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Achieving the delicate balance between work and home

By Joe Sherwood

As much as people might like a clear separation between their work lives and their home or family lives, research shows these two domains are intricately interwoven, and ignoring how one influences the other may create increased conflict between our work and non-work responsibilities. Balancing work and home is often difficult, but it is achievable. The key is to approach the task with a clear sense of what it is we are actually trying to balance and knowledge of what works to achieve this balance.

To address work-home balance, focus on reducing work-home conflict

What defines a healthy work-home balance can vary widely depending on the person. What one person might consider a balanced life could be viewed as way out of whack by another. This is why most research on work-home balance does not actually focus on balance. Rather, most researchers focus on the reduction of work-home conflict – the tension that arises when roles at work compete or conflict with roles at home. Researchers have identified three primary types of work-home conflict:

  • Time-based: when time pressures in one role restricts the amount of time that can be devoted to the other role. For example, when work schedules conflict with childcare schedules.
  • Strain-based: arises when strain or stress created in one role affects successful performance of role responsibilities in another. For example, when stress associated with caring for an aging parent interferes with a person’s ability to focus on work tasks.
  • Behavior-based: arises when patterns of behavior in one role are incompatible with behaviors in another. For example, working in a highly competitive, verbally aggressive work environment where behaviors that are considered acceptable on the job create problems when displayed in a home setting.

These three types of conflict tend to correlate with and influence one another. Efforts to achieve work life balance are more successful when they focus on these specific types of conflict instead of trying to achieve some vague ideal of “balance”.


What can organizations do to help people achieve work-home balance?

There are several things that organizations, managers, and individual employees can do to reduce the experience of work-home conflict and mitigate its negative outcomes including:

  • Create a family friendly culture: Research has shown that work-family conflict is significantly reduced in organizations with a family friendly culture. Family friendly work cultures include policies, procedures, and resources that support employees to fulfill their home-based responsibilities. Examples include comprehensive paid leave programs for sickness leave (both for the employee and their families) or parental leave, childcare options, flexible schedules and work arrangements. Note that it’s not enough to have family friendly policies on the books. Managers and employees must be aware of them, and never penalized for using them. Coworkers should also feel empowered to help one another out, and discuss home-related challenges openly at work.
  • Provide flexible work arrangements with boundaries: Research is bit split on the effect of flexible schedules and telecommuting on work-home conflict and outcomes. Providing flexibility for when and where work gets accomplished can significantly reduce conflict. But these options can also have the opposite effect if positioned outside a family friendly culture. This is likely because the technology that enables flexible work arrangements can also invite an “always on” culture, where employees are expected to continually remain engaged in work activities, edging out time normally spent with family or taking care of home-based responsibilities. The important point for organizations using flexible work arrangements to reduce work-home conflict is to ensure that boundaries are respected, and home responsibilities considered and supported.
  • Enable supportive supervision: Arguably one of the most important factors contributing to work-home balance is having a family supportive supervisor. This is because supervisors or managers are often seen as the gate-keepers to family-supportive organizational policies, both guiding employees to these resources and fostering the culture that allows employees to feel comfortable and empowered to use them. Research has shown that supervisors can support employee’s family lives by 1) providing emotional support (e.g., listening to and empathizing with home or family-related challenges), 2) providing instrumental support (e.g., pointing employees to organizational resources, rearranging schedules, etc.), 3) role modeling appropriate work-home balance (i.e., supervisors should take time to take care of home-based responsibilities, as well as be open about when they do it), and 4) actively managing and creatively addressing challenges that involve work-home integration. Because not every organization provides the same level of family-friendly resources, supervisors must be able to creatively use whatever resources they have at their disposal.

At SAP SuccessFactors, we believe in promoting healthy organizations, addressing the challenge of work-home integration head-on, and supporting employees at work and at home. To learn more about what employees and organizations can do to reduce work-home conflict, stress and create work environments that promote health, click here.