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Family Friendly Work Policies May Need to Be Refocused, Says Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center Researcher

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Helping employees successfully balance work and home life may require that current "family-friendly" policies be refocused, suggests research by Joseph G. Grzywacz, Ph.D., of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in this month’s Journal of Marriage and Family.

"Until now, employers in this country who want to be ‘family friendly’ have focused on reducing the conflict between work and home through policies such as flex time and telecommuting," said Grzywacz (gree-votch). "Our findings suggest that there’s a more beneficial piece to the puzzle – the extent to which home life and work life benefit each other."

The researchers examined four types of family-work interaction and used levels of depression, problem drinking and anxiety as measures of which combinations were most successful for minimizing risk of mental illness.

"In terms of mental health, we found that the optimum relationship between work and family is when work is protected from family disruptions and when family contributes to productivity at work," said Grzywacz, an assistant professor of family medicine.

He said the idea of employers finding ways to assist in the "family realm" is relatively new, and there is little research on how to accomplish it.

"Things people are starting to think about are creating learning opportunities at work that can be applied at home," Grzywacz said. "For example, an employer might offer parenting classes. The idea behind ‘Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work’ also fits this model – it’s an opportunity to build bridges between work and family that yield gains for both the workplace and family. The data suggest that these types of programs may give employers more bang for the buck in terms of mental health."

Brenda L. Bass, co-researcher, of the University of Northern Iowa, said it is likely that several different types of programs would be needed.

"This study tested theoretical concepts, so we must be cautious about directly applying the results," she said. "But, the findings potentially indicate that different types of programs would be needed, depending on the combination of conflict and facilitation in an employee’s life."

Data for the analysis came from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States conducted by the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, called MIDUS, in 1995. MIDUS respondents are a representative sample of the general population, ages 25 to 75, who answered a 40-minute telephone interview and a mail-back questionnaire.

The researchers scored respondents on four types of family-work interaction based on how they responded to a series of questions. The types, and statements describing each, were:

  • Family Helps Work: talking with someone at home helps you deal with problems at work, and your home life helps you relax and feel ready for the next day’s work.
  • Work Helps Family: the things you do at work help you with deal with personal and practical issues at home, and they make you a more interesting person at home.
  • Work Conflicts with Family: you miss an important family event because of having to work late, and job worries distract you when you’re at home.
  • Family Conflicts with Work: stress at home makes you irritable at work, and responsibilities at home reduce the effort you can devote to your job.

Grzywacz said he was not surprised by the findings that depression, problem drinking and anxiety were lowest when families helped work and didn’t conflict with work – combinations that benefit work more than family.

"That makes sense because we’re a work-oriented country – the results resonate with the importance of work in most adults’ lives. People perceive that family benefits their work more than work benefits their family," he said.

Additional research would be required to validate the findings and to determine the best ways for work and family to benefit each other.

"As society continues to address the best ways to balance work and family, we need to learn more about work-family facilitation and how to accomplish it. Such knowledge is an essential first step for developing policy and programs that meet the needs of current and future workers and their families," Grzywacz said.

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Media Contacts: Wake Forest: Karen Richardson, (336) 716-4453, krchrdsn@wfubmc.edu; or Barbara Hahn, 336-716-6877; bhahn@wfubmc.edu.

Journal of Marriage and Family: Alexis Walker, 541-737-1083, or walkera@oregonstate.edu

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