Supporting employees reaps rewards in loyalty and talent retention

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South Africa’s working fathers are entitled to paternity leave for the first time from earlier this year, and companies that offer family-friendly workplaces and employee benefits are more likely than ever to be employers of choice and ensure employee loyalty, performance and talent retention.

It’s not just offering benefits that matters — organisational culture and management support for work‒life balance is key to reducing conflict for employees between their work and family lives, leading to more job satisfaction, less stress and risk of burnout, and improved individual and organisational performance.

This was the key finding of research at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) ahead of the introduction of a legislated 10 days’ parental* leave in South Africa this year. USB MBA graduate Bernadine de Winnaar said society was increasingly embracing “equal parenthood”, and Generation X and Millennials, who make up the majority of the current workforce, were seeking flexibility and benefits relevant to young families where both parents are pursuing careers.

De Winnaar noted that two-thirds of South African professionals reported turning down offers from employers that did not offer a work‒life balance and a family-supportive environment. A family-supportive workplace offers flexible work arrangements such as flexi-time hours and the option to work from home. Employees are not expected to work additional hours or take work home as a rule, and employees’ careers aren’t prejudiced when they take maternity, parental or family responsibility leave or turn down promotions or transfers due to family responsibilities.

“For companies to attract and retain talented, high-performing individuals, it is increasingly important to acknowledge that employees have a life outside of work and to show respect for their family commitments. The introduction of paternity leave means that organisations now have even more reason to pay attention to the family needs of both male and female employees,” she said.

Work‒life balance strategies go beyond simply making benefits available. Organisations should equip managers to understand their contribution to a ‘family-friendly’ workplace culture and, ultimately, employee engagement and retention. “This is critical for companies as they prepare to implement paternity leave,” she said.

“However, more important than being written into policies is how these benefits are applied and supported by supervisors, managers and colleagues — that is what creates the family-supportive culture that, in turn, influences employees’ commitment to the organisation,” de Winnaar said.

She said the research showed that employees’ perceptions that taking up family-related benefits wouldn’t have negative consequences in the workplace were associated with higher levels of commitment and attachment to the organisation, and made employees less likely to look for greener pastures.

“A family-supportive company culture reduces the stress-inducing conflict for employees between their work and home obligations, lowering the risk of burnout, and is ultimately beneficial to the employer in retaining employees able to continue at peak performance,” de Winnaar commented.

In a first for research on work‒family balance, de Winnaar’s research focused on working-class parents in South Africa in relation to their family commitments. “Much of the research on work‒family balance in the western world (USA, Europe, and Scandinavian countries) has focused on middle- to upper-class families and university graduates. The South African context is vastly different in terms of our political system, our economy and our multicultural, multiracial society. “This highlighted a gap in the academic literature, and an opportunity to explore, within an African context, whether a family-supportive work environment and the attitudes of colleagues and supervisors might influence employees exercising their right to parental leave,” she said.

A further gap, she said, was that most research focused on women, with little attention to the perceptions and experiences of men, even though men are increasingly involved in the traditionally female realm of childcare and housework. “Getting this balance of involvement right is important, as research shows that, for both men and women, perceived unfairness in home- and family roles can lead to depression, thoughts of divorce, and breakups, as well as affect employees’ commitment to their employer,” she said.

De Winnaar surveyed full-time male and female employees in the hospitality industry in Cape Town, looking at how their perceptions of a family-supportive environment in their workplaces influenced their loyalty to the company and their ability to balance work and family obligations.

She recommended that further research take place across different industries on the connection between a family-supportive workplace and employees’ commitment to the organisation, as well as on the effectiveness of corporate programmes supporting a work‒family balance. “The relationship found between management recognition and support of employees’ family responsibilities, the reduction of conflict between work and family obligations, and an increase in employee commitment has practical implications for organisational policies and employee well-being,” she said.

The research highlighted the importance of organisations developing sound policies to support a family-friendly workplace that is sensitive to social issues affecting different groups of employees. “Based on our findings of higher conflict levels and lower levels of commitment and attachment amongst management-level employees, organisations should give special consideration to ensuring that burnout is prevented and these employees’ work‒life balance is preserved,” she said.

* Note on “parental leave”: The Labour Laws Amendment Act signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa in November 2018 and effective from January this year makes provision for 10 days of “parental” (not specifically “paternity”) leave on the birth or adoption of their children, for parents not covered by maternity leave. Effectively, this mostly means new fathers, but the gender-neutral language also covers same-sex couples.

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