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Volume 2
2007

Balancing Work and Family Life

  • Ellen Kossek
  • School of Labor and Industrial Relations
  • College of Social Science
Balancing Work and Family Life Story Image
MSU employee Carla Hills balances work and family commitments.
Photo of Ellen Kossek

The nature and definition of employment and the workplace have changed dramatically over the past few years, following decades of major social and technological changes. Employers have tried to accommodate the shifting priorities in their workers' personal and professional lives with a host of "family friendly" policies and programs— flextime, telecommuting, job-sharing, and onsite child care, to name a few.

Despite these accommodations, reports of job-related stress continue to climb. Are the flex programs helping? How can we make them more effective? For two decades Ellen Kossek of MSU's School of Labor and Industrial Relations has been interested in these types of questions. Her ability to recognize and articulate key issues regarding the work-family interface has earned her an international reputation as a pioneer in the field.

Dr. Kossek cautions against making broad generalizations about work-life issues. "Don't view flexibility policies and programs as a panacea, because they're not," she said. "The type of policy enacted, the degree of individual autonomy within the corporate culture, and how people manage their boundaries between work and home all matter."

Dr. Kossek's ability to recognize and articulate key issues regarding the work-family interface has earned her an international reputation as a pioneer in the field.

Kossek believes that "job autonomy—personal control over where, when, and how you work—may be the single most critical factor in employee well-being." For example, she said, "a professional consultant and a telemarketer might both 'telework' from home. But the outcomes will be different, in part because the telemarketer's job is more tightly controlled."

There may also be a gap between a company's official flextime policies and its practices. "Managers may think these programs make their own job more difficult. Or they're afraid that workers will come to view flextime as an entitlement," said Kossek. In other cases, access to flexibility programs may be differentially applied if supervisors only grant flexibility access to their top performers. Such corporate mixed messages may be "understandable, but they leave the employee wondering whether it's OK to ask for the flextime or not."

Not all work-family integration stress goes in the same direction. "When life on the home front becomes stressful, some people use their jobs as an escape hatch," said Kossek. "We haven't done enough research on how people differ in their preferences for managing work and family boundaries. Some people are segmenters, wanting to keep their work and family time completely separate. Others are integrators. They're happy to check their E-mail while the cookies are baking."

Dr. Kossek's latest research effort is a partnership with Dr. Leslie Hammer, Department of Psychology, Portland State University (wfsupport.psy.pdx.edu): "We want to examine supervisor behavior, that is, managerial support for work and family as it's actually practiced. We also want to start making an explicit link from work and family role conflicts to the health and safety of workers." The $1.4 million project is co-funded by several agencies, including The National Institutes of Health, as part of a national interdisciplinary network on work and family (kpchr.org/workplacenetwork).