Universities need policies and practices to tackle work-life balance

Broadly speaking, some countries do family-friendly policies and practices better than others – but there are great benefits to be had for everyone, says Siu Oi Ling

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8 Nov 2022
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Universities must consider family friendly employment policies and practices

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Lingnan University

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Since the 1990s, the globalisation of the workplace has led to tremendous changes in working culture. Long hours and the 24/7 culture have contributed to an increase in mental ill health among employees. The past two decades, particularly in recent years with more working from home during the pandemic, have seen surges in technological progress blur the boundaries between work and non-work roles. It is thus very difficult to achieve and maintain work-life balance so as to enhance employee well-being.

Occupational stress is a prevalent issue among higher education employees. The variety of stressors can be different for different people, with organisational constraints (lack of training, cooperation among colleagues and/or explicit instructions and assignments), interpersonal conflict among university employees and workload (long hours, deadlines) the most common stressors. Other stressors may include a conflict between work and family life.

Recently, demands for a more family-friendly environment have been growing. Family-friendly employment policies and practices (FEPPs) are programmes provided by companies or organisations designed to help employees strike a balance between their work and family roles. They can include policies such as flexible work schedules, adding more days for maternity and paternity leave, even granting additional birthday leave for employees. The overriding objective of these policies and practices is to assist employees in managing their family responsibilities while also excelling at work by offering more choice when it comes to work arrangements that cater to individuals’ needs.

Professional practices in advocating FEPPs

In my capacity as Lam Woo chair professor of applied psychology at Lingnan University, I carried out a literature review on previous studies of FEPPs. The findings showed that employers in member states of the European Union, such as Germany, Austria and some southern European countries, more frequently offered extra statutory leave and childcare arrangements than did employers in the US or Canada. The benefits of FEPPs were shown to be: a decrease in sickness absence; increased retention rates; a decrease in economic costs because of absenteeism or medical expenses; increased productivity; enhanced company attraction; and enhanced morale and commitment.

This suggests that FEPPs can lead to both tangible and intangible positive outcomes that are beneficial to employees’ work well-being (job satisfaction, physical and mental health), to companies (job performance, lower turnover rate, less absenteeism), and even to society in general in the form of reduced social costs such as work-related illness and lost productivity.

However, at a sectoral level, numerous structural problems need to be overcome to provide better work-life balance. These include:

Gender inequality

Female employees spend more hours on family commitments yet make use of fewer FEPPs than male employees. As such, female employees should be encouraged to utilise more FEPPs. Gender inequality, stress levels at work and the absence of a healthy working environment affect the work-life balance and, consequently, well-being of higher education staff and faculty members.

Flexible work arrangements (FWAs)

To better respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, higher education institutions worldwide rapidly implemented flexible work arrangements (FWAs). Yet while many institutions have sought to provide a suite of FWAs, there is limited evidence to show staff benefit from these arrangements. Heads of departments should develop positive working environments where supervisors and co-workers provide support, and there also need to be benefits or practices to reduce and prevent stress. Alongside developing family-friendly policies, thought should be given to providing employees with the ability and willingness to use them. The following FWAs can be considered in universities:

Flexi-time: employees can consider varying their start and finish times rather than sticking to the norm of 9am to 5pm.

Compressed work week: employees work extra hours on some days of the week in order to have part of the day or a whole day off on another day of the week.

Job-sharing: two employees share one full-time job.

Telework/work from home: employees work some or all of the time off site and use technology to communicate with others.

Organisational support

Senior management and human resources officers in higher education must change their mindsets to encourage academic and administrative staff to be aware of the importance of work-life balance. They should provide suggestions for how to improve this, as well as implement the policies required.

In recent years, there have been more advocates in colleges and universities, specifically among administrative staff, for adopting FEPPS. Employees worldwide clearly demonstrate strong support for wider adoption of FEPPs and the range of benefits they can bring to institutions and their employees. We can encourage more higher education institutions to adopt FEPPs by:

  • Initiating awards programmes to recognise good practices.
  • Organising “family-friendly workplace days” to promote the concept of work-life balance.
  • Providing incentives for departments/units to adopt more FEPPs by using a one-line budget.
  • Encouraging telework (work-from-home) arrangements for certain staff for certain days of the week.
  • Experimenting with changing the five-day week to a 4.5-day or four-day working week and reducing overall working hours.

These suggestions are just the beginning, however, and universities are encouraged to consider and implement various FEPPs from the top down. By creating better working conditions and giving more support, universities will see improvements for their employees and great benefits for the institution as a whole.

Siu Oi Ling is chair professor of applied psychology and head of department of applied psychology at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. She has also been the associate editor of the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology since 2015.

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