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Setting boundaries between work and life helps families thrive


With the flexibility to check e-mail at home, get the kids ready for school, call your boss on the way to work, and text message your next appointment, the nature of work has changed. However, contrary to popular opinion, people who integrate their work and families are not always happier, Michigan State University researchers say.

Instead, Ellen Kossek, an MSU professor of Labor and Industrial Relations, found that people who establish boundaries between work and family are actually more connected to their families than those who integrate their jobs and personal lives.

"We need to realize that it is OK to shut work out of our personal lives," said Kossek. "It’s counter intuitive, but spending more time specifically on work may actually help you spend more quality time with your family."

Surveying 95 supervisors and more than 300 of their employees, Kossek and her collaborators – Professors Susan Eaton of Harvard University and Brenda Lautsch of Simon Fraser University – studied how separating or integrating work with family obligations impacted workers’ happiness, time at work and performance. They found that managers who integrate tend to have more work and family conflict than those who separate.

"Work can take over our personal lives," said Kossek. "If you’re working from the family computer in the middle of the family room, your kids see you at work and don’t understand why you’re physically there, but mentally you’re someplace else."

"An easy way to begin to tell if you are an integrator or a separator is to ask, do you have one calendar or two? Do you have one key chain or two? Your ability to put up boundaries to your work and family may be able to help improve your happiness.

"If you must integrate, the best way to help your family is to have a separate door to the office," said Kossek.

Some people are naturally more integrated in their style than separated. "Women managers, on the whole, are more likely to be integrators than men," said Kossek.

Integration or separation can impact the amount of time an employee spends at work.

"All these technological time savers really end up taking more time," said Kossek, who found that on average people who worked from one office spent 43 hours per week at work, those in two places spent 45 hours per week at work and those working in three places spend an average of 52 hours per week at work a week.

"Counter to the popular perception of flexibility allowing people to excel in both their work and personal lives, employees who used portable work were rated lower in performance evaluations by their supervisors," said Kossek.

"Lower performance evaluations may actually be because supervisors do not know how to manage distance workers."

Kossek’s research will be discussed at the Managing Work-Life Integration in Organizations Conference, which she is co-chairing, on May 13 & 14 at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. Co-Sponsors of the Conference include Booz Allen, Eli Lilly, S. C. Johnson, Whirlpool Corporation, the Center for Creative Leadership and MSU. Press scholarships are available.

MSU Labor and Industrial Relations faculty advance knowledge about working relationships and transform the lives of employers and employees. The School of Labor and Industrial Relations is located in the College of Social Science at MSU.

Creating, disseminating and applying knowledge in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences is the core mission of the College of Social Science at MSU. Faculty engage in interdisciplinary collaboration to gain in-depth answers to real world problems on local, national and international levels. The college prepares students to become leaders through challenging coursework and enriching out-of-classroom opportunities. Most importantly, the College of Social Science tailors knowledge to benefit the families, workplaces, and communities in which we live.

MSU has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative research, teaching and outreach for nearly 150 years. It is known worldwide as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 14 degree-granting colleges and affiliated private law school attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.

Ellen Kossek | EurekAlert!
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