Should You Try to Balance Family and Work?

By: Keaton Fletcher

One thing most working adults struggle with is balancing the demands of work and family. Oftentimes we find ourselves needing to be in two places at once, or thinking about work when we should be focusing on what our partner is saying, or treating our employees like our children. All of these experience of conflict carry with them negative outcomes (e.g., increased risk of cardiovascular disease, decreased job and life satisfaction). But, modern industrial-organizational psychologists have moved past exploring how the interface between work and family can be harmful, instead focusing on its benefits, or how it can be managed.

In a recent interview with Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of Axel SpringerJeff Bezos (founder of Amazon and Blue Origin) covered the history of Amazon and Jeff Bezos’s career. Interestingly, his story both started and finished with the importance of family. Bezos credits his parents, grandfather, and wife for his success. He shared a story of how his wife supported his career transition from stable investment banker to tech startup, highlighting the importance of that support. At the end of their discussion, however, Bezos said “This work-life harmony thing is what I try to teach young employees and actually senior executives at Amazon too. But especially the people coming in. I get asked about work-life balance all the time. And my view is, that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off. And the reality is, if I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy. And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. It actually is a circle; it’s not a balance.” So what is the difference between balance and, as Bezos puts it, work-life harmony?

When looking at the positive side of the work-family interface, two distinct ideas arise: work-family balance and work-family facilitation. Work-family balance is a newer idea and has typically been defined as meeting the expectations in both work and family domains. Unlike the absence of work-family conflict, this perspective of work-family balance suggests that you are balanced to the degree that the primary stakeholders in both domains (e.g., your partner, children, coworkers, superiors) feel that you are meeting the expectations of that domain. You may still have conflict, but as long as you are meeting your expectations, which requires you to be actively engaged in both domains, then you are experiencing balance. What we see regarding balance, for example, is that when faced with multiple work-family conflicts, people will often switch role they choose to fulfill. So, if you have to leave work early to pick up a sick child from school, you may skip family dinner to complete a report on time. 

Work-family facilitation, on the other hand, looks at how your engagement in one role can help your engagement in the other. How does having a family help you be a better employee? How does having a work team help you be a better parent? Research suggests that, as Bezos points out, positive experiences in one domain tend to spill over into the other; so a good day at work often translates to a good evening with the family and vice versa. So, is Bezos right? Is it better to focus on facilitation rather than balance? Answer: both are important and intrinsically linked.

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