Editor’s note: RTP Beat is a regular feature on Thursdays.Newsflash: Employees are tired of 80-hour workweeks.

I know it’s a shocker, but yet another study is proving that more people are willing to forgo the Red Bull for the Diet Coke, and call it a day at 6 instead of 10.

According to a new survey of 3,200 U.S. workers conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Spherion, a recruitment, technology and outsourcing services provider, 86 percent of workers cited work fulfillment and work/life balance as their number one priority. Seventy-three percent said they were willing to curtail their careers to make time for family. On the other hand, only 35 percent of workers said being successful at work and moving up the ladder were their top priorities.

Although that might not come as a startling new revelation, the results are certainly contrary to the hard work ethic we witnessed during the dot-com era. What is surprising, however, is that the study shows that the workforce is becoming increasingly self-reliant and more apt to ditch their employers at the first opportunity. More than half the workers polled said they would like to leave their jobs…despite a sagging economy…and 46 percent of those workers indicated a desire to bail within the next six months. Which means once the economy picks up, corporations could be pummeled with turnover costs, which the study estimated at $50,000 per employee.

Fifty-four percent of survey respondents indicated a growing confidence in their ability to earn a stable income outside the conventional work structure, in alternative arrangements such as temporary, consulting and contract positions.

The shift in work attitudes can be attributed to a number of factors, such as Sept. 11, the recent war with Iraq, and the current economic downturn, which follows the dot-com bust, a time when countless employees worked around-the-clock only to see their efforts go to the wind.

Generational differences also play a role in the new emphasis on work/life balance, says Bill Johnson, founder of Leadership Innovation Associates, a management consulting firm in Chapel Hill. “Baby Boomers were raised to value work. Work is sort of their life, although as they get older that changes somewhat. But Generation X has always valued [having a work/life balance]. As more of them mature in the workforce, there’s going to be more and more of an emphasis and a desire to achieve a balance.”

How to foster loyalty?

“There’s a lot of pent-up dissatisfaction,” says Sue Weems, director of Venture Management, a strategic consulting firm in Raleigh. “People are working hard, without raises, and still being asked to increase productivity. As a result, people are seeing their capabilities stretched and they’re feeling very independent.”

The good news for employers is that there are ways to create loyalty among employees even during tough times, when they’re forced to exert more demands and pressures on workers. And fostering that loyalty now is absolutely critical to retaining quality employees later.

Employers have to recognize the people they want to keep, says Weems, and then they need to nurture and encourage them, whether it’s through training, mentoring or letting them know they care.

When times are tough, “The key is communication,” says Johnson. “Employers need to be clear with employees about why they’re doing what they’re doing, that there’s a business reason for doing it. Secondly, employers need to have a specific time or range of time when they believe this will be over. They also need to update employees on an ongoing basis about how they’re making progress and acknowledge the contribution of the employees.”

Companies need to let employees know that over time they really do encourage a work/life balance. For example, if an employee works three 80-hour weeks in a row to meet a deadline, offer the individual a full week off. And employers should ask employees how they can help them be more productive.

Nancy Piepho, founder of The Expedite Group, has made a business of helping companies provide a work/life balance, while increasing employee productivity and decreasing turnover. Since employees spend one to eight hours of company time per week on personal business, the Expedite Group acts as a personal assistant — of sorts — to its clients’ employees. For $3.50 to $10 per employee, per month, the 3-year-old firm offers a wide range of concierge services, including running errands, planning vacations, researching private schools and getting bids from service providers, such as plumbers, painters or auto mechanics.

“[We give companies] an easy way to say, ‘We recognize that you have a life and responsibilities outside of work and we want to help you do or delegate that, so you can focus on work,” says Piepho.