Achieving work-family harmony

How managers, organizations and employees can minimize work-family conflict to create a positive, productive culture.

Mom works on laptop while kids play behind her.

By Danielle Tussing

Danielle Tussing
Danielle Tussing

When we think about managing the relationship between work and family, the phrase “work-family conflict” often comes to mind. Work-family conflict occurs when demands from your job negatively interfere with familial responsibilities, or conversely, when your home life creates challenges at work.

It is little surprise that long hours and stressful work demands have been shown to increase work-family conflict.

However, a growing body of research indicates that work and family roles can actually enrich one another. For example, the anticipation of family demands after the workday can foster greater focus while on the job, and viewing your work as something that benefits your family is associated with higher job performance. Having a family can even develop your leadership skills.

Given the potential for this positive interplay between work and family, what are some steps organizations, individuals and leaders can take to minimize work-family conflict and enhance work-family enrichment and harmony?

Demonstrate support from the top

Although support from your co-workers can certainly help to reduce work-family conflict and increase work-family enrichment, multiple studies show that supervisor support is an even bigger driver of effective work-family management.

Supervisors can demonstrate work-family support to their employees by listening to employees about their personal needs, asking for suggestions about how to structure work to facilitate balance for the entire team and helping employees when scheduling conflicts arise. Leaders can even show their support simply by being a positive role model for others in juggling work and non-work responsibilities—for example, by setting no-email hours in the evenings.

Supervisors can play another important role in helping employees achieve work-family harmony by communicating to employees about the organization’s family-friendly policies and ensuring employees are not penalized if they take advantage of organizational supports like extended parental leave or flextime.

Consider individual differences

It is important for leaders to recognize that people have different preferences for how they manage work and family.

As an example, individuals differ in how they think about the boundary between family and work, or work and life more generally. Some people, called segmenters, prefer to put up clear mental “fences” to divide work and family. In other words, segmenters prefer to keep work and family separate. These are the types of employees who typically like going to the office for a designated period of time, and when they leave, they want to be done with work. They prefer not to think about work when they’re home, so late-evening emails and phone calls are frustrating to them. They also don’t want family to interfere with work as much as possible.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are integrators. Integrators are more comfortable with blurring work and family. They don’t mind getting a non-emergency phone call from a family member while they’re working on something, and they are more comfortable opening up to their co-workers about their family life. Research shows that flextime and on-site child care are more appealing to these individuals than segmenters.

It is not “better” or “worse” to be an integrator or segmenter—rather, it simply shapes your working style and preferences.

Beyond individual preferences for work-life segmentation versus integration, other individual differences obviously impact work-family dynamics, including gender, family structure, child care and elder care responsibilities, and family support in general. Thus, although policies and practices can be implemented to help employees at large, a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be sufficient. Asking employees directly about their preferences and circumstances is a helpful starting point.

Recognize recent challenges and changes

The COVID-19 pandemic has created additional challenges related to work-family harmony. For employees who moved from in-person to remote work, the mental and physical boundaries between work and family became incredibly blurred. One of the largest challenges of working from home is non-work interruptions, which research indicates disproportionately impacts women and results in emotional exhaustion. On the flip side, work-related interruptions increase work-family conflict.

For employees continuing to work remotely, some segmenting practices have been shown to improve a sense of balance, especially having a designated office space if possible. It is also ideal to minimize multi-tasking across the home and work domain to enhance productivity and minimize a sense of depletion.

Think about the big picture

Last, it may be difficult to achieve work-family harmony in a given moment. With the constantly fluctuating nature of work and family demands, consider thinking about work-family balance over a longer time horizon. Most people will experience work-family conflict at some point—just remember that this conflict will likely be temporary, and you can make changes to help overcome it.

Danielle Tussing, PhD, is an assistant professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management and a faculty researcher with the school’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness. Her research focuses on the interplay of motivation and social factors, including leadership, interpersonal relationships and work-life boundary management.

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