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The Career Column: WorkFamily Balance 

Lynn A. McFarland
George Mason University


As a new mother (yes, that cute guy in the picture with me is my son Matt), the issue of workfamily balance is one that is now continually on my mind. Lucky for me, Matt doesnt seem to care if I read him Minki Monkeys Busy Day or the manuscript I happen to be reviewing, as long as I vary my tone and speak in funny voices (By the way, you should try this. It makes even bland manuscripts interesting.). Still, there are many days it seems work and family are at odds. 

I recently decided to take a look at what the I-O literature has to say on the issue. Maybe I would find some effective strategies for reducing this conflict. It then occurred to me that most SIOP members are probably like me and have little idea of what our own literature has to say about this important topic. To help sort out this literature, I decided to ask the experts. Five individuals who are among the top experts in this area were kind enough to answer my questions: Lou Buffardi (George Mason University), Lillian Eby (University of Georgia), Mike Frone (State University of New York at Buffalo), Leslie Hammer (Portland State University), and Ellen Ernst Kossek (Michigan State University). Although each provided unique insights into this issue, their responses to my questions were extremely consistent. Lets begin with a very brief introduction to the issue of workfamily conflict and the relevant literature. 


Workfamily conflict is a form of interrole conflict in which role pressures from the work and family domains are mutually incompatible in some respect (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985, p. 77). The conflict does not operate in one direction. Family sometimes interferes with work (FIW), and work can interfere with family (WIF). 

Further, some researchers suggest that conflicts between the work and family domains can occur when (a) time consumed by one role results in a lack of time for the other, (b) strain caused by the activities of one role makes it difficult to fulfill responsibilities in the other, or (c) in-role behavior in one domain is incompatible with the role behavior in the other domain. The time conflict is fairly obvious and probably most salient to us lay people (i.e., non-workfamily conflict experts). So is strainif were totally stressed-out at work, we may not be able to deal with our family responsibilities and vice versa. However, the behavior component is less obvious. It has been suggested that we may sometimes behave in ways in one domain that is incompatible with the other domain, such that the behavior in question does not facilitate fulfilling ones roles in the other domain. For instance, being a perfectionist may be useful at work, but the same behaviors may lead to less effective parenting or in other ways inhibit one from adequately fulfilling family responsibilities. 

It should be noted that the conceptual grounding of time, strain, and behavior-based dimensions of workfamily conflict have been debated. As Mike notes, they do not have strong empirical validation and may confound the workfamily construct with its putative causes and outcomes. 

What happens if workfamily conflicts are not effectively managed? Workfamily conflict can result in a number of dysfunctional outcomes, including burnout, decrease in mental well-being, deteriorating relationships, and job and life dissatisfaction. Presumably in the hopes that a better understanding of the causes of workfamily conflict will help people avoid it, considerable research has been directed toward trying to understand the antecedents of workfamily conflict. Some of the things that lead to conflict are fairly intuitive. For example, working long hours, long commutes to and from work, workload, lack of management support, job involvement, and level of importance assigned to ones work, all predict the extent to which WIF. Further, marital status, number of children, level of importance assigned to family roles, and lack of family support all contribute to FIW. 

Further, some people are more susceptible to workfamily conflict than others. For instance, research suggests certain personality types are more inclined to experience workfamily conflict. Neuroticism, Type A tendencies, and negative affectivity are all related to workfamily conflict. As one might expect, age also relates to workfamily conflict. Theres initial evidence that as we get older, we develop more effective strategies for dealing with these conflicts. 

WorkFamily Synergy?

OK, maybe synergy is a strong word, but work and family are not always at odds. In fact, there is evidence that work and family can sometimes compliment or facilitate each other. This is sometimes called positive spillover and can occur in the form of moods, skills, behaviors, and values. For instance, Ellen pointed out that the KSAs learned on the job may also allow one to be a better parent. Further, there is evidence that people who engage in multiple roles have a better sense of well-being. Lou suggests this may occur because one domain may serve as respite from a hectic or stressful time in the other, thus, allowing one to face another day refreshed. Speaking for myself, I no longer dwell on journal rejections. The moment I come home I have someone literally screaming with joy to see me and hugging my leg (and my sons happy to see me, too). That kind of welcome home makes it difficult to get too bummed about any work situations I may be dealing with. 

As all the experts pointed out, theres a lot we still dont know about workfamily facilitation, but the initial results offer some reasons to be optimistic. 

So, what if youre not one of the lucky ones who is finding more facilitation than conflict between work and family? Heres some advice from our experts about the best ways to minimize conflict. 

Managing Work and Family

Surprisingly, our literature has more to say about the antecedents and consequences of workfamily conflict and less on strategies to effectively manage it. However, there are some studies that have explored this issue and just knowing what causes workfamily conflict can lead to an understanding of how to effectively manage conflict. 

Carefully consider workfamily issues when choosing a job. The predecessors of this column once interviewed Kevin Murphy and asked him how he manages workfamily conflict. One thing he did was to choose a job that would offer him flexibility to deal with his family life. For example, if a potential employer seemed less than favorable about bringing children to meetings, that wasnt a job he wanted. Admittedly, not all of us have so many options to choose from that we can afford to be this selective, but its certainly worth considering the type of environment that would be ideal and aiming for such positions. Be sure to find out how the organization youre considering feels about bringing kids into work or if there is a strict culture of coming in early and working late. If the organization frowns upon anyone leaving before 5:00 and you have kids that need to picked up from school, thats got to factor into your job decision or you could be facing years of conflict. Some firms are family friendly while others have a reputation of not being so family friendly. 

Further, dont feel guilty or feel like you are settling by considering these issues. As Lillian points out, finding a job that allows you to meet your familys needs is an issue of fit. We consider a host of fit issues when we make a job choice; why shouldnt we also consider how the decision is going to fit other aspects of our life? In other words, its important to take a holistic approach when youre searching for a job. Dont just jump on the most prestigious offer or the one that offers the most money. Workfamily issues must also be considered. 

Selection, Optimization, and Compensation (SOC). SOC is a life-management coping style for workfamily situations. Although related, SOC is different from time management. This coping style consists of being more selective in focusing on a few goals, persistence in order to achieve those goals, and seeking additional resources (e.g., child care) to compensate for lack of time. Basically, it is suggested that those experiencing workfamily conflict should take the time to evaluate which goals are most important to them and focus on achieving those goals. Take the time to evaluate your goals and if the activities you engage in on a daily basis help you to meet those goals. Does reviewing a textbook help you meet your goals, or is it a task that takes considerable time but does not help you make progress toward one of your goals? If a task does not help you make progress toward a goal and you have the ability to avoid it (i.e., its not a requirement of your job), dont hesitate to say no. 

Further, its important to recognize that you dont need to go it alone. You should find ways to compensate for lack of time. This may involve child care, paying to have your house cleaned, having groceries delivered to your home, or getting someone to walk your dog. Lillian points out that it may be easier for folks with money to compensate for lack of time because they can pay to outsource many of these things. 

Research shows that application of SOC in both the work and family domains leads to lower job and family stressors which lowers workfamily conflict (in both directions). For a more detailed account of this strategy see Baltes and Heydens-Gahir (2003). 

Communicate your responsibilities to those at work and at home. As Lou points out, a very important part of managing workfamily conflict is simply making those around you aware of your responsibilities. For instance, if you only have daycare certain times of the week and need to watch the kids when theyre not in daycare, tell your employer this schedule so you can be sure your home responsibilities are considered when meetings are arranged. You should have similar discussions with your significant other as well. There may be days he or she will need to make dinner or pick the kids up from school. Its also a good idea to talk often.  Responsibilities at both work and home may change so its important to inform everyone when that occurs. Also, you may find some things are not working out and you need to devise a new strategy to accommodate all of your responsibilities. 

Time management. To minimize workfamily conflict, its important to manage your time well. Im probably not telling you anything you dont already know, but let me add to this. Macan, Shahani, Dipboye, and Phillips (1990) suggest that time management can be broken down into three dimensions. First, goal setting and prioritization involve daily decisions about what is most important to be accomplished. Second, the mechanics of time management include such activities as making to do lists. Finally, a preference for organization involves maintaining a methodical, organized approach to work. Just like the SOC model, the time-management model first stresses the importance of deciding on what goals are most important for you to achieve and making sure you focus on those goals. 

Increase your social network. I know some of you are balking at this suggestion. After all, if youre struggling to make time for work and family, how on earth are you going to fit a social life into the equation? Who has time for friends? Well, believe it or not, theres evidence that increased social support can help decrease workfamily conflict. Further, Leslies own research suggests that decreasing social involvement in nonwork activities actually leads to higher levels of workfamily conflict (Neal & Hammer, forthcoming). So, dont quit spending time with friends because you feel like you have too much to do at home and at work. Doing so could make you less effective in both domains. 

Are Employers at Fault?

When I first approached the experts my intent was to gain a better understanding of the things individuals can do to reduce workfamily conflict. However, it soon became apparent that a lot of the causes and remedies of workfamily conflict stem from characteristics of our workplaces. Just about everyone I talked to indicated that the structure of many work environments maximizes workfamily conflict. Mike pointed out that over 30 organizational initiatives have been examined in the literature, such as flexible work arrangements, leaves, dependent-care assistance, and general resource services. However, the overwhelming majority of jobs are still 9 to 5 and allow little flexibility for employees to come and go, in-house childcare is still fairly uncommon, and most employers would cringe at the thought of an employee bringing a child to work! 

Ive always thought being in academics would relinquish me from workfamily conflict issues. After all, my schedule is immensely flexible, I can do a lot of my work at home, and I can bring my son to work if I have to. However, as Ellen noted, the biological clock and the tenure clock are entirely at odds. Most people start having children before the age of 35. This means that many folks in academics are going to start having kids before they get tenured. Sure, most universities will allow you to stop the tenure clock in theory. But even if you do this, some people cant help but notice how long youve been out and use that to judge your record. What this means is that junior faculty (especially women) who have kids are likely to feel a tremendous amount of workfamily conflict early in their careers. In other words, the years that are most instrumental in determining the course of an academics fate are also those years where he or she is likely to start having a family (simply because it may be now or never), and more focus needs to be diverted from work to family. Ellen suggests that unless your university has developed multiple models for evaluating early career progress, it may be helpful to recognize that the strains you may be experiencing may largely emanate from the organizational system or context you are working in, as much as your own ability to manage both roles. 

So what can be done? Leslie suggests workfamily conflict is less of a personal issue and more of a public and organizational policy issue. Changing the structure of work will result in more significant gains than trying to identify ways individuals can reduce their workfamily conflict. She further suggests that support for workfamily issues needs to start at the national level. For instance, employers are not required to provide employees with paid family leave, so many do not. Our national policies have to change if employers are going to behave in ways that will allow employees to reduce workfamily conflicts. 

Good Reading on the Topic

Ive reviewed some of the workfamily conflict literature and some potential strategies for decreasing workfamily conflict. Although the experts provided me with a wealth of information, space constraints require this review to be brief. Therefore, I encourage readers to take a look at some very useful literature on the topic that provides more comprehensive and technical reviews. The experts recommended some good articles and book chapters you may find useful. Ive listed these below. 


     Allen, T. D., Herst, D. E., Bruck, C. S., & Sutton, M. (2000). Consequences associated with work-to-family conflict: A review and agenda for future research. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 5, 278308.
     Baltes, B. B., & Heydens-Gahir, H. A. (2003). Reduction of workfamily conflict through the use of selection, optimization, and compensation behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 10051018.
     Bellavia, G. M., & Frone, M. R. (in press). Workfamily conflict. In J. Barling, E. K. Kelloway, & M. R. Frone (Eds.), Handbook of Work Stress. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
     Eby, L. T., Casper, W. J., Lockwood, A., Bordeaux, C., & Brinley, A. (in press). Work and family research in IO/OB: Content analysis and review of the literature (19802002). Journal of Vocational Behavior Monograph. 
     Frone, M. R. (2003). Workfamily balance. In J. C. Quick, & L. E. Tetrick. (Eds.) Handbook of Occupational Health Psychology. (pp. 143162). American Psychological Association: Washington, DC. 
     Frone, M. R., Russell, M., & Cooper, M. L. (1992). Antecedents and outcomes of workfamily conflict: Testing a model of the workfamily interface. Journal of Applied Psychology, 77, 6578.
     Frone, M. R., Yardley, J. K., & Markel, K. S. (1997). Developing and testing an integrative model of the workfamily interface. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 50, 145167.
     Greenhaus, J. H., & Beutell, N. J. (1985). Sources of conflict between work and family roles. Academy of Management Review, 10, 7688. 
     Kossek, E. E. (1990). Diversity in child care assistance needs: Employee problems, preferences, and work-related outcomes. Personnel Psychology, 43, 769791.
     Kossek, E. E., & Ozeki, C. (1998). Workfamily conflict, policies, and the joblife satisfaction relationship: A review and directions for organizational behavior-human resources research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83, 139149. 
     Macan, T. H., Shahani, C., Dipboye, R. L., & Phillips, A. P. (1990). College students time management: Correlations with academic performance and stress. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 760768.
     Neal, M. B., & Hammer, M. B. (Forthcoming). Working couples caring for children and aging parents: Effects on work and well-being. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, Inc.
     Thomas, L. T., & Ganster, D. C. (1995). Impact of family-supportive work variables on workfamily conflict and strain: A control perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 80, 615. 
     Williams, K., & Alliger, G. M. (1994). Role stressors, mood spillover, and perceptions of workfamily conflict in employed parents. Academy of Management Journal, 37, 837868.


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