Research suggests that the best work-life balance involves strong commitment to both areas.
Does that happen in pharma – or only in Narnia?
Medical sales professionals are likely to be wary of work-life balance (WLB). The traditional sales model has been associated with a workaholic mindset – the more you work, the more commission you earn – and an attraction to the freedom of the road. But these days, travelling light is likely to mean you have nothing to come back to. As medical sales has developed towards long-term selling and key account management, so its professionals have come to rely more on domestic stability as a support.
A perfect circle
A recent study by Working Families challenges the idea that home life and work are competing priorities. They surveyed over 2,000 high-achieving professionals, mostly female, working in the private sector in South-East England – supposedly the yuppie heartland. What they found was a strong, bidirectional correlation between ‘work engagement’ and ‘relationship quality’. As either factor improved it strengthened the other factor instead of detracting from it.
They also found that problems at work affected home life and vice versa – but whereas many professionals could escape from domestic stress at work, few could leave work issues behind when going home. Where a vicious circle existed between the two, the driving force was usually trouble at work. Where steps were taken to reduce stress at work, the domestic picture normally improved.
Working Families concluded: “Work-life balance is not the bringing together of two separate and competing domains, but rather the two need to be understood as two aspects of the same dynamic. Those who are more fulfilled at work may also be more fulfilled at home.”
These important findings suggest that work-life balance does not have to be seen in terms of managing a conflict. Far more importantly, it can be seen in terms of creating a mutual reinforcement to the benefit of the individual and the company.
Bending the rules
The big question for employers is how they can achieve this perfect circle for the dysfunctional individuals who make up their sales teams. Giving staff more flexibility – in terms of when and where they work – is the most popular solution among companies and staff alike.
However, Working Families notes, flexible working is no bed of roses. For women in particular, flexible working is likely to impact negatively on home life by allowing a conflict to develop. Conversely, men tend to take up flexible working “far less often” than women, perhaps due to fear of such a conflict. Employers should therefore ensure that there is an “embedded culture of flexibility” in which such conflicts and anxieties can be resolved.
The Work Foundation even makes flexible working definitive of WLB: “Work-life balance is about people having a measure of control over when, where and how they work.” But the truth is that WLB cannot be wholly separated from other issues such as accountability and autonomy.
The CIPD’s Employee Outlook for summer 2012 notes that 60% of employees report satisfaction with their WLB. Women are more likely to feel that they have the right WLB (65%) than men (55%). The CIPD reports a strong positive correlation between employee engagement and satisfaction with WLB.
A delicate balance
The Pf Company Perception, Motivation and Satisfaction Survey 2012 shows that for medical sales professionals, work-life balance ranks fourth in a list of 18 priorities (after salary, relationship with direct manager and job security). Overall, 42% of survey respondents are ‘satisfied’ with their WLB and 28% are ‘dissatisfied’.
These figures suggest that WLB is neither a major problem nor a big success for the pharma industry. Given that WLB is a predictor of work engagement, they do not encourage complacency.
Women surveyed are happier with their WLB (44%) than men (39%), which may reflect greater skill in balancing the relevant factors. Employees working part-time are happier (49%) than those working full-time (41%), which may reflect a trade-off between income and WLB.
Industry satisfaction with WLB is fairly consistent across regions in England, but is much lower in Wales (31%) and Scotland (30%). In Scotland, the proportion actively dissatisfied with WLB is 35%, making the issue a negative one for the nation’s pharma companies.
The age-related figures show highest satisfaction with WLB (68%) among employees aged below 25, with lowest satisfaction (35%) among those over 55. That does not suggest that starting a family is a trigger for major WLB concerns – and indeed, Working Families states that such a view is a myth. Rather, WLB becomes steadily more important with age.
Employees whose sales are above average are more likely to feel they have the right WLB (45%) than those whose sales are average or below average (both 36%). However, for those with the highest sales, WLB satisfaction drops to 34%. That suggests that the correlation between professional success and WLB works only up to a certain point.
Roles associated with associated with industry average or better WLB are nurse advisor (57%), primary care specialist (47%) and KAM (45%), while sales management is associated with WLB well below average: 31% for first-line managers, 26% (with a shocking 58% dissatisfied) for second-line managers.
WLB satisfaction drops steadily with time in role, from 48% after less than six months to 37% after eight years. This contrasts with the effect of time in the industry, where WLB satisfaction rises to a peak between four and eight years (53%) before trailing off.
The whole picture
The Pf survey broadly supports the view that work-life balance is about the mutual reinforcement of work and home life, rather than managing a conflict. But it also shows that conflicts are possible in certain kinds of role, notably sales management, and where individuals may be aiming too high.
Companies need to support WLB, especially with older employees, and understand that WLB is a predictor of good performance. They should promote flexibility without seeking a ‘one size fits all’ model. Above all, they should be mindful that the strongest driver of successful WLB is fulfilment at work.