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I am a M.A. in industrial/organizational psychology. Most of my experience has been in human resources and change management. My passion lies in employee assessment, organizational development and employee opinions. Website: www.IanMondrow.com LinkedIn Profile: http://linkd.in/drBYoC

Monday, April 18, 2011

Seeking Work-Life Balance: Employees' Requests, Supervisors' Responses and Organizational Barriers

Summary and Commentary by: Ian B. Mondrow, M.A.

Work-life balance has become a sensitive topic for many employees. Daily needs, such as child care and elder care, require a significant amount of time and technology (such as blackberries and e-mail) have made it difficult to "leave work at work. Previous research on this topic has focused on the consequences of work-family conflict and the benefits of successfully managing the two. The balance is also important to employers as successful work-life balance is positively correlated with job satisfaction, life satisfaction, productivity, and attendance. Lauzun, Morganson, Major and Green (2010) set out to examine work-life balance in the context of company policies and organizational support.

425 supervisors [from a Fortune 500 company producing consumer goods] were asked to respond to 5 questions for each employee supervised. A total of 1,150 requests were reported. Figure 1 elaborates on the type of employees evaluated. Supervisors were ask the following questions when an employee made a request for work-life balance:

  1. Please provide the specifics of each employee's request.
  2. Did you accommodate the request?
  3. If you answered YES, how did you accommodate the employee's request?
  4. If you answered NO, why did you not accommodate the request? (Lauzun et. al., 2010)
The results were analyzed using a deductive open-coding approach and a codebook was developed to identify reoccurring trends. Two coauthors examined the data with the codebook and a high level of interrater reliability was established. 

In total, 1,150 work-life requests were received from employees. 752 of these requests were accommodated and 326 provided reasons for not approving the requested. 72 responses did not include data from the supervisor or the researcher could not properly code the data. The most frequent type of request for schedule changes or time to be off-site (n = 523). There was a high demand for work schedule flexibility (n = 265). Some employees even asked for the possibility to telecommute (n = 46). 

The second most common type of request focused on an employee's daily workload (n = 33). Many individuals felt that a collection of their meetings were not a valuable use of time. Previous research has found that meeting frequency is linked to daily fatigue and subjective workload (Luong & Rogelerg, 2005 as cited in Lauzun et. al., 2010). There were also requests to improve operating procedures.

The third most reoccurring requests were for resources to better assist the work-life balance (n = 230). This could include technology or additional staffing needs. 

A collection of employees requested social support and emotional support that did not fit into the other themes (n = 64), such as emotional support, compensation or on-site amenities. 

Figure two demonstrates the frequencies for the amount of requests and their themes. 

When responding to the requests, 58% of supervisors accommodated employees that expressed interest in schedule changes (n = 523) or accommodations (n = 301). 81% of requests for work resources were also approved, with 230 requests for resources and 186 accommodations. Solutions included coaching, training, increased/reallocation of staff and additional tools/equipment. 333 requests were made to change one's daily work but only 46% (n = 146) were approved. For an overview of results, please refer to Figure 3.

When examining requests for emotional and instrumental support, 119 accommodations were made when there were only 64 requests. Several reasons were identified for this difference: (1) supervisor communicated with employees when work/life balance requests were made and (2) supervisors provided support when they were unable to satisfy requests in an instrumental matter. 

Further analysis of the data revealed several barriers that overpowered a supervisors ability to grant requests. A total of 326 were identified and sorted into 6 categories: authority, seeking resolution, policy/culture, insufficient resources, job requirements, and multiple involvement. 109 requests were denied because the supervisor lacked the authority to authorize the request. It was also found that 40 requests were not approved because the appropriate staffing or funding was not available (Resources). Several requests were denied because of organizational policy or norms (n = 18) and and others were denied because the job requirements (n = 18) forbid such a requests. Supervisors were unable to approve all the requests and some needed the involvement of other parties (n = 18). Although many requests were denied, there were 91 instances where a supervisor continued to pursue the request for his/her employee. Pleasure refer to Figure 4 for a visual layout of the results.

This study produced several findings. Flexibility in work time and location seems to be the greatest in demand for work-life balance. Telecommuting can also benefit employers as it can reduce building and maintenance costs. It was also found that adjusting work responsibilities and providing additional resources could assist in work-life balance.

A variety of limitations exist in this study. First and foremost, the study was based upon self-report data and therefore the data is vulnerable to recall bias. Additionally, subordinates may be hesitant to make requests to their supervisor in fear of negative consequences. Another vital limitation is that the study focused on one organization and therefore cannot be applied to the population.

As one of the few qualitative studies to examine work-life balance, this study produces some interesting findings. However, it also suggests valuable information for human resources. One key point is that human resources professionals should empower managers to control the schedules of their employees. There should be no need for managers to obtain input from others or to seek alternative resolutions. This can discourage employees from making future requests and create anxiety as they wait to hear if their request is approved. Supervisors should have a general understanding of the needs of their departments and thus have no need to check with others. If this were my company, I would likely investigate why input is needed from others. It is possible that this manager needs assistance in managing resources.

Flex-time was identified as one of the most common requests among employees. Given today's technology and globalization, it is sometimes in a company's best interest to allow employees to telecommute. As mentioned by the researchers, it can reduce costs of upkeep and properties. It also makes it easier to find the most suitable candidates for open positions, as a company does not need to limit their search to local candidates. There are incidents when telecommuting is not possible or it does not align with the company culture. A company must weigh the benefits and draw-backs to determine if telecommuting is compatible with the organization's needs.

It is reassuring to see that managers are likely to provide emotional support when requests are not approved. However, managers should always be emotionally supportive of their team. Support fosters trust, and an employee that trusts his/her manager is more likely to be committed to the job. Managers do not need to be best friends with their employees but they should be able to talk to employees when they notice unusual behavior. For instance, after taking a call, my co-worker becomes immediately withdrawn. After noticing this, my managers takes her to the parking lot to talk. She later hands her the keys and says,"if you need to go home, I will understand". That is support and it strengthened the relationship between my coworker and my manager. Heck! It made me view my manager in a whole different light!

Source: Lauzun, H.M., Morganson, V.J., Major, D.A., & Green, A.P. (2010). Seeking work-life balance: Employees' requests, supervisors' responses, and organizational barriers. The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 13 (3), 184-205.

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