Linda Duxbury on Work-Life Balance

Originally published in the FAUW Forum in May 2012.

Work-life balance is a timely and socially relevant issue on campus. Its importance is reflected in the recent establishment of the Working Group on Work-Life Balance, which was struck to address concerns expressed by faculty about a lack of balance in their lives due to work demands. Indeed, the need for balance, and the health implications of not achieving work-life balance, is an issue that impacts upon everyone on campus.

Recognizing this impact, the Status of Women and Equity Committee (SWEC) and the Wilfrid Laurier Faculty Women’s Colleague brought Dr. Linda Duxbury to both campuses on April 10 to speak to these issues. Dr. Duxbury, who holds a PhD in Management Sciences from Waterloo, is internationally recognized for her expertise in work-life balance and is one of Canada’s leading experts on work and health. She provided two thoroughly engaging and informative talks that have prompted a lot of ideas about approaching work-life balance issues on campus.

Lecture summary

In her lecture at the University of Waterloo, Dr. Duxbury described her extensive use of research to make a business case for changing corporate culture in order to improve work-life balance for employees – saving money and increasing productivity in the long run.

Key messages from the talk included:

  • That work-life conflicts and the stress they cause are continuing to increase
  • That office technology is increasing workload and stress, not decreasing it
  • That work-life balance issues no longer predominantly affect women, and
  • That eldercare is emerging as the significant issue of the next few decades, for which employers, employees, policy makers, and communities are simply not prepared.

Culture is the culprit

Another key point from Dr. Duxbury’s lecture was that the single biggest factor in work-related stress and work-life conflict (and thus life satisfaction and burnout) is one’s boss. She stressed that most managers are given little to no training on how to do their job well, and that, regardless of organizational policy or values, workplace culture usually rewards and promotes bad behaviour over the behaviours that make for good managers – and good work-life balance. Curbing the trend of increasing work-life conflict and stress among everyone, men and women alike, thus requires a major cultural shift. Given that a culture’s main function is to reproduce itself, this is no easy task – but it can be done!

Work-life conflict costs and solutions

Dr. Duxbury’s Wilfrid Laurier University talk focused more on specific types of work-life conflict (“role overload” and “work interfering with family”, both of which are caused by demands at work, not home), the costs of not addressing these problems, and organizational-level solutions.

The costs of unaddressed work-life conflict (specifically role overload and work interfering with family) include: increased absenteeism, greater dependence on the health care system, increased employee stress and depression, higher benefits costs, and lower levels of commitment, job satisfaction, and retention. Research shows that reduced role overload alone could reduce physician visits in Canada by 25% per year! Dr. Duxbury attributes these problems to work demands and organizational culture, including a focus on policy over practice.

In her discussion of solutions and best practices, Dr. Duxbury emphasized the fact that policies themselves make very little difference. Rather, the training and supporting of good managers, leading to good use of policies and benefits, is key. Employees, on the other hand, need to stop trying to “do it all” and learn how to manage work-life balance effectively.