When University of Michigan faculty or staff need to find someone to watch their kids, clean the house or help with yard work, they can log on to the school's “Family Helpers” database and get a list of pre-screened students willing to assist.

At Middlebury College in Vermont, professors heading toward retirement can ease into this major transition by phasing out their duties over several years.

Princeton University faculty, staff and students receive free flu shots at any of several campus wellness fairs.

And if a family emergency arises, faculty at Virginia's Washington and Lee University may do some of their work virtually, using Internet chats or conference calls for conversations with students and others.

Those are just some examples of the employee-friendly programs that higher learning institutions are offering to boost worker satisfaction. Despite the recession, a May study by the Families and Work Institute found that 13 percent of U.S. employers are increasing their family-friendly and flexible workplace policies — and 81 percent of U.S. employers are maintaining the ones they already have in place.

Higher education has taken up the cause as well, offering employees everything from subsidized child care to access to extended time to meet the requirements for tenure as a way to keep talented employees from leaving for more lucrative industries, says Kate Quinn, PhD, a program director at the American Council on Education. The topic has broad appeal: The need for more family-friendly policies at universities was even on the agenda of the spring Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology conference.

It's a move that seeks to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse faculty, Quinn says, and an essential element of staying competitive in the 21st century.

“Generation X and especially the Millennials want more balanced lives, so if we want to be able to recruit and retain younger generations, we need to rethink what faculty careers look like,” Quinn says.

Honoring flexibility

The American Council on Education is rewarding such flexibility. Since 2006, the council has awarded 24 colleges and universities each with a $200,000 ($250,000 for research universities in the program's first year) Alfred P. Sloan Award for Faculty Career Flexibility, all in an effort to honor innovative family-friendly practices. Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Kathleen Christensen, PhD, says they want to promote the idea that universities, just like businesses, need to restructure outdated models of work that assume scholars have a spouse taking care of needs at home. The incentive seems to be increasing awareness of the need for work-life balance on campuses as the grants are now a highly sought-after prize, says Claire Van Ummersen, PhD, vice president of the American Council on Education's Center for Effective Leadership.

And, according to a preliminary survey of the 2006 Sloan award winners, faculty report a greater awareness and use of family-friendly policies and say they believe support for these policies has improved, Quinn says.

“Cultural change doesn't happen overnight, but even small improvements we take as promising,” she says.

The most effective university work-life policies and programs have been those that meet employee needs across their career and life paths, and that build awareness among faculty, staff and students that these supports exist, adds Quinn. For example, after receiving a 2006 Sloan award, the University of Washington launched a work-life balance plan that offers flexible work schedules, lactation stations, parenting seminars, elder care and “new mom” support groups, onsite child-care facilities and child-care vouchers for students. The university also tracks faculty use of the policies as a way to measure whether programs are truly meeting employee needs. It even trains university administrators and department chairs on how to erase the stigma employees may feel when they choose to take advantage of these policies, she says.

“When faculty — particularly junior faculty — don't know about these programs, they're often hesitant to ask [about them] because they're nervous about appearances and still trying to prove that they were a good hire,” Quinn says.

It's also helpful for universities to communicate with employees about the importance of finding a good balance between work and home life, to send a clear message that it is acceptable to seek support for the many competing demands of home and work, says Jennie McAlpine, director of work-life resources at the University of Michigan.

“All of us as individuals have to make choices in our lives about what we're trying to do and figure out where our stresses come from,” McAlpine says. “Part of our responsibility in the work/life resource center is to encourage people to take a good look at what they're spending their time on and make conscious choices, whether at home or at work, that will help them address that stress.”

Room for improvement

Despite these advances, many colleges and universities are still less than family-friendly. A 2007 national survey of more than 500 four-year colleges by the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan found that the average university offers only 1.9 of 7 possible family-friendly policies (they included benefits such as paid dependent care, separate from other leave; unpaid leave to care for dependents; a period of modified duties; and tenure-clock extensions). While that number is up from the 1.64 they found offered in a similar survey conducted in 2002, flexibility on campus is still not as prevalent as it should be, says Louise August, PhD, a research associate at the center and lead author of the study.

Not surprisingly, she notes, the survey also shows that the most commonly offered policies are those that cost institutions the least, such as tenure-clock extensions and unpaid leave, which are provided by 65 percent and 44 percent of colleges, respectively. Less popular, and more expensive, are benefits such as allowing faculty or staff to reduce their duties for a semester without a reduction in pay (offered by 21 percent of colleges) or paid leave, outside of sick time or vacation, to care for a child, partner or parent (18 percent).

Another survey, conducted by University of California, Berkeley, law professor Mary Ann Mason, PhD, JD, and Marc Goulden, director of data initiatives in academic affairs at the school, asked 8,373 University of California system doctoral students about their perceptions of the flexibility available in a future career in academia. The results, published in the January-February issue of the American Association of University Professors newsletter Academe (Vol. 95, No. 1), show that 84 percent of them are somewhat or very concerned about the family-friendliness of tenure-track faculty positions in research-intensive universities — so concerned that 42 percent of men and 41 percent of women say they plan to pursue work in business, government or another industry.

“The perception is that there are many better options outside of academia,” Quinn says.

That doesn't have to be the case, says Diane F. Halpern, PhD, a psychology professor at Claremont-McKenna College and APA's 2004 president. In fact, past research shows that more flexible policies can benefit universities as much as professors.

Research conducted earlier this year by the Corporate Executive Board found that employees who feel they have a good work-life balance work 21 percent harder than those who don't feel like their employer provides much flexibility. While the survey mainly reflects the views of workers in larger corporations, Halpern says the research would probably hold true in academia as well.

If universities continue to work toward family-friendly policies, and if psychologists back them with research on how a poor work-life balance affects child development and attachment, stress management and one's ability to provide adequate caregiving, there may come a day when academia is seen as a good option for people regardless of their family demands.

“Psychology really needs to take much more of a leadership position on the development of these policies and on providing the research that's needed in the area of work-life,” Halpern says.

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.

Further reading, resources

  • Drago, R.W. (2007). Striking a Balance: Work, Family, Life. Boston: Dollars & Sense.

  • Halpern, D.F. & Cheung, F.M. (2008). Women at the Top: How Powerful Leaders Combine Work and Family. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

  • Lester, J. and Sallee, M. (Eds.) (2009). Establishing the Family-Friendly Campus: Models for Effective Practice. Sterling, Va.:Stylus Publishing.

  • The Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan: www.cew.umich.edu

  • American Association of University Professors: www.aaup.org/AAUP/issues/WF/

  • American Council on Education: www.acenet.edu

  • College and University Work/Family Association: www.cuwfa.org

  • Work and Life Families Institute: www.familiesandwork.org