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Are Work and Family Enemies or Allies?

How to master work-home enrichment.

Key points

  • Work and home domains are consistently pitted against each other.
  • Work-to-home and home-to-work conflict lead to a host of detrimental outcomes at work and at home.
  • The key to making work and home "allies" instead of "enemies" is learning about how to implement work-home enrichment.

Are work and family enemies or allies?

This was the question posed over 15 years ago by Professor Jeff Greenhaus, who literally wrote the book on career management and is an authority on all things work-life related. Up until his now-famous article—"When Work and Family Are Allies: A Theory of Work-Family Enrichment"—when it came to living a happy life, work was Public Enemy Number 1.

Unfortunately, we still commonly revert to this work-as-the-enemy mindset. We think that work is simply a means to an end. But there is much more to work than material resources. Along those lines, perhaps it's time to revive Greenhaus’ insights and reflect upon all the ways one’s work role can enrich one’s non-work roles (i.e., life, home, family, etc.).

When done right, work can make people a better version of themselves. To help give some guidance on why and how, outlined below are the three primary resources—beyond the material (e.g., compensation, benefits, investments)—that facilitate work-to-family enrichment.

But first, a few quick notes: The formal definition of work-home enrichment entails the extent to which experiences in one role improve the quality of life in the other role (Greenhaus & Powell, 2006). We focus here on work-to-family enrichment, but the opposite direction is also possible (i.e., family-to-work enrichment). The goal of work-home enrichment is an enhanced quality of life, which entails two components: positive affect and performance. Said differently, the goal is to simultaneously be happy and successful in both roles.

The 3 Work-to-Home Enrichment Resources

1. Skills. A skill is simply something that you do well. There are several skills that we typically learn from work that can be applied at home with great utility, including cognitive skills (e.g., problem-solving), interpersonal skills (e.g., dealing with difficult people, making others feel comfortable), coping skills, and multi-tasking skills. Further, work obstacles create opportunities to garner wisdom as it relates to what it means to be objectively and/or subjectively successful.

Example: As an academic, I have several jobs. I teach, research, consult, and participate in administrative committees. It can be hard to prioritize my time. Should it be students, who technically “pay the bills?” What about untenured colleagues whose livelihood depends on getting things published ASAP? What happens when a client has an urgent issue? My work role has helped me build up the skill of prioritization. Thanks to some trial and error, I now have a very specific process for communicating and reconciling priorities. My non-work life is crazy-demanding too. And now I have a framework for working through it.

2. Perspectives. Perspective entails acquiring a new lens for how to perceive or handle a situation. Some of the most common perspectives that carry over from work to home include respecting and appreciating psychographic, demographic, and cultural differences, being empathetic towards others (especially those experiencing problems), and learning how to earn trust.

Example: One of my favorite work roles is being the Chief Research Officer for Cloverleaf, an HR-tech company. The culture at Cloverleaf mimics their product. The goal is to help everyone—through automated coaching—thrive at work by being an amazing teammate. The Cloverleaf “perspective” is that everyone is unique and has something to offer. It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to work through the many differences among colleagues in terms of traits, tendencies, and preferences. This perspective has been helpful in all aspects of my life, including interactions with my partner, kids, neighbors, and more.

3. Psychological Capital. Three broad categories of psychological capital tend to spillover from work to non-work settings: (a) positivity in the form of self-esteem (i.e., I am worthy) and self-efficacy (i.e., I can do this); (b) a “get it done” mindset in the form of grit (i.e., resilience in the face of hardships), hardiness (i.e., coping during times of stress), and industriousness (i.e., figuring it out with little resources/support); and (c) positive emotions in the form of optimism and hope.

Example: One of the most fascinating companies I’ve worked with is a tomato processing plant in California called Morningstar. Morningstar has structured its company as a holacracy, which is when every employee is a peer and there are no managers. They get things done through peer-to-peer commitments and committees. In data collection and interviews with these employees, the findings are clear: These employees have an unprecedented amount of self-confidence, take ownership of their work, and seek out opportunities to build trust with others. They consistently report that working there has not only helped them become better employees but better people. This is the epitome of psychological capital carryover.

Reminders and Reflection

Sometimes work can be a never-ending grind. But before you check out and revert to tagging work as simply being about material resources, don’t forget that you also have the chance to accumulate resources that can help you in life.

How much work-home enrichment are you currently experiencing? Consider working through this reflection exercise to evaluate where you are and where you might be able to improve.

Step 1: Below are three questions from the work-home enrichment measure created by Kacmar et al., (2014). Rate the extent to which you agree (5), somewhat agree (4), neither agree nor disagree (3), somewhat disagree (2), or disagree (1) for each of the questions below.

  • My work role helps me understand different viewpoints and this helps me be a better family member (i.e., growth and development-based enrichment).
  • My work role makes me feel happy and this helps me be a better family member (i.e., affect-based enrichment).
  • My work helps me feel personally fulfilled and this helps me be a better family member (i.e., psychological capital-based enrichment)

Step 2: Total up your work-home enrichment score. 6 or below is low. 7-11 is moderate. 12 or higher is high.

Step 3: Write out a self-reflection (3-4 sentences) describing what you can start (or stop) doing that will increase the extent to which you are experiencing work-home enrichment. Remember that in most cases, the opportunities for improvement are right under our noses. It’s just that sometimes, we forget to look down.

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