Workers don’t leave problems at home

Work-life balance a two-way dance

What happens at the kitchen table also impacts the boardroom table, a new study shows.

Workers who bring family problems to the office have fewer opportunities for advancement and skill development, plus a bad rapport with their bosses, the McMaster University study found.

“These workers are coming into work with depleted resources, and therefore not being able to contribute as much,” said professor Rick Hackett, Canada research chair in organizational behaviour and human resource performance at the university’s DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton and one of the study’s authors. “Over time, the supervisor loses confidence that they’re capable employees.”

A “spiraling-down effect” starts when the employees takes issue with a lack of confidence from their boss and start to feel left out.

“They see the relationship in negative terms,” Hackett said.

The study A Test of the Links Between Family Interference with Work, Job Enrichment and Leader-Member Exchange, surveyed 381 Canadian government employees of all levels in 2005, from administrative staff to senior managers. It looked at the frequency of family interference with work, how it related to the quality of the leader–follower work relationship and the reported level of job enrichment.

“While there has been a particular interest in the adverse impact of work demands on home and family, we know less about the impact of home and family on work,” Hackett said.

The results didn’t surprise Alan Mirabelli, executive associate at the Vanier Institute of the Family, an Ottawa-based non-profit group that promotes well-being of families.

“It confirms things that have been known and explored,” he said. “You’re not just employing Mr. and Mrs. Smith, you’re employing that person and all their issues.”

There’s an old-school belief that employees just leave their issues at home, Mirabelli said. One big example of why that isn’t the case anymore is that 80 per cent of Canadian families with young children have both parents working. It isn’t like life in the 1950s when mom was at home taking care of the kids. That means there are constant child-care issues, worries about after-school care and sick leave. It creates a “nature of preoccupation,” he said, and the solution lies in both parties’ hands.

“Workers whose mental and physical resources are being especially consumed by home and family demands need to lessen these demands or find coping strategies,” Hackett said, adding humans often “try to be all things to all people at all times.

“At the same time, employers can assist their employees by providing family-friendly benefits, such as subsidized couple and family counseling, on-site child care and elder care.”

Work-life balance is a two-way dance: Employers must be cognizant of pressures outside the office, while employees must mitigate how their personal lives affect their jobs, said Nora Spinks, president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises in Toronto.

“Healthy employees are good for business,” she said. “Healthy individuals produce healthy organizations. It’s good for the bottom line.”

Individuals who make good personal choices (eat well, exercise, don’t do drugs), have strong social supports (family, friends, service providers) and communities (with elder care, child care, recreation) are able to reduce the impact of conflict, Spinks said.

In turn, workplaces with supportive immediate supervisors and co-workers, that provide a good culture of communication, opportunities and helpful programs create healthy employees.

“Being able to have a life outside of work doesn’t prevent you from having a fulfilling, challenging career,” Spinks said. “It’s not about trade-offs anymore.”

Study after study shows the first thing employees want is recognition that they have a life outside of work, Spinks said. Employees need flexibility and control, reasonable workloads, time off and leaders and managers with extraordinary communication.

“The organizations that continue to block people (such as those in the study)… will continue to pay the consequences,” Spinks said. Employees will leave out of boredom, lack of respect and opportunities. “If you’re going to hold back employees because of additional responsibilities or family obligations, you’re going to cut your talent pool and the likelihood of attracting people down the road.”

Mirabelli agreed.

“Employers are now faced with a labour supply issue as the boomers retire,” Mirabelli said. “The next generation is different. If employers are operating with a rear view mirror, they’re going to crash.”

Carly Foster is a freelance writer based in Ajax, Ont.

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