Special Report: Balancing Act

The innovations of modern life have provided unprecedented flexibility to the 21st century workforce. But progress brings its own set of challenges. Sophisticated technology has allowed more employees to work remotely, but its ubiquity also makes it tougher to draw a distinct line between work and life outside of work. More two-income households have increased job opportunities for women and men and provided a greater sense of financial stability. At the same time, working families face thorny and expensive decisions when it comes to obtaining care for their children or aging parents.

The federal government, now more than ever, wants healthy and happy employees. As a result, agencies are offering an array of benefits ranging from yoga classes to financial counseling to help federal workers juggle their busy and increasingly complicated lives. Government Executive has interviewed employees and federal managers for a sense of what agencies are doing to improve workers' quality of life. Our reporting is by no means comprehensive, but it provides a broad look at the kinds of resources available to employees and long-term trends in telework, fitness, family care and other areas.

This isn't new territory for Uncle Sam. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, created a lifestyle and health promotion program for employees in 1978. But the growing rate of obesity among Americans as well as the adverse effects of economic recession, climate change, pandemic disease and two wars have raised the stakes significantly. The Obama administration already has vowed to make health and wellness a priority for the federal workforce, requiring agencies as part of the fiscal 2011 budget process to take inventories of their health and wellness programs. In several public appearances at agencies, First Lady Michelle Obama has highlighted the importance of work-life balance in providing employees with the resources to help reform the government. Recently, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag introduced a pedometer challenge to employees, encouraging them to keep track of their physical activity and promising incentives such as healthy happy hours.

The high-profile attention is encouraging, but the administration must put its money (and other resources) where its mouth is if it wants to make positive contributions to its employees' lives. State-of-the-art fitness facilities, top-notch daycare and cafeterias full of organic food aren't free, and it's important that all employees, regardless of their financial situations, have the opportunity to take advantage of such benefits. If the administration's results can match its rhetoric, the federal workforce could be an example of health and wellness to employees everywhere.

We start our special report with a look at health and wellness programs. Check back in the coming weeks for stories on personal enrichment programs, family care and flexible work arrangements. Please send any feedback and suggestions to klunney@govexec.com.

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