Work-life balance has been a topic of discussion for many people and companies during the last few years, and that's a good thing.
The more we talk about balance and make sure it's part of the conversation in the workplace, the more likely we are to see positive changes.
However, as useful as sharing anecdotes is, I've found that quoting scientific research is even better when you're pushing for alterations to the status quo. As such, I've been happy to see a bunch of work-life balance studies hit my inbox during the last few weeks.
One came to me by way of a press release about a new study titled "Changing Work and Work-Family Conflict: Evidence from the Work, Family, and Health Network." This study was completed by University of Minnesota sociologists Erin L. Kelly, Phyllis Moen, Wen Fan and other U.S. collaborators.
"Work-family conflict is increasingly common among U.S. workers, with about 70 percent reporting struggles balancing work and non-work obligations," the press release said, adding that the study "shows that workplaces can change to increase flexibility, provide more support from supervisors and reduce work-family conflict."
The study, which has been published online by the American Sociological Review and should appear in the June print edition of the journal, was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In it, the researchers used a sample of about 700 workers from the information technology department of a large corporation. They gave half of that group more control over when and where they worked, "as well as increased supervisor support for their personal lives and family," the release said. "The other group worked under normal conditions."
One thing I liked about this study right off the bat was the inclusion of supervisor support as a variable. While telling people they can have more control over their schedules is great, they'll be hesitant to follow through if they don't think their supervisors are part of the program.
The results of the study were pretty much what I thought — and hoped — they would be.
"The researchers found that employees whose work environments were modified experienced significant improvements over the six-month study period," the press release said. "Not only did they have a decrease in work-family conflict, but they also experienced an improvement in perceived time adequacy (a feeling that they had enough time to be with their families) and in their sense of schedule control."
I already have a fair amount of work-life flexibility, but I still feel like my schedule is often out of my control. As we enter the last few weeks of the school year, it seems to get crazier with each passing day.
For example, this week will include two softball games, a band concert and many other evening activities, in addition to the regular school events, like field trips, that I can't attend due to my work schedule. I'm sure that by Friday night I'll be desperate for a chance to catch my breath.
But I digress.
The researchers said in the press release that, according to the study, the modified work environment they created brought greater benefits to people who were more vulnerable to work-family conflict, such as parents and workers whose supervisors had been less supportive prior to the new initiative: "There was no evidence that this intervention increased work hours or perceived job demands," the press release said.
That's important. As I've written before, it's vital that employees who are allowed to seek more balanced schedules be expected to maintain their productivity. And, in fact, some of the people who work for me seem to be even more productive on their work-from-home days than they are in the office.
However, I wouldn't expect them to work more hours in exchange for toiling away from Cubeville. That would defeat the purpose of allowing a flexible schedule in the first place.
And according to the study, the positive effects of better balance go beyond schedule control and time adequacy to physical health.
“Work-family conflict can wreak havoc with employees’ family lives and also affect their health,” Rosalind King of the Population Dynamics Branch at the National Institutes of Health said in the press release.
“The researchers have shown that by restructuring work practice to focus on results achieved and providing supervisors with an instructional program to improve their sensitivity to employees’ after-work demands, they can reduce that stress and improve employees’ family time.”
I couldn't agree more, and I'm glad to see research that supports what has always felt true to me.
I'll share other studies in the weeks and months to come. But for now, I'm interested to hear your reactions to this research. Do you believe a corporate program to reduce work-family conflict would help you build a more balanced life? How important would supervisor training and support be to the success of such a program? Do you think these initiatives are likely to grow more common in the years to come?
Leave a comment online or send me an email with your ideas, and I'll use some of them when I revisit this issue in a future column.