Flexibility, authority hamper work-life balance: Survey

One-half of workers say work interferes with personal life
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/03/2010

The perks associated with higher status jobs can actually make it harder for people to achieve good work-life balance, according to a University of Toronto study.

The study identified certain work-related resources and demands that are associated with an increased likelihood of work interfering with home and social activities.

Resources such as higher levels of job authority, skill, decision-making latitude and earnings, as well as demands such as interpersonal conflict, a noxious work environment, job insecurity, boring work, pressure and long hours are all associated with higher levels of interference.

Professionals tend to have higher levels of all the resources and some of the demands, which explains why professionals reported more interference than all other occupation groups, said Scott Schieman, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and co-author of the study.

These findings were surprising because job-related resources should help people attain work-life balance more easily, said Schieman.

“As resources, they should, by definition, usually lead to lower levels of stress and here’s an instance where they’re actually related to more. We think it’s partly because they’re blurring the borders between work and family,” he said.

Schieman called this effect the “stress of higher status.” The way people think about and perceive resources needs to change to reflect this stress, he said.

“These are work-related conditions that may have some aspects of demand elements that aren’t typically seen,” he said.

“When Work Interferes with Life: Work-Home Interference and the Influence of Work-Related Demands and Resources,” published in the American Sociological Review, analyzed data from a 2005 Work, Stress and Health government survey of 1,800 adults in the United States.

Nearly one-half (49 per cent) of respondents reported their job interferes with their home or family life at least sometimes, while 47 per cent reported work sometimes or frequently interferes with their social or leisure activities.

Among people working longer hours, having control over the time and pace of work, surprisingly, increased work-home interference, said Schieman.

“People that have that kind of flexibility are basically thinking they’re taking advantage of it by bringing work home,” he said.

The perks of higher professional positions, such as flexibility, also bring with them an increased workload, said Estelle Morrison, director of health management at Ceridian in Markham, Ont.

“It’s even more important to establish some boundaries which, the higher up the ranks you go, you tend to have less of,” she said. “Front-line workers have set hours and, as a result, they may actually enjoy more work-life balance because they are more structured.”

People need to create boundaries, even if they’re arbitrary, to give themselves more control over that interference. This could include a rule they’ll only check work email between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. or set aside weekends as “work-free zones,” said Morrison.

“Having some sense of structure and limitation is important,” she said.

Organizations can help by setting clear expectations around technology, such as response time for email and voice-mail, said Morrison.

The study illustrates the larger issue of work interfering with work or family time, whether people are staying at work later or bringing work home, said Morrison.

“There is a significant mental and physical health impact of that interference into people’s home lives,” she said.

This includes increased stress, caregiver strain and absenteeism, she said. Employees will also begin to regard their work and employer in a more negative way. This ultimately affects engagement and productivity, said Morrison.

Employers need to consider these effects very carefully, especially during a recession when layoffs have resulted in the remaining workers having to do more work, she said.

“All of us need to determine if increased workloads are getting what we want from people,” she said.

The study also found 68 per cent of respondents said they sometimes or frequently think about work when not working.

“It’s difficult for us to shut down,” said Morrison.

Thinking about work at home can have the same negative impact as actually doing work at home, perhaps even more so because there’s not the same kind of resolution, she said.

However, there’s an element that could be positive, said Schieman. People might be doing some creative problem solving, not necessarily thinking negative thoughts, he said.

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