Is the Work-Life Divide Overrated?

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Last August, headlines about Amazon’s grueling demands on employees and punitive response to anyone seeking time off to care for themselves, a child or aging parent brought increased attention to the work-life divide issue. Indeed, Amazon’s workplace culture, which runs against the workplace culture of most high-tech companies, revealed that despite the growing focus on work-life balance in many workplaces, not all workplaces are willing to embrace this new approach to work and may be benefiting from their decision to ignore the trend. Now, just a year later, David Burkus, the author of Under New Management, has posed the question few other people have dared to ask: Is the work-life divide overrated?

The Negative Impact of Striving for a Work-Life Divide

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Burkus observes, “Many executives and employees strive for (and struggle with) work-life balance.” Specifically, he notes,“To try to control that stress, many of us try to impose better boundaries on our selves and our time: we set up strict rules about when we will and won’t check work email, where we do and don’t bring our mobile phones, and how often we can and can’t bring work home with us.” While many of us swear by this formula, Burkus notes,“New research suggests that maintaining strict distinctions between work roles and home roles might actually be what is causing our feelings of stress to set in. Instead of leaving work at the office and home at the door, integrating both might be a better strategy for enhancements in well-being and performance.” Okay, so what is the problem?

First, when home-related thoughts seep into one’s mind at work, one experiences a “cognitive transition.” The same happens when work thoughts invade one’s home life. According to Burkus, we’re wasting time pushing these inappropriate or misplaced thoughts out of our mind, and this may be making us less productive:

Because these cognitive transitions require effort, most previous advice on managing them has suggested minimizing them through disciplined boundaries. Researchers from Ball State University and Saint Louis University have now found the opposite might be true — that blurring the boundaries and integrating work and life might better equip us to handle cognitive transitions while limiting the drain on our cognitive resources.

But should we simply abandon the work-life divide?

Examining the Data

momThe Ball State University and Saint Louis University involved 600 employees and focused on participants’ “reports of incidents where they had thoughts that were either related or unrelated to work tasks.” The results of the study suggest that people “with looser boundaries between home and work did experience more cognitive role transitions, but that they were also less depleted by them.” The study also reports: “people tried to keep work and home life separate, their cognitive role transitions were more likely to take more effort and thus hurt their performance.”  This led the researchers to conclude:

In the long-run, it may be better to allow employees’ minds to wander and take occasional phone calls from home rather than set up policies that establish strict and inflexible boundaries, which could discourage the development of functional ways to juggle both.

Potential Solutions: More Flex Time and Remote Work

Notably, along with the study’s findings that maintaining a strict work-life divide may not be the answer, the study suggests that workers may benefit from “flexible work arrangements such as flex time or allowing employees to work from home.” In short, the study suggests that a heightened blurring of boundaries (workers balancing babies and laptops simultaneously or Skyping into meetings remotely from home) may be a more viable solution and increase productivity more notably than the current effort to keep work at work and home at home.  While this may run against some thinking on the best way to juggle work and life demands, it is important to bear in mind that while many workers are able to block out their work (especially if they are experiencing a lack of satisfaction in the workplace), most parents have a harder time turning off their family concerns. Indeed, this is something that the work-life divide theory has often missed–most people’s attitudes towards work and life were never equal to begin and as a result, they have always required different strategies to manage.

August 10, 2016   Updated :November 16, 2016   flex time, Wellness, work-life, worklife balance   

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