Last year, my odd neighbor was diagnosed with a brain tumor that might not have been operable, had it not been for insurance and the nearby Mayo Clinic. The operation was successful. He is still an odd character. He is still alive to prove that.
What interested me the most about this particular event was not the operation or the miracle of his recovery. I was absolutely amazed at the treatment he received from his very large global corporate employer.
His doctors told him that he would not be allowed to return to work for several months. His employer told him that he would be kept on at full salary for the duration of his recovery, that if he were to return within six months, he would go back to his old job and that if his recovery went longer, he’d be put in another equivalent position. I was shocked when he told this to me. I have no idea if he’s returned to work yet. This morning he was walking his dog down the road when I passed him at around nine on the way to my own job so I kind of think that he is still practicing his early retirement.
During the past few months, my company staff has experienced an incredibly high rate of, well, required time off. We have pregnancies, difficulties during pregnancies, births, deaths, serious illness within families, children starting school, children participating in school activities and child care issues. I can’t recall a day in the last month where at least one machine was not idle due to outside requirements.
It surprises me that my company’s staff are still productive and that people are still earning a living. Work hours are lower than they have been during comparable months in past years and yet we are still producing at a better-than-breakeven rate. While they seem to have less time to work, employees have begun working even more efficiently and effectively than they have in the past.
I hear a great deal about the loss of the American Work Ethic these days. In my own contrary way, I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate. Really and truly, I don’t think that the work ethic has diminished. Instead, the extent of non-work duties has increased to the point where our available time for employment is shrinking. Something has to give and that would seem to be work hours.
Think about it. We used to have kids, wean them, send them away and we were done with them. Nowadays, we are most likely taking care of a parent along with the kids. Not only are there school conferences, there are nursing conferences, benefit planning conferences, medicine purchases, and illnesses and every one of these takes place during the day, when our employees are supposed to be at work. The responsibilities assigned to them outside of their workplace are huge and it is pretty obvious that while we see less of our employees, they are working just as hard as they ever have. Their time is just spread a whole lot thinner.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m convinced that an awful lot of people really don’t want to work very hard. We see them milking the system and their examples are hard to ignore. One of my employees said that her children’s school required that mommies attend during the school day every Thursday. She said (and this is direct from her) that a lot of the mommies could attend because they were collecting welfare instead of working.
That shroud of negative is covering a whole bed of working individuals who spend their vacations settling Mom and Dad into a nursing home or buying the ten thousand back-to-school items for each child instead of cruising the Caribbean. When they get back to work, we who remained behind are merciless and unsympathetic. After all, they got to be away from work, right? That should have been enough.
Of course it isn’t enough. It is exhausting and most of the time, a return to work brings a sigh of relief. It is one place where those multiple responsibilities can be forgotten for a little bit of time and perhaps something can actually be accomplished.
So here is my own conclusion. Instead of punishing employees for being gone a whole lot, I’ve decided to make it easy for them to be gone. My only request of them is that they focus on their work when they are here at the shop. If they are here six hours a day and they are six focused and productive hours instead of eight or nine less productive hours that are split between coordinating childcare, filling the pantry, picking out clothes for the kids’ first day at school and actually doing some embroidery, I am thrilled. If they are a little bit happier because they are now relieved of the stress of not doing the best of work while juggling all the other issues in their lives, I am thrilled.
It would seem that there are better ways to create productivity than simply requiring more hours at work.