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That Delicate Work-Family Balance, and How to Have it All

Practical advice for how to reduce stress at home and on the job

Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, took one giant leap backward for woman-kind, if not man-kind when she announced the family-unfriendly policy that “Yahoo’s” (as employees are called) could no longer work from home. This wasn’t Mayer’s first foray into the Mommy/Daddy wars. Soon after giving birth to her son, she returned to the Yahoo helm, installing a nursery (at her own expense) in her office. Not remarkably, she later announced that the baby’s been “way easier than everyone made it out to be.” No irony here. She didn’t work from home, she just moved part of her home to her office. As Maureen Dowd noted: “The fear that this might set an impossible standard for other women — especially women who had consigned “having it all” to unicorn status — reverberated. Even the German family minister, Kristina Schröder, chimed in: ‘I regard it with major concern when prominent women give the public impression that maternity leave is something that is not important.’

The truth is that Marissa Mayer got it wrong about flexible schedules. When companies create family-friendly environments, their employees work harder, feel better about the company, and feel better about their lives. Research on male and female employees shows clearly that there are major impacts on a number of outcome variables related to productivity, life satisfaction, and satisfaction with their roles at home and at work.

Theorists and researchers studying the work-family balance have evolved their thinking over the past 20 years. The original models of work-family balance emphasized role conflict. According to the role scarcity perspective, because people have a fixed amount of time and energy to spend on their work roles, adding to one meant that you took away from the other. In defense of this model, it is true that when work–family conflict does occur, it takes its toll on the individual’s physical and mental health, causing emotional strain, fatigue, perception of overload, and stress. The people most likely to experience this type of conflict are – you guessed it- mothers of young children, dual-career couples, those who are highly involved with their jobs, and workers in the private (vs. the public) sector. Sounds like some of Mayer’s employees are at risk for role conflict unless she’s willing to share her nursery with her Yahoos.

Not everyone is vulnerable to work-family conflict, however. People who generally take an optimistic view toward life, or show “positive affectivity,” are less likely to feel the strain. Even so, the role scarcity perspective is being re-examined as more evidence accumulates to support what researchers call the role enrichment model.

In role enrichment, your “experiences in one role improves the quality of life in the other role” (Greenhaus & Powell, 2006 p. 73). You may have limited time and energy, but the skills, feelings, and values you develop in one sphere help you perform better in the other.

Role enrichment occurs because we can transfer our skills from one sphere to the other. According to Greenhaus and Powell, we have these 5 types of resources that allow us to enrich our performance of work and family roles:

  1. Skills and perspectives: Our Interpersonal skills, coping skills, and respect for individual differences
  2. Psychological and physical resources: Our feelings of self-confidence, hardiness, and optimism
  3. Social capital resources: The networking, information we gain from our interactions with other people
  4. Flexibility: Our ability to juggle competing demands for our time
  5. Material resources: Our salary, savings, and the gifts that we share with others

In addition to these resources, we can also experience spillover from work to family and vice versa. Although similar to the concept of enrichment, spillover refers to the feelings we have about work and family. The emotional boost we get from our loved ones can help us feel better about the work that we do.

With this background, let’s take a look at the research. In a meta-analysis testing the work-family enrichment model, SUNY Brockport psychologist Laurel McNall and colleagues (2010) investigated the two ways in which work and family can enrich each other: from work to family (WFE) and family to work (FWE) on the criterion variables of job satisfaction, affective commitment (emotional attachment to the organization), turnover intentions, family satisfaction, life satisfaction, and physical/mental health.. They evaluated a total of 46 studies (encompassing 111 correlations). The conclusion? Both WFE and FWE are positively associated with the work-related outcomes of job satisfaction and affective commitment. WFE had a positive influence on the non-work related outcomes of family and life satisfaction. FWE had a positive relationship with family satisfaction. Both forms of enrichment were related to physical and mental health. The findings also showed stronger effects for women than men, reflecting the fact that women are more likely to deal with integrating their two sets of roles.

Work-family enrichment is most likely to occur when organizations provide that family-friendly environment such as providing their workers with support and schedule control. As we’ve just seen, work and family can enrich each other. When they do, not only are the employees happier and healthier, but the organization benefits as well. Managers who provide support to employees through such measures as accommodative work schedules, have employees who actually become more productive and are less likely to leave the organization, according to a recent study by Gettysburg College psychologist Heather Odle-Dusseau and colleagues (2012). The workgroup plays an important role as well. Bhave and colleagues (2010) reported less strain among workers who their support their efforts to navigate work-family balance issues. And finally (listen up, Ms. Mayer), supervisors who themselves experience work-to-family enrichment promote similar outcomes in their subordinates, according to Odle-Dusseau and colleagues.

Telecommuting also has its benefits, as shown by University of Texas Austin sociology professor Jennifer Glass in a New York Times op-ed. Those infamous water cooler conversations that supposedly prompt innovations also prompt much discussion of the previous night's American Idol. The image of the 20-somethings excitedly sharing their latest creative ideas is one that doesn't necessarily fit the realities of the majority of workers and companies. Restricting employees from telecommuting, at least in jobs that are amenable to off-site work, can make them less, rather than more, productive.

The upshot is that you don’t have to give up your work life for your family life, or your family life for your work. There may be tough times when things go badly. Babysitters become unavailable, children get sick, school beckons you to parent-teacher meetings, work deadlines get shortened, you need to put in extra hours, etc. etc. However, when you can draw on the resources in both areas of your life, shore up your coping strategies and- most importantly- be lucky enough to have understanding colleagues and supervisors, you can enjoy a fulfilling and enriching life in both spheres.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013


Bhave, D. P., A. Kramer, et al. (2010). "Work-family conflict in work groups: Social information processing, support, and demographic dissimilarity." Journal of Applied Psychology 95(1): 145-158.

Greenhaus, J. H. and G. N. Powell (2006). "When work and family are allies: A theory of work-family enrichment." Academy of Management Review 31(1): 72-92.

McNall, L. A., Nicklin, J. M., & Masuda, A. D. (2010). A meta-analytic review of the consequences associated with work–family enrichment. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25(3), 381-396. doi: 10.1007/s10869-009-9141-1

Odle-Dusseau, H. N., T. W. Britt, et al. (2012). "Organizational work–family resources as predictors of job performance and attitudes: The process of work–family conflict and enrichment." Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 17(1): 28-40

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