By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a new study by Accenture, executives are beginning to view work life balance as the norm. The survey polled almost 4000 male and female executives in 31 countries around the globe, and almost three quarters of respondents (71%) said they have work life balance all or most of the time.

“It was higher than I expected,” said Nellie Borrero, Diversity and Inclusion lead at Accenture. “Several years ago, we may have seen a different answer.”

Nevertheless, the survey, entitled “The Path Forward,” revealed some challenging data. Despite the high percentage of executives who said they had work/life balance, 41% said their career had had a negative impact on their family. In addition, 42% said they often sacrifice time with their family to succeed.

The survey might show that work/life balance is taking on a new understanding – an acknowledgement that ‘having it all’ is not a reality. Balance means there are always going to be sacrifices when it comes to work and family, and that making those sacrifices is okay.

Work Life Integration

“The term ‘work life balance’ has always driven me a little bit crazy,” Borrero said. “I’ve always felt it’s more about work life integration. It’s more about what you bring to the table every day, what’s important to you.”

In most measures of career growth, job satisfaction, and future opportunities, male and female executives gave similar answers, differing by only a few percentage points here and there. Women were slightly more likely than men (23% to 17%) to name “family responsibilities” as something “holding them back” in their career. Yet, among respondents who were parents, women were more likely than men (46% to 35%) to agree or strongly agree that their career had “slowed” since becoming a parent.

Almost half of the women with kids said they felt their career slow down when they had children, but the majority don’t feel like they are being held back because of parenthood.

“It’s a matter of how you look at it,” Borrero said. “‘Held back’ sounds so negative. But my perspective is we all make choices. I think we need to look at it from the perspective of speed or momentum. At some points in your life your career takes priority. Then sometimes life happens, and you slow down a bit to take care of your family or your elderly parents.”

“Looking at my own career, sometimes I’ve been speeding, sometimes I’ve slowed down. Women and men need to recognize that there will be shifts and sometimes you meet your career goals on the timeline you set for yourself, and sometimes your speed changes because of other priorities.”

She added, “I do recognize that I’ve had to make sacrifices with my family to have the career that I have. But every time I make that sacrifice, I do it because I know it’s going to benefit my family.”

Popularity of Flexible Arrangements

The study also showed that many more people are using flexible arrangements at work than ever before. In fact, 59% of respondents – male and female – said they utilized some form of flex arrangement.

And while the majority of respondents said they were dissatisfied with their current position (57% of women and 59% of men), many respondents (64%) named flex arrangements as a reason they are staying with their employer.

Almost half (44%) said that the economic downturn had slowed down their career advancement opportunities – and it’s likely that when it picks back up, many will start looking for new roles outside their companies. Borrero said this could be an opportunity for employers to showcase their willingness to be flexible, to offer opportunity and to respond to employees’ needs – in order to stay competitive.

“This is what I call the new normal. Companies realize that in order to keep top talent they have to adapt and be responsive. And this is very good news for people in the workforce.”

She continued, “Companies have a real opportunity here to showcase their support of women and men who need to change speed at a point in their careers. Companies should say, ‘I don’t want to lose women or men if they need to better integrate their work and life. High performers will still be valued and positioned for success.”

Companies that work to analyze what programs are really keeping their top executives on board are the ones that will be successful moving forward. She added, “Especially now, those companies will not face such a risk of losing high performers when the economy comes back.”