder for you to function at work and at home. Sleep disturbance, loss of appetite and weight, decreased motivation and energy, daily tearfulness, thoughts to hurt yourself or wishing you were dead — these are potential signs of clinical depression.

“If you see these symptoms in yourself or your loved ones, that’s the time to contact a primary-care provider or seek evaluation by a mental-health professional,” he went on. “Depression is very treatable, and no one should suffer in silence, especially at the holidays.”

That’s because the holidays, for many people, is a time to connect, Rodriguez said.

“It’s really about being with each other, being together. Whatever background you have, we’re all together for a reason.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Work/Life Balance

Survey Says

While salary is still the most important aspect of a job for most, a new survey from the Employers Associations of America (EEA) notes that lifestyle factors are a significant consideration as well.

In its 2019 National Business Trends Survey, the EEA aimed to determine the top five most important factors prospective employees are looking for, with the goal of assisting employers with recruitment and retention. The top five factors included, in order, competitive pay (named by 82% of respondents), good work/life balance (69.2 %), flexibility in work hours (56.1%), opportunities for advancement (55.4%), and competitive health benefits (49.9%).

“The shortage of labor will be a key factor for employers in 2019,” said Phil Brandt, who chairs the EAA board of directors. “How employers will fill those new jobs is the real story. Employers will need to be even more creative in their recruitment and retention efforts than ever before.”

And if employees are prioritizing balance in their lives, companies should take notice, if only to assess the well-being of their workforce.

“These days, work-life balance can seem like an impossible feat. Technology makes workers accessible around the clock. Fears of job loss incentivize longer hours,” business writer Deborah Jian Lee noted in Forbes recently, noting that, according to a Harvard Business School survey, 94% of working professionals reported working more than 50 hours per week, and nearly half said they worked more than 65 hours per week. “Experts agree: the compounding stress from the never-ending workday is damaging. It can hurt relationships, health, and overall happiness.”

Still, this year’s EEA survey indicates a fair amount of optimism on the part of business executives for 2019. Nearly 74% describe their projected 2019 business outlook as a slight to significant increase in sales and revenue.

“The shortage of labor will be a key factor for employers in 2019. How employers will fill those new jobs is the real story. Employers will need to be even more creative in their recruitment and retention efforts than ever before.”

Supporting that optimistic outlook is the fact that 54% of executives surveyed plan to hire permanent staff in 2019. When asked the primary reasons for their 2019 hiring plans, 72% said their hiring will be to fill newly created jobs. 

When asked which strategies executives are using to overcome recruitment and retention challenges, respondents identified, as the three top strategies, adjusting pay ranges upward, providing additional training and development for existing staff, and increasing starting salaries.

Executives were also asked to identify their top five serious challenges over the next year. The top five were talent acquisition (54%), talent retention (41%), ability to pay competitive wages (33%), ability to pay for benefit costs (28%), and competition in general (28%).

When that question shifted to their serious concerns over the long term — within the next five years — respondents cited talent acquisition (57%), talent retention (48%), ability to pay for benefit costs (43%), ability to pay competitive wages (40%), and competition in general (34%).

Finally, the survey also indicated the top five measures executives say they have been implementing — or are planning to continue to implement in 2019 — to strengthen business. These are investing in technology (52%), investing in equipment (50%), increasing recruiting emphasis (38%), increasing training budget (30%), and increasing total rewards education (22%).

The EAA is a not-for-profit national association that provides this annual survey to business executives, arming them with insights and trends for business outlooks, business-investment plans, staffing levels, hiring plans, job creation, pay strategies, and business challenges. The 2018 survey included 1,295 participating organizations throughout the U.S.

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