Finding the Right Balance

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although working and breeding are best not conducted at the same time, there is no denying that workers have families and an expectation of spending time with them.

While an increasing number of companies have adopted at least some policies that are friendly to families, keeping it all in balance is an ongoing challenge both for employees and employers.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: I have a husband, two kids, a dog, a rabbit, a goldfish and a serious case of sleep deprivation. My home job and my work job are both extremely demanding. But my employer is not very helpful or flexible. Sometimes all I need is a little understanding from my supervisor. How can I get my employer to consider some family-friendly policies?

--Exhausted and Frustrated

Dear Exhausted: The good news is, it can be done. Investigate what other companies in your region and in your industry are doing. Demonstrate to your employer how initiating policies that help families will help the company. Many studies have been conducted that quantify savings in a variety of ways from these programs and policies. Consultants abound who can provide this kind of information on a national and a regional level. The Family & Work Institute, Catalyst and the Conference Board, all New York-based organizations, are good places to start.

In addition, find out what your co-workers really want and need in terms of family-friendly policies. Be specific. What appeals to the parent of a toddler might not be of much use to someone with teenagers.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: Lately, some of my employees have been pushing for things like flextime and child-care assistance and flexible sick days. I figure they should keep their personal lives to themselves. What's all the fuss about family-friendly policies and why should I care?

--Looking at the Bottom Line

Dear Looking: There are many reasons why companies are adopting a wide range of policies that help families. Flexible job arrangements and other policies allow employees to be more productive because they are less distracted when they are on the job. Some companies have found that parenting classes have led to savings in medical benefits. Family-friendly policies improve morale and help companies attract and retain valuable employees, which saves on retraining costs.

For example, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power saves $2.50 for every $1 spent on its work-family program, according to a recent report by the Washington Business Group on Health.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: I recently discovered that I am pregnant. I know I need to tell my supervisor, but I've been putting it off because I'm afraid that I will be treated differently. When do most people break the news?

--Expectant and Hesitant

Dear Expectant: Some women can't wait to share their news with colleagues and their employer. But others have legitimate reasons for waiting as long as possible. Although overt discrimination against pregnant women is illegal, the fear of more subtle changes in attitude--the good or tough assignments suddenly start going to someone else, for instance, or a surge of solicitousness--cause some women to keep the news quiet, at least for a while. Some women wait until the end of the first trimester, when the risk of miscarriage declines. Some wait even longer, until after the fourth month when results from the amniocentesis show that the fetus is normal. A warning: The first trimester can mean morning sickness and exhaustion, so you may need to alert your supervisor that you may be taking a few sick days.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: I am the supervisor of a large clerical staff, including several single parents. Recognizing that working and child rearing are both highly demanding, I try to be flexible about work hours and the inevitable emergencies childhood brings. One of the women on my staff is testing my patience by occasionally bringing her 6-year-old son into the office late in the afternoon. I know she and her ex-husband are having some problems agreeing on custody matters, but even a well-behaved 6-year-old can become a distraction and I sense resentment from some of the other workers who are paying plenty for child care. Would it be mean or old-fashioned to ban children at all times?

--Tired of Tots

Dear Tired: A ban seems a little extreme, but so are repeated kid visits to the workplace. There is no getting around that some grown-ups just don't like having kids around while they are working. The best thing to do is to talk about the problem with the offending employee. Work out a plan if not a formal policy. Some companies actually set aside an area for employees' children that is stocked to keep kids happy but still close enough for peace of mind.

Employees who bring children to the office must make sure that they have the blessing of supervisors and co-workers. Do not leave this to chance. Many employers have insurance and other concerns, and some workplaces just aren't safe for kids. If you get the go-ahead, then prepare as you would for a long car trip, with lots of snacks and activities to keep the kid occupied. And reward good behavior (and maybe colleague forbearance) afterward.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: My preschooler has been getting sick almost once a month. He can't go to day care and I find myself taking a vacation day or calling in sick myself. I'm running low on vacation. What can I do?

--Out of Time

Dear Out: Investigate sick child care. Some hospitals and day-care centers provide care for mildly sick children. Look for back up, such as a willing relative, or a neighbor who might help out of kindness or for a reasonable fee. Talk to your employer. Some companies allow a certain number of "sick child days" that free parents to be home handing out the 7-Up and antibiotics without inventing an imaginary illness of their own. An increasing number of companies are rolling sick days and vacation days into a single bank from which employees may draw with no questions asked. That way, you can take a sick day to tend to a sick child or parent, even if you aren't sick yourself.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: A few of my employees seem to spend a lot of time on the phone talking to their school-age children. It's starting to bother me. Should I put an end to this practice?

--Getting an Earful

Dear Getting: You could, but that might backfire. Instead of improving productivity, which presumably is your aim, you could end up reducing it even more as parents worry about the children left at home with or without child-care providers. A better tack might be to urge your employees to set limits--perhaps one quick check-in a day after school. Then calls should be limited to emergencies only. That way your employees can get on with their jobs instead of sitting at their desks fretting about their kids and resenting your policy.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: I've worked out a deal with my supervisor that allows me to telecommute from home. But my child is always underfoot, even when my baby-sitter is here. Any suggestions?

--Troubled in Paradise

Dear Troubled: Other than hire a more assertive baby-sitter? Try sending you child somewhere else. If you have a caregiver, send them to area parks or malls from time to time. Or trade breaks with an at-home parent in the neighborhood. (Remember, though, you've got to reciprocate.) When the child is home, you've got to set strict rules. Your child has to know when it is all right to talk to the work-at-home parent and when it is definitely not all right. If you don't have a separate office with a door you can close, try cordoning off your work space, at least during the transition time. Be imaginative. Set up a circle of chairs. String yellow crime scene tape. Announce: "Whenever Mommy/Daddy is wearing the red baseball cap, you must pretend he/she is invisible!" Since you've already worked out a deal with your supervisor, maybe you can sweeten it by agreeing to complete a certain amount of work by a certain time--only you get to pick the hours that you work. Then you can get something done after the child goes to sleep.

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