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Published September 2, 2019
The prevailing policy-based definition of major work-life transitions suggests that they happen all at once.
One day you’re on the team — in meetings, answering emails, messaging colleagues. The next, you’re just…not. You wake up to the first in a long stretch of days as a retiree, or a new parent, nary a Slack message in sight. For those on leave, some time later, you’re suddenly back at work again, typically thrown straight into a full-time existence of rapid-fire projects and deadlines.
Contrary to the reality suggested by standard employment policy, literally everything we know about how humans adapt to change tells us that the natural pace of adjustment to any major life transition is gradual. The bible of behavioral health, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, tells us that intense emotions surrounding major life adjustments (like having a baby or retiring) can last anywhere from 6 to 9 months after the triggering event. Major change brings with it complex emotions of loss and fear; healthy coping entails developing skills and perspective that can take time to acquire. If you’ve experienced such a transition yourself, you’ll recall the accompanying identity shift — you eventually come to see yourself as a different person than you were beforehand. Such profound shifts don’t happen overnight.
Parental leave and retirement are among the life transitions that most deeply affect our work. Most workplaces are not designed to factor this into practices surrounding leave. For the most part, at the policy level, both parental leave and retirement start all at once. These clear transitions simplify administrative functions. Security clearance, desk equipment, and benefits are all easier to retract or activate at once. The on/off switch suits the bureaucratic machine.
Many of us don’t want to either stop or re-start work all at once.
The problem with this approach is that it’s not optimized for human performance. Many of us don’t want to either stop or re-start work all at once, particularly when we have competing priorities on the “life” side of the equation. The starkness of these sudden transitions creates unnecessary stress, and also leaves a surplus of potential productive working hours untapped as people ramp off and back on into the workforce. More, the on/off bureaucratic construct contrasts starkly with the more gradual emotional and professional realities of each transition.
In order to address this psychological and human capital gap, a growing number of companies have begun to implement leave and retirement policies that more closely mirror the transition process it is meant to accommodate.
Among those most affected by rigid leave policies are millennial mothers, who “face a different environment than their mothers and grandmothers did,” according to Kaytie Zimmerman. “There’s a deeper troubling trend under the covers of working and non-working mothers. High achieving working mothers are dropping out of the workforce when they’re unable to excel in both work and family life.” These women lose out on the ability to leverage their skills, but the organizations who could benefit from their talents lose out in a big way, too.
Recent data shows that employers have begun changing one-off policies to support the more gradual development needs of their employees in the key areas of parental leave and retirement. In the area of parental leave, 81% of employers today allow employees to return to work gradually after childbirth or adoption, up from 73% in 2012.
81% of employers today allow employees to return to work gradually after childbirth or adoption, up from 73% in 2012.
At Pinterest, for example, all employees are allotted 16 weeks of paid leave, plus an additional 4 weeks of paid leave which they can use on a part-time basis, at any point during the first year back. At the parental leave advocacy group PL+US, individuals are allotted 3 months of paid leave, followed by an additional three months of either 50% time at 100% pay or full-time leave at 50% pay. At Etsy, you can take 26 weeks of paid leave at any time during the two years after your child’s arrival.
Leave doesn’t just affect parents. In the area of retirement, what was once a similar switch off has now increasingly become a process of ramping down. Today 59% of employers offer at least some of their employees an opportunity to phase into retirement gradually, as opposed to 53% in 2012. This phasing typically involves working a reduced number of hours over a greater period of time. This somewhat maps to the reports that 60% of potential American retirees state a preference for a more gradual transition out of the workforce.
The approach to leave as a ramp mirrors the broader trend toward increased workplace flexibility, including greater allowances for working from home and flexible time off. As we face increased expectations of our time, gone are the days of “punching out.” Instead, we’re compensated with greater control over how and where we accomplish our work. But unlike the traditional approach to leave, ramping does require a level of support from the employer — and the sort that isn’t exactly intuitive for most managers.
Whether ramping up or down, a transition away from the workplace is often one that’s fraught with emotional challenge. One approach to supporting employees through this time is to offer coaching. A coach can guide an individual through the difficult, values-driven decisions they need to make around how and when to leave and/or return to the workplace. They can train them in the skills needed to negotiate transitioning responsibilities and designing their own schedules. They are also able to guide them through their adjustment to a significant new identity — be that as a parent, as a retiree, or as some other new entity.
For organizations, treating transition as a gradual process is in the interest of both employees and the business. Increased flexibility is directly tied to greater job satisfaction, which results in improved retention and performance. For new parents returning to the workplace, the ability to do so gradually can greatly ease the transition to being away from a new child, diminishing the impulse not to return at all. For retirees, the ramp down option allows an individual to adjust at a natural pace to a new phase of life, all while contributing productively to the workforce.
As Americans today work longer hours, over the course of more years, than ever before, administrative employment functions must adapt to more closely mirror the human transitions that occur during that time. These transitions fundamentally impact our productivity. In order to avoid the human capital gap opened by the on/off switch of current leave and retirement policies, employers should support employees through times of transition in a way that allows their personal and professional lives to ebb and flow together.
Original art by Theo Payne.
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