Bottom Line: Working spouses are more likely to emotionally support each other when they work for companies that offer flexibility in balancing home and professional life. This support has important implications for company productivity and turnover.
Happy spouse, happy boss? As dual-career families have become more commonplace and the number of men and women in the workforce has roughly evened out, the lines between work and family have continued to blur. The proliferation of smartphones and social media platforms only adds to the perception that people can remain connected to the home and office around the clock — for better or for worse.
This works both ways, of course. Sometimes an employee has to jump on a conference call during vacation, and other times a worker gets to leave the office early to watch his or her kids’ soccer practice. Regardless, the implementation of flexible work-life boundaries is usually assumed to come down to the informal discretion of supervisors. Researchers have generally encouraged managers to emphasize the importance of leaving work stress behind at the office, and to grant more freedom to their employees to balance their multiple demands.
But what does the worker’s spouse typically think of all this? A new study from researchers at Utah State, Baylor, and Texas State Universities breaks ground by examining the work–life issue not from the viewpoint of companies or supervisors, but through the lens of employees and their husbands or wives. And in a signal of just how critical the work–life balancing act has become in recent years, flexibility at work has an important impact on the home front, as well.
The authors surveyed more than 500 randomly selected pairs of spouses, both of whom worked at least 30 hours a week. The sample had a wide range: Some employees made less than US$25,000 annually whereas others took in more than $150,000, and they worked in a variety of industries, including construction, education, finance, healthcare, manufacturing, and real estate.
Combining several streams of research on family dynamics, management, and psychology, the authors administered a survey that queried participants on how much support they received from their direct supervisors and the organization as a whole; the flexibility they were afforded to juggle work and home life; how well their family functioned and cooperated to solve problems; and the extent to which they felt a sense of belonging and fulfillment at their company. The participants were also surveyed about how well they thought their spouse balanced work and family demands; the level of satisfaction they felt in their marriage; and their commitment to their partner’s current firm and future career with the company.
From the company perspective, the authors found compelling evidence that supervisors indeed play an instrumental role in determining the level of support employees feel in managing their dual responsibilities, as do company-wide policies that encourage employees to compartmentalize their family and work obligations.
They also found that positivity circles back to the company — not only does the quality of employees’ overall family life improve with more supervisory and organizational support, but their spouses also hold decidedly more favorable opinions about their company and future prospects at the firm. Put simply, spouses value firms that help their better half manage work–life boundaries and, in turn, will encourage their husband or wife to stay and grow at such companies.
Spouses value firms that help their better half manage work–life boundaries.
Higher levels of workplace support also make spouses feel more upbeat about their marriage, in part because employees with flexible schedules and work commitments also find it easier to improve their family’s basic functioning — whether it’s being on time for dinner or spending more one-on-one time with the kids. Why should companies care about their employees’ wedded bliss? Recent research has shown that satisfaction in the family domain spills over to work, and having happy employees is rarely a bad thing. For one thing, it cuts down on turnover and training costs. Conversely, employees enduring marital distress are less likely to carry out their basic work tasks, which harms company productivity.
“Organizations have a vested interest in ensuring employee satisfaction and well-being not only at work but at home as well,” the authors write. “Taken a step further, or in particularly dissatisfying situations, the spouse may even pressure the incumbent to move to an organization that is more supportive or conducive to a happy home life.”
To make sure that employees are aware of the flexibility available to them, supervisors should stress their support for separating family and work — and not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. If employees are getting unnecessary phone calls at midnight from their boss, they’ll behave the same way toward their colleagues.
Managers should also keep employees up-to-date on HR policies such as flextime, and ensure that the onboarding process sets clear expectations surrounding work–life balance. If not communicated properly, even a good-hearted gesture such as providing onsite child care could unwittingly send the wrong signal by communicating to employees that their work and life realms have to be integrated, not separated.
Source: “Flexing Work Boundaries: The Spillover and Crossover of Workplace Support,” by Merideth Ferguson (Utah State University), Dawn Carlson (Baylor University), and K. Michele Kacmar (Texas State University), Personnel Psychology, Autumn 2