Expert Commentary

Changing work and work-family conflict: A randomized control trial

2014 study in the American Sociological Review looks at the effects of a program that shifts control over the work schedule from managers to employees.

Work-life balance (iStock)

Changing dynamics in U.S. families have created new challenges when it comes to allocating time between responsibilities at home and in the workplace. According to one study, mothers and fathers alike now dedicate more time to childcare compared to at any other point in the past 60 years. Additionally, parents who belong to the “sandwich generation” are likely to assume caretaking responsibilities for their elderly parents in addition to their children.

Previous research has examined the effects of work-family time conflict, particularly for women who assume a disproportionate role in caretaking responsibilities. Some studies have suggested that women’s caretaking responsibilities can explain gender disparities in earnings. Other studies have found that lack of control over work schedules has harmful effects on mental health for new mothers.

To some, telecommuting is a promising solution to work-family time conflicts. Telecommuting has increased in recent decades, particularly among workers with college degrees and workers in managerial/professional positions. However, one study found telecommuters work longer hours than those who work in the office, casting doubt on the degree to which telecommuting can address this problem.

A 2014 study published in the American Sociological Review, “Changing Work and Work-Family Conflict: Evidence from the Work, Family and Health Network,” looks at the effects of a program that shifts control over the work schedule from managers to employees. The study sought to test an intervention that would increase employees’ control over their work schedules. The lead authors of the study are based at the University of Minnesota; researchers involved include Erin L. Kelly, Phyllis Moen, J. Michael Oakes, Wen Fan, Cassandra Okechukwu, Kelly D. Davis, Leslie B. Hammer, Ellen Ernst Kossek, Rosalind Berkowitz King, Ginger C. Hanson, Frank Mierzwa and Lynne M. Casper.

The intervention, conducted for an unnamed Fortune 500 company’s information technology department, provided training to managers aimed at building supportiveness for workers’ personal lives. In addition to the trainings, employees and managers met several times to discuss changes in work practices that would allow for more schedule flexibility. In the study, the first randomized control trial to address work schedule flexibility, roughly half of the work groups in the department were selected to participate in the intervention, while the rest of the work groups acted as a control group.

The study’s findings include:

  • Compared to the control group, employees in the intervention group reported less conflict between their work and family lives as well as higher levels of supervisor support for their personal lives.
  • Employees in the intervention group experienced a substantial increase in the average amount of time worked at home, which rose from 10.2 hours per week before the intervention to 19.6 hours per week at the six-month follow-up period. Hours worked at home also rose for the control group, although the increase was not as large (10.8 hours per week vs. 12.3 hours per week).
  • There was no evidence suggesting that the schedule control intervention increased either the psychological demands of the job or the number of weekly hours employees had to work.
  • Employees who were part of “sandwich generation” families reported the largest reduction in work-family conflict as a result of the intervention.

As for the study’s findings more generally, the authors conclude: “We provide the first experimental evidence that workplace interventions can reduce work-family conflict among employees and change work resources, specifically increasing employees’ control over the time and timing of their work and the support they receive from supervisors for their family and personal lives. We find clear evidence of benefits for employees, with regard to improvements in schedule control, supervisor support for family and personal life, work-family conflict, and family time adequacy over six months, although the magnitude of change is modest.”

Related research: A 2012 study in the Monthly Labor Review Journal, “The Hard Truth about Telecommuting,” looks at the demographics of the telecommuters, changes in frequency of telecommuting over time, and the relationship between telecommuting and work hours.

Keywords: women and work

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