Companies Offer an Ear for Family Problems

Last October, Shawn Rabe had to quickly find a day care center for her two children. At the time she was using in-home care and learned that the provider was letting her boys, then 4 and 6, venture outside, unsupervised.She needed flexible as well as quality after-school care. "It's often hard for me to make it out of work before six at night," said the secretary in Atlanta.Rabe said she could have spent hours of work time calling up centers, and a day or more of her own time checking out the places. Instead, she dialed a toll-free hotline that connected her to LifeWorks, a consulting service in Boston hired by her company.The next day, she received a five-page fax detailing the child care options in her Atlanta suburb."I found out which centers had flexible hours, what activities they offer, even the kinds of field trips they take," said Rabe, who works for KPMG Peat Marwick, one of the world's biggest accounting firms. The counselors here at LifeWorks did all the research; all she and her husband had to do was visit a couple of centers and make the final choice.Rabe is one of several million workers nationwide who are drawing a new kind of benefit from their employers. As many Americans struggle to perform the work-family balancing act, a growing number of companies are stepping in to help their employees handle everyday problems, large and small.On the leading edge of this trend is LifeWorks, where 130 counselors field an average of 1,500 calls a day for advice and information on everything from child safety to college loans to elder care. Companies pay an average of $25 a year for each employee covered.The demand for this kind of help has grown as millions of women have migrated into the workplace and many families have pulled up roots, according to Jean Holbrook, who coordinates the service for Work/Family Directions, which goes by the acronym WFD. The consulting firm helps companies address employees' personal and family concerns."We live in a very different society today. People can't go talk over the back of the fence with the neighbors about bed-wetting or other problems," said Holbrook. "A lot of people don't live near their extended families. The social supports are no longer there for these people."Corporate clients of LifeWorks acknowledge that problems at home can't help but get in the way of work, and that employees must often handle personal emergencies on company time."If you have a family crisis, you don't wait until the evening to deal with it. You deal with it now," said Karen Schwartzman, spokeswoman for BankBoston, where 60 percent of the nearly 25,000 employees are women, many of them mothers of small children"Even if you don't pick up a phone, you're trying to come up with a solution in your head," she said.To help with personal problem solving, BankBoston turned to LifeWorks, the flagship service of WFD, a pioneer in family-friendly consulting. The corridors of this 14-year-old firm are decorated with family pictures of employees."We have people from janitors to CEOs calling up. We try to empower them to deal with whatever issue they have, and get back to work," said Margaret Wright, a LifeWorks counselor who chatted outside her cubicle one afternoon recently.A former social worker, Wright hears from employees grieving over the loss of a loved one, or steaming over a parent who has blown his life savings at the gambling casino.For the "super-moms" trying to do it all, she might urge a lowering of expectations -- "It's not a sin to do takeout," she advises -- or give tips on how to get husbands to do more housework. Wright can also drop in the mail any of 500 books, pamphlets, audiotapes and videos with titles such as "Choosing an Adoption Attorney" and "Helping Your Older Relative Stay Active."According to LifeWorks, the consultations and information save an average of 17 hours for every case handled by its counselors, most of whom have advanced degrees in areas such as education, child development and gerontology.[EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE OR OPTIONAL TRIM NEXT 11 GRAFS.] On the principle that time is money, WFD further calculates that every dollar spent on LifeWorks brings a $3 return to its clients.At BankBoston, senior human resources consultant Jack Curley says the payback is even higher when counting better performance on the job, lower employee turnover rates, fewer unplanned absences, and reduced health care costs for stress-related illnesses. "It's a very well received program. People love it," said Curley.Likewise, recent in-house studies by DuPont and Hoechst Celanese, two giant chemical companies, both concluded that LifeWorks has helped reduce burn-out among employees and motivate them to "go the extra mile" for the company.Some, however, are wary of these new corporate benefits."This is not really about finding a balance. It's about creating a world in which life revolves around the workplace, where family responsibilities are delegated to someone else, because they're not considered as important as the job," said William Mattox, policy director of the nonprofit Family Research Council in Washington.Even some clients of LifeWorks acknowledge companies can be a source of problems as well as a solution. For example, BankBoston officials say their workers need the service in part because of heightened demands for performance and customer service.Joan Melonis feels the pressure. "It's a very stressful job, and now I can deal with the stress better," said Melonis, an assistant branch manager in Hyannis, Mass.Last fall, she reached out to LifeWorks, which helped steer her to counseling and psychological services in her community. "They (the LifeWorks counselors) were very available to me, very kind, and very supporting. Now I'm more productive all around," Melonis said.While underscoring her gratitude to the company, she said: "My fiancee thinks they're just doing this to get more work out of us. But it's certainly a benefit to the employees. It's a positive on both sides. They've done a wonderful thing for me."Mattox of the Family Research Council agrees with Melonis' fiancee. Noting that corporate America has been making huge demands on employees, Mattox said companies should allow a generous amount of free and flexible time, and leave the family responsibilities to families.For their part, WFD officials say LifeWorks clients rank among the most family-friendly employers in the country. Holbrook pointed out that in addition to its telephone counseling, the firm helps managers design policies that make it easier for employees to take time off, work flexible hours and set up home offices.[END OPTIONAL TRIM.] Employers seem to feel the family services are friendly to their bottom line: Last year, WFD pulled in revenue of $70 million, a 30-fold increase over the past decade. LifeWorks is now part of the standard benefits package for 2.8 million workers at 150 companies nationwide.Several other consulting firms, newer and smaller than WFD, have begun offering similar services. They include The Dependent Care Connection of Westport, Conn., The Partnership Group of Landsdale, Pa., and Working Solutions of Seattle, Wash.

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