Drowning in deadlines, spending long hours at work without enough time for yourself, or struggling to find time to take care of a sick family member have become familiar scenes in the American office. In a survey of 1,411 working parents conducted by the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of mothers and 52 percent of fathers said they had difficulty balancing work and family responsibilities.
Solutions to this problem typically revolve around workplace policies such as flexible schedules, paid leave, or the option to work from home. Often overlooked is the role that managers’ day-to-day actions play in helping or hurting workers’ ability to thrive both at home and at work.
Research conducted by myself and other organizational scientists suggests that your boss’s behavior can actually go a long way in helping (or hurting) your work-life balance.
To better understand how supervisors can impact work-life balance, my research partners and I collected a set of “critical incidents” from a sample of 179 workers from a variety of industries and occupations. We asked workers to describe two of their supervisors’ actions—one that helped them balance their work and personal lives and another that negatively impacted their personal lives—and we noted the features of these incidents.
We combined these results with findings from other published studies to develop a set of manager decisions and actions that most commonly impact workers’ personal lives, beyond the scheduling issues that so frequently garner attention:
Emotional support and respect. Workers in our study reported that when they experienced distress or needed advice, their well-being at home was improved when their supervisors made themselves available to talk. Other research supports this finding on the value of supervisor emotional support for work-family balance. Although less common, in our study we found some people who said their leaders helped them directly with their life outside of work, such as by providing rides to family activities or financial assistance in times of need. By contrast, being berated, insulted, or otherwise unfairly treated by one’s supervisor is a source of anger, triggering rumination that can spill over into family life.
Being a role model. Research from multiple sources suggests that supervisors facilitate subordinate work-family balance when they themselves display a balanced lifestyle. On the other hand, a workaholic supervisor may signal that others are expected to act similarly.
Management of poor performers. In this research and in another study we conducted, we found that underperforming coworkers are a frequent source of anger and frustration, especially when this causes extra work for others. A failure of supervisors and organizations to deal with these situations exacerbates the problem. Poor-performing coworkers and the ensuing increase in others’ workload can trigger angry rumination that spills over into the home.
Assigning and helping with workload. Participants in our study often reported that that bosses improved their work-life balance by helping them complete their work. This might involve filling in for a shift, bringing someone else in to provide assistance, or offering to take on some of a subordinates’ tasks. Conversely, people in our study reported that excessive workload assigned by the supervisor was a common source of work-life imbalance, especially when it is unpredictable or poorly planned. This can cause workers to be tired at home and miss quality time with their families. Other more quantitative research has found similar results.
On the surface, none of these findings seem terribly complicated or surprising. And yet we find many instances of leadership that fail to help people balance work and family.
It is possible that some supervisors do not consider the effect of their actions on their subordinates’ personal lives. But often this failure stems from supervisors being under intense pressure themselves. Studies show that when supervisors receive unsupportive treatment from the organization, their subordinates find those supervisors to also be less supportive. Helping others at work also can contribute to fatigue, and when supervisors are overloaded they may understandably lack the time and energy to help.
Supervisors through their behavior play an important role in building a positive work-family culture, and yet they are also a reflection of it. For this reason, solutions to work-family balance fall not only on supervisors but on organizational leadership. Giving supervisors time, supportive treatment, knowledge about work-life balance, and adequate staffing to perform the group’s work can go a long way toward improving work-family culture and a more balanced life for all of us.
Michael Ford is an associate professor of management at the Culverhouse College of Commerce at the University of Alabama.