The traditional separation between work and family is starting to blur, and many employers are taking notice and responding.

This doesn't mean babies in the boardroom, but it does mean that family concerns are no longer forbidden subjects while on the job.

And by providing family-supportive benefits -- day-care centers, flexitime, parenting seminars and sick-child care -- companies also may benefit.

"Companies who have invested money and training in women don't want to lose them, so they have to respond -- unless they want an all single male workforce," explains Dana Friedman, senior research fellow at the Work and Family Information Center of The Conference Board, a Manhattan-based information service for business executives.

Beyond that, she says, there is a new awareness in parts of the corporate culture: the baby boomlet has made the family a visible issue. "If you haven't had to go through the trouble of searching for child care, or figure out what to do at 7 a.m. when you're ready to go to work and your kids are throwing up," then the subject of "work/family stress" may not mean anything to you, says Friedman. "But as baby boomers move up the managerial ladder, there may be greater sensitivity over a period of time."

Traditional families are a minority in the workforce. Forty-seven percent of women in the workforce have children under 1 year. And by 1990, 80 percent of women in the labor force will become pregnant during their working years, according to various reports.

In a survey of corporate managers Friedman conducted in 1981, 49 of 50 said they'd never heard about "work/family" issues. Today, 2,000 companies provide some form of child-care benefits to their employes, largely as a recruitment tool. That's a drop in the bucket among the 6 million companies nationwide, but it's up more than three-fold in three years. About one-fourth of them, especially high-tech firms and hospitals, provide on-site child care, while flexible working schedules, initially begun to help commuters, now exist for 14 percent of American workers, Friedman says.

Major corporations such as Procter & Gamble, Honeywell, General Motors, AT&T and Kimberly-Clark are setting new standards for employe-sponsored child care and other family assistance programs:

* Flexible benefits that allow employes to choose only the ones that fit their needs and eliminate duplication among benefits held by all workers in the family.

* Employer reimbursement of child-care expenses, with tax deductible dollars.

* Improved maternity, paternity and adoption leaves. Corporate information and referral services about available child-care centers. Last year, for example, IBM contracted for a national day-care referral network for its 220,000 employes, including the metropolitan Washington area. Mitre Corp.'s office in McLean is part of a similar nationwide program.

* Corporate subsidy of off-site child-care programs, joint operation of day-care centers with other companies, discounts at local centers or seed money for employes organizing their own.

* Sick-child care in the home or at special centers, or non-specific "personal days" or sick leaves that allow parents to care for their sick children.

* Relocation policies offering generous assistance, and sometimes jobs for spouses of transferred workers.

* Seminars for parents and executives about family issues employes face and their effect on the workplace.

"Just the fact that the company acknowledges that you have a life outside work and that, at work, you can talk about things that happen outside work is often a very moving experience to people," says Ellen Galinsky, project director of The Work and Family Life Study of Bank Street College of Education in New York and a frequent speaker at the college's Work and Family Life Seminars.

Seminar topics range from how to make mental transitions between job and home to managing as a single parent and planning vacations (what happens when your children are on vacation and you are not?). "This isn't consciousness-raising," says Galinsky, "but rather corporate training, very practical and skill-oriented."

In the metropolitan Washington area, 13 employers -- including C&P Telephone, Marriott Corp., Safeway Stores and Suburban Hospital -- jointly sponsor the Child Care Network, an information and referral guide to child-care services in the District, Virginia and Maryland. The next step these companies plan to undertake, says coordinator Pat Marks, of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, is to "stimulate the supply" of child-care programs in the region.

With the exception of a few hospitals and federal agencies, no private employers in the D.C. area operate onsite child-care programs, says Marks.

One area hospital -- Suburban -- is planning to turn its day-care center over to a group of Montgomery County citizens on Oct. 1. According to the center's director, Solera Moore-Catherine, Suburban will continue to provide legal counsel, food and laundry services, but the hospital will no longer be the actual sponsor.

Corporate-provided day care can mean "a lot of money, trouble and risk," admits Peter Aborn, senior vice president and general manager at the Institute for Scientific Information in Philadelphia, which operates an on-site day-care center for 135 children.

And it isn't always the preference of parents either. Although some businesses in the area are considering such programs ("a big, big issue is cost and availability of space," Marks says), many others are studying various flexible benefits, she adds.

Tax law debates may be holding up progress, however. "At the moment, they're taking a wait-and-see attitude because of the changing tax laws," she says. "It's not clear what benefits are going to be taxable or how the IRS will interpret benefits programs."

Meanwhile one of the easiest issues for employers to address is "time," Aborn says, such as "personal" or "family" days -- rather than strictly "sick" days -- as well as flexible work hours, job sharing, permanent part-time, a compressed work week and work-at-home arrangements.

Three years ago management representatives of the Bureau of National Affairs Inc., and a committee of its employes in the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild investigated -- and later rejected -- on-site day care as one option. "I don't think management wanted to get into running something," says Jean Linehan, assistant to the president at BNA. "And a lot of people don't like to commute themselves, much less bring their little children. There seemed to be so many overwhelming issues," including soaring costs of downtown space and the inconvenience of a single day-care site for a company with several locations.

Instead, the study led to the formation of the Child Care Network and two new family-oriented benefits for BNA employes -- the options of using sick leave to care for sick children (13 days total annually) and of requesting individual flexitime for child-care problems.

"If you have supervisors trained to be understanding about work/family issues, the situation will be much improved and it doesn't have to cost the corporation a lot of money," says John Fernandez, division manager of personnel services at AT&T Communications headquarters and author of Child Care and Corporate Productivity, scheduled for publication in September (Lexington Books).

"People who have had supportive management are much less likely to have a high degree of stress, miss work, come in late and so on," he says.

More than half the 5,000 managers and nonmanagers in his study at five high-tech corporations in five states said they believed companies should provide flexible work hours, permanent part-time employment, job sharing and half-day vacations. And 65 percent of the employes -- parents and non-parents -- recognized that child care has an impact on productivity.

Another survey of 1,200 families in the Philadelphia area found that working parents with children under the age of 13 lose an average of eight days from work each year because of child-care troubles.

In the study conducted by Child Care Systems Inc. of Lansdale, Pa., 39 percent of the parents said they actually have considered leaving their jobs because of child-care difficulties, while 51 percent said they had changed child-care arrangements at least once during the preceeding year.

"Working parents are telling employers that they should explore the whole menu of child-care options," says Mary Martha Howe, executive director of the private resource and referral service funded by more than 40 companies and universities in the Philadelphia area.

Although most managers believe there is a fine line that a company should walk in response to work/family issues, the limits of that involvement have changed dramatically in the past decade. Now it is generally agreed that whenever an employe's productivity or performance is affected by personal problems, the company should step in.

But preliminary findings in Bank Street College's ongoing survey at a high-tech multinational company in the New York area also show that managers usually aren't aware of employes' everyday work/family stresses.

And even when they are, many managers are possibly more likely to know about specific problems of male rather than female employes and would be more responsive to a man's problem than a woman's. Why? They expect problems from a woman, whereas men are less likely to admit to problems, studies show.

The stresses facing working parents range from nagging everyday irritations to major emergencies. Having enough time at home is often the worst problem. Beyond that are arranging for children's after-school activities, scheduling doctor appointments and teacher conferences, commuting, relocating, job absorption, shifting mental gears between work and home, guilt and uncertainty -- especially among mothers about whether they should be working. It's easy to feel out of control.

Despite the emergence of the "new father," studies also show, women still do more child care and housework than men, so when a mother enters the labor force, 40 to 50 hours of extra work are added to the family system each week -- and much of it is hers. How working couples divide family responsibilities often becomes a power battle, only adding to the pressures.

"People tend to hold romantic notions of the family," says JoAnne Fischer, director of parenting at Booth Maternity Center in Philadelphia. "If they are asked their preference between job and family, they will say family. But it's the workplace that gets prime time.

"There's also a values conflict," she adds. "The way work is structured puts it in conflict with other values, such as nurturance. In this day where work is so important, we need to make the invisible -- the family -- visible."