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Work/Life Integration is About Culture Not Time: Alyssa Westring on Work and Life

Contributor: Liz Stiverson

Work and Life is a two-hour radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School. Every Tuesday from 7 to 9 PM EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community and the private self (mind, body and spirit). 

Alyssa Westring is an Assistant Professor of Management at DePaul University, where she studies work/life issues and women’s careers, and director of research for Total Leadership.  She spoke with Stew Friedman on Work and Life about recent research that reveals the surprising factors that influence work/life satisfaction. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: You just published an article on the HBR Blog Network about how the culture of work matters at least as much, if not more than, the actual time spent at work in determining work/life satisfaction. Tell us more about this research and what it means for people and organizations.

Alyssa Westring: alyssa westringIn general, when people study work/life topics, they either study big, high-level organizational policies like parental leave and flex-time, or they focus on the individual level and the strategies and techniques that best help people own their work/life balance. My research team was really interested in what’s happening in the middle, when individual people are managing work and life in a specific department or division at work, and how the nature of the work environment impacts their experiences. Not surprisingly, we did find that people who worked longer hours tended to have more conflict between their work and family lives – it’s a lot harder to manage everything if you’re working 80 hours than if you’re working 40. But we found that it also really depended on the work environment itself. The study looked at women in academic medicine, and found that if women were in a department that was really flexible and supportive of women’s careers, they could work longer hours with less work-life conflict.

SF: This helps explode the myth that work/life integration is all about time, and it sheds light on other factors that influence whether we experience conflict here, specifically factors that are within our realm of control. What were the cultural factors in departments or divisions that made a difference?

AW: The first was whether the department supported employees’ work/life balance; whether there was a shared understanding that there’s more to life than work, and whether it was okay to talk about those other elements of life.

SF: Is this mainly about how your supervisor treats you, or is it something broader than that?

AW: Supervisory support for support for women’s careers is another dimension, but this is independent, and speaks to shared assumptions in the department.  You could have a supervisor who thinks work/life integration is great, but if your colleagues are judging you when you leave work early to tend to family, or if it’s not okay to talk about those things, that’s a separate factor.

SF: So it’s really about group norms and the cultural values of the group, independent of your specific supervisor’s attitudes.

AW: Exactly. The supervisor impacts those group norms, but they have an independent effect on how women experience their work environment. The third dimension was tolerance or intolerance for subtle gender biases – ideas that women aren’t as effective as leaders, or that their input in meetings isn’t taken seriously when they speak up. No one reported overt sex-based discrimination, but this more subtle and insidious gender discrimination is a factor in the work environment that impacts the culture for women. The final dimension was women’s equal access to resources and opportunities. In a medical department like the one we studied, this might be size of lab space or prestigious committee assignments, but this idea can be translated to any kind of work environment.

SF: Are these factors truly more important than the amount of time one works in determining work/life satisfaction?

AW: At a certain point, work hours overwhelm everything. Once you get to about 75 hours a week, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in a supportive environment or not. But before that point, it makes a difference. You’re much better off in a more supportive culture across the range of work hours. In our study, the women who worked 65 hours in a supportive environment reported less conflict than the women who worked 45 hours in a less supportive department.

SF: What could people even in mid-level positions do to enhance the quality of their work environment and create a culture that supports life beyond work?

AW: By challenging unhealthy, unsupportive cultural norms, you could shift the way your department treats women. This is true for women and for men as well. If you see unequal distribution of resources or you hear people being shamed for having life outside work or discussing things that are not work-related, you can and should say something.  I’ll give you an example from my own life. One time, I posted something on Facebook about the types of novels I like to read, and asked for suggestions for future reading. The first comment I got was, “How do you have time to read novels, Alyssa?” My first instinct was a need to justify – I read when I’m on the bus, so I have more time for reading than someone who drives a car. But my second reaction was to stand up and be proud, to say yes, I do have time to read. It’s relaxing and healthy, and I’m not going to pretend like I don’t do other things in order to seem fully committed to my job.

SF: The key insight is that time at work is certainly important, and you want to try to contain the amount you devote to work at the expense of other parts of your life, but it’s also important to target those aspects of your work environment that you can influence by making them more supportive, not just for yourself but also for your colleagues.

Westring’s research highlights nuanced cultural dynamics that can have a big effect on the workplace experience, but it may also over-simplify what it takes to speak up.  Subtle gender inequalities, for example – women’s leadership taken less seriously, or men given less latitude than women to miss work for family commitments – are hard to prove and easy to defer or explain as differences in competence. Have you witness or experienced circumstances like these in the workplace? Did you speak up, and was it effective? Join us in the comments below with your experiences and perspective.

You can read more about Westring’s study on the HBR Blog Network and follow Westring on Twitter @alyssawestring.

Join Work and Life on Tuesday, April 1 at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111 for conversations with Roger Schwartz, author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results, and Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families. Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the Author

Liz StiversonLiz Stiverson is a 2014 MBA candidate at The Wharton School.

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