The issue of employee retention is becoming increasingly important for businesses in Australia, New Zealand, and the rest of the developed world. Typical working conditions for employees have evolved over the past several decades to become more punishing for workers, even as the number of skilled workers relative to available jobs has declined. For businesses who rely on these workers, recruiting and training new personnel is time consuming and expensive, and can limit their ability to grow and to operate at their full potential.

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The most important way for businesses to manage these costs, besides improving recruitment and onboarding methods, is to reduce the rate of employee turnover. To do this, it’s important to understand why employees quit their jobs, and what to do about it. One leading cause of employee attrition is also a symptom of the skill shortage, and evolving working conditions: the lack of work-life balance, and the effects this has on people’s relationships, health, and ability to manage other responsibilities.

Work life balance is becoming more difficult for workers and businesses

Improvements in technology over the past two decades, globalisation, and the skill shortage itself are making it more difficult than ever for employees to balance their work and private lives. Email and high speed internet mean that many employees are expected to be available at all hours, and to take work home with them as needed. This is particularly problematic as businesses become more globalised, and employees find themselves getting up in the middle of the night to digitally join meetings with far-away business partners.

Not only are workers increasingly losing access to neat and predictable 9 to 5 workdays, those workdays are also becoming much longer. Most Australians work at least 5 hours of overtime per week, with approximately 28 per cent working 10 or more hours of overtime. The resulting work schedules are both bloated and irregular, leaving employees overworked, stressed, and unable to make time for their personal lives.

Fight to prevent excessive overtime

A limited amount of paid overtime has always been the norm in many industries, but the current situation is relatively new. Too much overtime, particularly unpaid overtime, can overtax employees mentally and physically, and ultimately reduce productivity. This, in turn, can prompt businesses to push employees for even more of their time. Ultimately, workers will become resentful of their working conditions, and leave.

In order to avoid this, businesses need to limit the amount of time employees spend working, and ensure that their workloads can actually be managed without overtime. After all, telling an employee not to work excessive hours is not going to be effective if the employee is still held responsible for an excessive workload. Instead, businesses need to ensure that they have enough personnel to keep the business running on a normal schedule. That, in turn, is easiest when worker attrition is low.

Making work more flexible

Irregular schedules are difficult for employees to plan around, so long as they don’t control those schedules. Flexible working solves this problem by giving workers a measure of control over when and how they meet their professional responsibilities. This allows them to better tackle their other responsibilities, and to help carve out the personal time they need to manage stress.

Flexible work isn’t just for women

Most often, flexible working arrangements are seen as a way for parents, specifically mothers, to care for children while working. This has damagingly typecast flexible work, and undermined its usefulness. Businesses who view flexible work in this way often restrict access to this type of working arrangement for fathers, or for employees who have other reasons to gain greater control over their work lives.

By extending flexible work options to fathers, for example, businesses can help to keep more skilled women in the workforce, which makes recruitment easier for everyone. This is because it’s much easier for two parents with flexible work arrangements to manage their careers and childcare together, than to place the entire burden on one parent—the mother.

Flexible work isn’t just about making time for children, either. Rather, it’s a way to help workers deal with modern stressors, and to provide them with the control they need over their lives. An employee who is expected to rise at 2:00 in the morning for a meeting needs a way to reclaim that time later, whether that means coming to work later the next day, or moving their working hours (or location) around in another way.

This, along with properly controlled working hours, ensures that employees can still get the personal time they need to stay healthy and productive, and to deal with their other responsibilities despite the added and irregular responsibilities associated with modern work.

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