Good Life

Focus on research | Workplaces can help employees achieve better work-family integration 

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different areas of research being conducted at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

As working family dynamics continue to evolve in our culture, researchers continue to look at the importance of work-life balance. Findings in recent studies suggest that a satisfied employee and a happy family go hand in hand, and the results might mean better production in the workplace.

Researchers at Penn State who are part of the Work, Family and Health Network are evaluating the effects of a workplace intervention designed to reduce work-family conflict by increasing both employees’ control over their schedule and supervisor behaviors that support employees’ personal and family lives.

Why work-family integration?

The researchers found that the intervention gave employed parents more time with their children without reducing their work time. Additionally, the same intervention had a positive influence on the sleep patterns of the employees’ children.

“These findings may encourage changes in the structure of jobs and culture of work organizations to support families,” said Kelly Davis, research assistant professor of human development and family studies.

The intervention is called the Support-Transform-Achieve-Results (STAR) workplace intervention. It included training supervisors to be more supportive of their employees’ personal and family lives, changing the structure of work so that employees have more control of their work time, and changing the culture in the workplace so that colleagues are more supportive of each other.

Researchers conducted several studies to examine the effects of this intervention.

In one study, the researchers evaluated whether parents who participated in the STAR intervention reported significantly more daily time with their children compared with parents randomly assigned to a control group. The findings were published April 13 in Pediatrics.

They found that parents in the STAR group exhibited a statistically significant increase in parent-child shared time — an additional 39 minutes per day on average — between the pre-test and the 12-month follow-up post-test. By contrast, parents in the control group averaged 24 fewer minutes per day with their child at the 12-month follow-up.

“Our study tested ideas from the work-home resource model, which holds that work demands can deplete parents’ resources, including their time and energy, with negative effects on their family functioning,” Davis said. “By contrast, increasing work resources can increase the resources parents use in their family lives.”

Davis says the work-family balance is elusive.

“It implies trying to achieve equal value, time, demands, and resources for both work and family —a likely impossible goal,” Davis said. “I suggest we move away from the term work-family balance toward work-family integration.”

Kids benefit, too

Results from a different study found that children whose parents participated in the STAR intervention showed an improved quality of sleep one year later compared to the children of employees who were randomly assigned to a control group. Those findings were published in the June issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

“These findings show the powerful effect that parents’ workplace experiences can have on their children,” said Susan McHale, Distinguished Professor of Human Development and Family Studies, Penn State. “The STAR intervention focused solely on workplace experiences, not on parenting practices. We can speculate that the STAR intervention helped parents to be more physically and emotionally available when their children needed them to be.”

McHale and her team measured sleep patterns by interviewing employees’ children, ages 9 through 17, on the phone every evening for eight consecutive evenings, both before and after the STAR intervention. Each night they asked the children about their sleep on the prior night, including what time they went to bed, what time they woke up that morning, how well they slept and how hard it was to fall asleep.

“Family friendly workplace practices and policies don’t just benefit families,” said McHale. “Employees’ children are the next generation of the labor force, so today’s benefits to children’s health are tomorrow’s benefits to the health of work organizations.”

Erin Kelly, professor of sociology, University of Minnesota, said these studies are exciting because they may pave the way to positive change for both workers and workplaces.

“The workplace intervention that the Work, Family and Health Network studied tried to change the rules of the game, making it legitimate and normal to shift a schedule for family or personal reasons, making it clear that managers and co-workers recognize that family and personal obligations are important,” she said.

Kelly said these changes in the way work is organized are not that radical, but many workers are stuck with rigid schedules and inflexible or unsupportive supervisors.

“We had previously shown that these organizational changes affected employees, who felt less conflicted about managing work and family responsibilities,” Kelly said. “We found that workplace interventions, like the STAR intervention, that convey support for employees’ family lives, can relieve those stresses for employees, and encourage healthier families, too.”

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funded these studies.