The term "work-life balance" entered the public lexicon in the 1980s, but 20 years later many businesses have yet to fully embrace the idea...

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The term “work-life balance” entered the public lexicon in the 1980s, but 20 years later many businesses have yet to fully embrace the idea that shorter work hours, flextime, job sharing or telecommuting benefit the bottom line.

In fact, according to panelists at the “Take Back Your Time” conference running through tomorrow in Seattle, the economic downturn has slowed the momentum for balance that had built during the 1990s.

Back then companies added perks like sabbaticals, on-site child care and four-day workweeks to attract top talent.

After the recession hit in 2001, “employers stopped doing everything,” said Bonnie Michaels, a work-life consultant and co-author of the book Journey of Work-Life Renewal. “The survival mentality [returned].”

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The Time Back Your Time conference was organized by the Seattle-based nonprofit of the same name.

The organization is pushing for more leisure time on several fronts, including paid family leave, mandatory vacation time and limits on compulsory overtime.

But the handful of people attending a session on work culture yesterday said many employers continue to measure employee productivity by the hours they log.

“Do you appear to be busting blood vessels?” is how one work-life advocate described the climate. “Are you staying until midnight? Are you e-mailing at 2 in the morning?”

This may be why one in three Americans is chronically overworked, according to a study released in March by the Families and Work Institute, and more than a third said they weren’t planning on taking their full vacations.

Those statistics may change as the economic recovery continues and competition for good workers heats up again. But Michaels said it’s possible for workers themselves to push for change.

She cited a major food company at which employees did some research, put together a work-life plan that made business sense, then gathered support from key managers.

“By the time we made the proposal to the CEO it was a slam dunk.”

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or sholt@seattletimes.com