EHS Management

Reducing Work/Family Conflict: Two Key Components

Are high levels of work/family conflict costing you money? Studies have shown that when workers’ family lives butt heads with their work lives, their job performance, health behaviors, safety behaviors, and even their family members’ health can suffer. Companies that reduce work/family conflict see significant cost savings and health benefits among their workers.

But, what exactly can employers do to reduce work/family conflict? There are two key components to any successful program: schedule control and family-supportive supervisor behaviors.

Schedule Control

When workers have little control over their own schedules, their stress levels increase. Workers may be forced to choose between work and family activities, and they may carry stress home from their jobs (work-to-home spillover) or from family to work (home-to-work spillover). The upshot is that schedule conflicts between work and family life could be affecting your workers’ attendance, attention, productivity, health, and safety.

One strategy for reducing the level of conflict is “schedule control” (sometimes called “flexibility” or “flexible work arrangements,” although these terms can also refer to other scheduling methods that reduce worker control over their schedules). Schedule control is generally defined as the employee’s sense of how much control he or she has over these factors:

  • The timing of their work. What hours do employees work? Do they have to commute during rush hour? Are they required to work rotating or nonstandard shifts?
  • The number of hours they work. The number of hours that will cause an employee to stress may vary seasonally or temporarily—for example, during a family member’s health crisis, a worker may find his or her accustomed schedule stressful.
  • The location where they work. Work location affects both commuting time and total time away from home.

The most common system for increasing workers’ schedule control is the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). Workers in a ROWE are generally assigned to work in teams, and the teams are given specific goals (results) that must be achieved—in other words, the work that has to get done. Team members are allowed latitude in scheduling within the team—they can arrange their own schedules as long as the work gets done—without consulting a manager.

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ROWE systems have been successfully implemented even in work environments with strict scheduling and coverage requirements like skilled nursing care facilities. The system requires specific training to implement; time spent training workers how to manage their own schedules is the greatest cost driver for programs of this type.

Family-Supportive Supervisor Behavior

If workers are going to set their own schedules—having the freedom to work from home anytime, take time off as needed, swap shifts with another worker without consulting a manager, or skip meetings—then supervisors must change the way they do their jobs as well.

When an employer seeking to reduce work/family conflict puts a program in place, supervisors need to understand the purpose of the program and how to implement it. If the purpose is to support work/life balance and reduce work/family conflict with the desired result of improving morale, decreasing turnover, and enhancing worker safety and health, then supervisors need to tailor their management style to specifically encourage the desired end.

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Supervisors can learn to do this through training in “family-supportive supervisor behaviors.” Supervisors must understand the value of demonstrating support for employees’ personal lives—and how to do it, through strategies that include:

  • Emotional support. Are supervisors aware of workers’ family commitments? Do workers feel comfortable discussing family commitments with their supervisors? It is important for supervisors to be aware of and be sympathetic to workers’ family needs.
  • Instrumental support. This is the day-to-day support that a supervisor provides in the form of managing work schedules and responding in concrete ways to meet workers’ family needs while still ensuring that the work gets done.
  • Role modeling behaviors. Workers will feel more confident in using appropriate strategies to manage their work and family commitments if they can see that those strategies are working for others, including their supervisors.

One study found that, even when it is informal—that is, not linked to formal programs like alternative work scheduling policies or in-house childcare programs—supervisor support for work and family was beneficial to workers’ overall well-being. As with schedule control strategies, the time invested in training is the largest cost associated with implementing this component of a program.

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