By ASHLEY CAMPBELL
How much does achieving a balance between work and leisure time affect employees' intention to stay in their jobs?
A survey of New Zealand firms and staff says quite a lot.
And two simple, but seldom-used, policies could make all the difference to keeping staff.
Recruitment company Pohlen Kean carried out its work/life balance survey after an international study last year showed that most managers experienced burnout in the past year.
The New Zealand survey, of 1187 people in 25 mostly North Island organisations, found a link between staff turnover and employees' perceptions of their work/life balance.
"It's like finding the smoking gun in the search for evidence of what makes a difference to retention," says Pohlen Kean co-owner Heather Kean.
"It seems that there is a clear set of relationships between the work/life balance policies on offer, people's intention to leave and the actual levels of staff turnover."
This backs up last year's national labour turnover study by Dr Peter Boxall and Dr Erling Rasmussen of Auckland University.
They found that gaining a better work/life balance was a major motivator for 28 per cent of employees who were changing jobs.
Among those staying put, having an employer who helped with work/life balance was a major motivator for 39 per cent.
FX Consultants conducted Pohlen Kean's survey using two questionnaires.
A company representative, usually a human resources manager, answered questions about staff turnover and the company's attitudes, policies and practices on achieving work/life balance for employees.
Employees filled out the second questionnaire, giving their perceptions of stress, work/life balance and their intentions to stay in the job.
Forty per cent of male employees and 45 per cent of females reported feeling overloaded in their job "quite often" or "almost always".
Employees were more likely to feel overloaded and that work stress was affecting their family if they had dependent children.
Thirty-nine per cent of respondents said work stress affected their health. They also said it harmed leisure time, family and work performance. Only 23 per cent said it had no effect on the rest of their life.
The survey also measured what tipped employees' work/life balance up or down. Of the top seven factors, six interfered with achieving a balance, but the one factor that helped employees was something in the control of every employer - the company actively helping to achieve a work/life balance.
This took a variety of forms.
All the companies had a flexible holidays policy, meaning employees could choose, with their supervisor's approval, when they took holidays.
Other common policies included study leave, extra paid leave, flexible working hours, part-time work, unpaid leave, telework and job sharing.
Less common policies included employee assistance programmes, company gyms, subsidised medical insurance and a "four for five" policy, meaning after four years' work an employee could have one year off at 80 per cent of their salary.
But there was a difference between companies' work/life balance policies and their practices.
Although two-thirds of the companies said helping employees achieve work/life balance was a good idea, in practice they were not likely to view it as a core strategy issue.
Even so, they would frequently redesign work to help to achieve it.
All this is very well, but is there any effect on company performance?
For companies struggling because of high staff turnover, the survey showed there was.
Three factors emerged as strongly related to staff turnover - organisations that helped employees achieve work/life balance, and where employees actually did achieve work/life balance lost fewer staff.
Not surprisingly, organisations in which more staff said they planned to leave had a higher staff turnover.
The link got even stronger when you analyse leaving intention. There was a very strong work/life balance component in what made staff want to stay.
In decreasing order of importance, influences were: job satisfaction; the organisation helps work/life balance; unpaid leave; part-time work; and actual work/life balance.
Stewart Forsyth, of FX Consultants, says the importance of unpaid leave or part-time work is interesting.
"For the first time there is a small but significant link showing organisations using these policies will be less likely to have staff leave."
The factors affecting leaving intention were not the same across all occupational groups.
For all of them, job satisfaction came first. For managers, second most important was the organisation helping with work/life balance, followed by the chance to work part-time and actual work/life balance.
For professionals (non-managers) the second most important factor was the organisation helping with work/life balance, but nothing else registered as significant.
For other occupational groups, the level of work stress was the second most important influence on leaving intentions, followed by the organisation helping with work/life balance, actual work/life balance and the chance to take unpaid leave.
Across all groups, the most important influences on the leaving intention of employees with dependent children, after job satisfaction, were actual work/life balance, the chance to take unpaid leave and the level of work stress.
Unpaid leave is a key policy in retaining such staff, says Kean.
"This illustrates the need to be tuned into the needs and priorities of those who have significant caring responsibilities."
With the cost of replacing staff ranging from 30 per cent of annual wages for a production support person to 150 per cent of salary for a senior professional or manager, Kean says staff turnover is a significant cost for many companies.
"Just making a small change in such an area can have a big effect on the bottom line."
By ASHLEY CAMPBELL