OPINION: Support strategies to manage work-family conflict and mental health

(PHOTO: Getty Images)

By Remus Ilies

When work demands become excessive they can cause feelings of burnout, strains on mental and physical health, and hamper a worker’s ability to fully engage with family responsibilities. 

Left unaddressed, work-family conflict can be disruptive and damaging both for workers and companies, leading to increased absenteeism and even to employees quitting their jobs altogether. 

In a recent study at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School, working with colleagues at universities in Europe and Australia, we examined how social support – having a network of people who can provide emotional support and assistance - can help alleviate stress caused by high work demands.

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In the workplace this might take the form of a manager or colleagues providing ideas on how to carry out a task. At home it may take the form of an understanding spouse who listens and helps to diminish the negative effects of work strain.

For our study, we recruited 112 dual-income earner families in the Netherlands from a representative range of backgrounds and industries to record feelings about their workload at various points over a two-week period. They were asked to assess various factors, including how their work interfered with family duties, and the support they received.

This might include offering constructive suggestions, proposing creative solutions to problems, listening and showing concern, offering day-to-day assistance in time management and flexibility in work scheduling.

Unsurprisingly we found that on days when workload was excessive, workers felt high emotional exhaustion that then had a spillover effect on their family life - for example, withdrawing from family activities or not doing chores. 

Looking at factors that helped mitigate feelings of work stress we found that supervisor support played the strongest role. Employees who felt they had a supportive boss were better able to manage a high workload and reported less impact on their family life and duties. 

Having a supportive spouse was also significant, preventing feelings of exhaustion induced by high work demands from further influencing employees’ engagement in their family roles.

Of course everyone has their own idea of what constitutes “excessive” job demands and it is not unusual for workers and their supervisors to have quite different perceptions. Yet for managers to dismiss employee complaints out-of-hand can often lead to resentments and further stress.

(PHOTO: Getty Images)

What might seem the obvious answer – for managers or organisations to lower job demands - is impractical. For businesses, high job demands mean increased productivity; whilst as individuals we get material and psychological rewards from being challenged and delivering results. 

So the question is whether we can achieve this performance dividend without unnecessary stress and impact on family roles.

Our study offers promising insight into methods of better managing workplace stress. It shows that a dual support system – having social support at work and at home – does help individuals to handle high job demands and mitigate work stress.

For employers, the message is to take steps to ensure that supervisors are both aware of this and actively support their subordinates. 

Supervisors likewise need to understand that maintaining employees’ well-being is a daily undertaking and they can do so in a range of ways. This might include offering constructive suggestions, proposing creative solutions to problems, listening and showing concern, offering day-to-day assistance in time management and flexibility in work scheduling.

Such an approach not only alleviates stress for workers but also makes sound business sense. Having support means employees will be more productive, suffer less stress and are less likely to leave.

For workers the message is that whilst tough days will be a fact of life, don’t bottle it up - ask for support and talk to people.

Work-family conflict negatively affects performance and satisfaction in the workplace. Unchecked, it can build into a vicious cycle that is damaging for the individual’s working and family lives.

Finding ways to address emotional exhaustion from work, either by preventing employees from leaving work emotionally drained or by helping them recover from it and replenish their resources, is a necessary step in enhancing employee well-being.

This article was contributed by Provost’s Chair and Professor Remus Ilies, Head of the Department of Management & Organisation at The National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS and Yahoo.