Get A Life!

Just a few years ago, Krishan Kalra worked as fast and as furiously as any other Silicon Valley CEO. The founder of a biotech company called BioGenex Laboratories, the 55-year-old native of India pushed himself, his 150 employees and his family to the breaking point. Finally, with his marriage in crisis and his kids feeling neglected, Kalra dropped out for three months to rediscover his "spiritual self" and study the Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu sacred scripture. Today, back at work, Kalra periodically meditates during the day and, at night, religiously ignores the temptations of the fax, laptop and phone to be with his family. He counsels his employees to do the same, and last summer chaired a Stanford conference on the intersection of spirituality and technology; 1,200 business leaders showed up. "I've started to pay attention to all aspects of my life," he says. "Once you become a whole person, you tend to be more creative and productive."

The idea of fostering balance between life and work is a trendy one in executive halls these days, but the concept particularly resonates in Silicon Valley, where 60-hour work weeks are the norm and the divorce rate is among the highest in the country. As a result, tech companies are turning to so-called get-a-life consultants--mentors, psychologists, gurus, even yoga instructors. Their job is to help the overworked silicon-collar class maintain some semblance of a personal life while surviving in the pinball world of high tech, where most meals are eaten at work and e-mail is returned after the kids are tucked into bed. The task is especially important since companies are competing fiercely for talent, and the outfit down the block may be billing itself as a saner, healthier work environment. Matt Weinstein, author of "Work Like Your Dog" and a consultant to companies like AT&T and GTE, says that tech firms "are going to great lengths to convince their employees that work is not a nightmare."

At the forefront of this effort are the consultants that many companies bring in to help senior-level employees juggle work with family responsibility. Troubles with the boss, with underlings, with a spouse--anything is up for discussion in the half-hour, strictly private phone conversations that can cost the firm anywhere from $150 to $500. For lower-level workers, companies make available round-the-clock work-family counseling services. Such phone centers have been around for a decade, traditionally handling questions like where to find good child and elder care; today, they fill such varied roles as financial adviser, therapist to stressed-out employees and concierge who can make a dinner reservation for the family or deliver flowers to a neglected spouse.

Of course, in the quest to get their lives back, most employees would rather set their own hours and avoid glutted highways. In the tech world, many employers are heeding the call. Barbara Beck, the VP of West Coast technical support for Sprint, calls this an "anyplace, anytime workload" and declares, "We're throwing out the old model of business hours between 8 to 5." Her team of 400 engineers and support technicians are armed with laptops, digital cell phones and pagers, and tailor their 60 hours a week around the requirements of their customers. Sun Microsystems recently granted requests by its engineers and opened four "drop-in centers" around the greater Bay Area. Instead of trekking to the Palo Alto headquarters, employees (with their manager's permission) can come to these small branch offices at any hour to plug into the company network. "Sun gets more work out of us, and we get some of our life back," says project manager Brent Daniel, who gets to skip a 50-minute highway commute when he works from the San Francisco center near his home.

The only downside: employees might miss the fun that tech companies are importing in a desperate effort to liven up the work atmosphere and keep workers sane. Massages-on-demand, plush gyms, videogames in the halls and yoga sessions are all well-publicized tech-firm perks. The Santa Clara-based Applied Materials has gone further with on-campus classes on topics like how to tile your bathroom and landscape your backyard. There are also regular noontime ballroom-dancing classes. "They let you mingle with your colleagues as you learn a new dance step and forget about work for a while," raves executive assistant Laura Pennington.

So how successful are all these "get a life" efforts? Companies report they lower absentee rates and improve employee retention. But some employees are skeptical. "I still have to make my deadlines," says one engineer, fresh from college. "Fun time, flex time, whatever. It's still as stressful as cramming for finals." In other words, it's all work--and getting a life in the workaholic '90s is harder than it looks. Take This Job and ...

It's not just "The Phantom Menace" that's kept people from work. Absenteeism shot up 25% from 1997 to 1998. Increasingly, it's stress.