Seven out of ten American workers struggle to achieve an acceptable balance between work and family life, reports a new study published in American Sociological Review, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number has been climbing over time, to a point where employees — especially parents — feel stressed, overwhelmed, and maxed out. In “Changing Work and Work-Family Conflict: Evidence from the Work, Family, and Health Network,” researchers asked what can be changed in the workplace to address this growing health and productivity problem. They conducted a large-scale experiment in a Fortune 500 company and found that work-family conflicts don’t need to be solely employees’ individual, private troubles, but can be resolved systemically with a little management leadership.
Nearly 700 employees from an information technology department participated in the experiment. These were highly skilled, middle-aged workers with professional and technical degrees. They worked long hours, with over 25 percent logging more than 50 hours per week. Some worked remotely but reported pressure to be visible at the office to demonstrate work and team commitment. The research team randomly assigned these employees to two groups. Those in the “treatment” group were then given greater control over when and where they worked, and more supervisor support for their family and personal lives. The control group’s working conditions remained unchanged.
Over a six-month period, the people in the treatment group experienced a significant reduction in work-family conflict — that chronic sense of being pulled in two different directions. Crucially, employees who were more likely to be vulnerable to work-family conflicts (parents and people with less supportive supervisors initially) benefitted most from the intervention. Parents reported working one hour less per week than non-parents, but others did not have to increase their workloads to accommodate parents. People in the treatment group also reported that they felt they now had adequate time to spend with their families while managing their workloads. Overall, they felt more in-control and less overwhelmed.
For people working every day to balance complicated lives, this might not sound like news — but here’s why it is. This is the first study to offer evidence based on a randomized trial that workplace interventions, such as increased schedule control and supervisor support, can reduce employee work-life conflict. The randomized, experimental method allowed researchers to eliminate competing explanations for their findings — explanations, for example, like lower initial stress or the possibility that some workers quit to take less stressful jobs elsewhere. The study is also the first experiment to change the way people and supervisors work to benefit employees’ work-family balance. By altering factors in entire workplace groups or departments, the research shows that there is a way to move away from “Mother may I?” workplace flexibility — individual accommodations that a person negotiates with his or her boss — and toward systemic change in an organization that benefits all.
Numerous benefits of lowering work-life stress have been documented, in physical health and mental health (including reduced hypertension, better sleep, and lower consumption of alcohol and tobacco), as well as decreased marital tension and better parent-child relationships. So it’s surprising that two other new studies report weakened company commitment to employees working flexibly. While more than 8 in 10 employees in new survey from the Flex+Strategy Group cited negative impacts on worker loyalty, health, and performance when a company does not permit work-life flexibility, almost half of the respondents sensed ambivalence and declining commitment to it from their employers. Further, a Boston College study found that, while telecommuting and flexible hours are often negotiated between individual employees and their supervisors on an as-needed basis, companies have cut back on some critical work-life balance options like reduced hours, part-time work, job sharing, and paid family leave.
What employees sense about their managers’ and companies’ commitment to work-family-life balance reflects the organizational culture and its leadership. Returning to the American Sociological Review study, the people in the experimental group who were given more control over when and where they worked, almost doubled their average hours of work at home (from 10 to almost 20 per week). These technology workers had the tools to telecommute prior to the workplace experiment, but they either had not been given discretion to do so or had not felt comfortable doing so. The “permission” granted by the experiment freed workers to think about new ways of working, and many did so. The experiment also “unfroze” managers from old ways of doing things.
In the end, adjustments in management thinking about when and where work gets done, and about support for employees’ lives outside work, led to the work-life holy grail: design of system-wide flexibility (to relieve pressure for people who need it), without burdening those working conventionally, and without requiring individual workers to figure out alone how to balance everything.
Nanette Fondas, co-author of The Custom-Fit Workplace, writes about business, work, and family issues. Her articles have appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Psychology Today, Ms., HuffingtonPost, and scholarly journals. Follow her on Twitter @NanetteFondas.
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