When the boundary between work and life gets blurred, employees can easily get frustrated and burned out. Often times, employees are encouraged to become smart “problem solvers,” coping with stress and imbalance on their own. However, individual coping is never sufficient even when it is effective. So, what are the jigsaw puzzle pieces organizations may contribute?
We can never emphasize enough the importance of a happy, committed, and productive workforce to employers’ business success. A balanced and healthy lifestyle feeds passion to employees and bolsters their morale. Without doubt, organizations should become frontier fighters for their employees to battle for the victory. Many employers have established facilities and initiatives to help employees reconcile the competing needs from the work and non-work domains. Working Mother Magazine used family-friendly benefits and flexible cultures as top criteria in its annual ranking of 100 best companies to work for. When job search engine Indeed.com identified its list of the 25 big companies with best work-life balance, it mentioned flexible work hours, telecommute options, nearby back-up childcare centers, and even luxuries such as gym memberships and on-site dry clean pick-ups and delivery services. These are indeed very nice perks, but not free of flaws.
First, it is never a one-size-fits-all solution. Employees have individual needs and preferences. Second, investments on those initiatives depend on the nods of the C-Suite. Decisions can be quite difficult during the recession, and cuts may persist even when things are getting better. Third, researchers have drawn inconsistent conclusions regarding the effectiveness of such supportive initiatives. When the cost-effectiveness of those initiatives is questionable, the next logical question to ask is: What about other potential solutions? Supervisors? Organizational culture? Others?
I surveyed 827 employees from small, medium, and large organizations across diverse industry sectors in the United States, and the results showed that supervisory support, fair decision making and a family-supportive organizational environment help reduce employees’ perceived work-life conflict and increase levels of trust, satisfaction, commitment, and empowerment in their relationships with their employers.
Transformational supervisors look at problems from many different perspectives, recognize employees’ personal concerns and needs, and seek alternatives other than routine solutions when facing challenging situations. They welcome opportunities to discuss non-work related problems, tend to be flexible when emergencies arise, and help their employees accommodate those competing responsibilities from different life arenas. Immediate supervisors, for instance, can support employees by providing tangible resources, advice for interpreting and evaluating problems, and emotional support such as understanding and empathy. Given such support, employees may still feel happy, committed, motivated, and engaged even when they are expected to do more with less.
Unfair decision making or assignment at the workplace was found as a key source of stress that spills over to employees’ personal life. Time pressure and too many job assignments constitute “job demand,” while “job control” refers to the extent to which employees can decide the way they use skills and knowledge to accomplish their tasks. When experiencing high job demands and/or low job control, employees tend to perceive high levels of work-life conflict. As a consequence, employees struggle to remain engaged, committed, motivated, energized, and empowered.
A family–supportive workplace environment is equally, if not more, critical. An organization with a family-supportive workplace environment acknowledges employees’ nonwork-related situations and promotes support, tolerance, and flexibility for those needs and obligations. When perceiving a nurturing and supportive organizational environment, employees intend to stay with their employers and maintain a high level of trust, satisfaction, commitment and empowerment.
A lot of people are skeptical about ever achieving a work-life balance. Balance is “an elusive ideal.” Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams tell us what executives are saying in their recently published Harvard Business Review article, “Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life.” Despite such pessimism, employees should never be discouraged from trying to improve the balance. To cultivate a competitive workforce with high motivation and job satisfaction, employers have to put in time and effort to help employees achieve a good or sensible balance, even if never perfect. Here are some research-based suggestions for organizations and internal communicators to start with:
- Understand employees’ demands and needs outside their work spectrum and train immediate supervisors to become helpful counselors on work and life issues.
- Be open-minded, understanding, and flexible. Promote time management skills, emotion management skills, and effective supervisor-subordinate communication skills.
- When making decisions, collect complete and accurate information, provide employees with opportunities to challenge the decisions, and take into consideration the concerns of all affected parties.
- Set fair and realistic expectations for employees.
- Promote a supportive organizational environment by encouraging face-to-face and social media engaging discussions on work and life issues. Foster diverse sources of support within organizations and institute them as part of organizational culture.
- Continue such efforts (e.g., childcare, flexibility, and personal level) whenever necessary and possible, especially for employees who benefit from such programs.
Hua Jiang, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of public relations at Syracuse University.