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Managers: Creating Positive Spillover Between Work and Family

Gazi Islam, professor of business administration at Grenoble Ecole de Management.

Can you leave work at work and personal issues at home? Always? The separation between work and family life has been increasingly blurred over past years due to evolutions in our work habits: the digital revolution, the rising importance of balancing work and family life for both men and women, the advent of new work methods such as working from home, among others. These changes have all increased the interactions between work and family life. As a result, some spillover is unavoidable.

Interview: Gazi Islam, a professor of business administration at Grenoble Ecole de Management, highlights the fact that spillover between work and family life can actually be positive.

What questions did you explore during your recent study?

We looked into the issue of spillover from work to family life. In other words, we tried to understand how positive effects at work could contribute to positive effects at home. To understand this question, we explored several factors such as positive spillover, worker engagement or the boundary between work and personal life.

We analyzed these factors in relation to an essential issue: the manager. We tried to understand the importance of a manager demonstrating family-supportive behavior. Does a family-supportive manager generate positive spillover for employees?

How did you go about this study and what were some interesting results?

Our study analyzed responses from employees at a German IT company. Our online survey collected information such as how employees perceived their manager in terms of being supportive on family issues or how employees perceived the impact of their work “mood” on their family life.

One of our most interesting findings was the importance of positive worker engagement. Employees with a family supportive supervisor demonstrated increased energy, enthusiasm and a positive mood at work. This also made it easier for them to transfer skills, knowledge and contentment to the family sphere.

Another interesting point in our study was the impact of boundary permeability on spillover. We measured the permeability of employees’ work-family boundary (e.g., “I control whether I am able to keep my work and personal life separate.”). When we compared boundary permeability and positive spillover effects, we noticed that employees with high permeability (i.e., less of a boundary between work and personal life) were able to more easily transfer positive work engagement to family life.

This is an important result because we tend to think negatively about situations in which employees cannot separate work and family life. However, this finding underlines the fact that there can also be positive effects when employees allow work or family life to influence each other.

Finally, we discovered that men, as well as women, react more positively to managers who demonstrate family-supportive behavior. This is interesting because there tends to be a stereotype in which many people believe that family-oriented policies at work are mainly designed to support women. It’s important to realize that this is not exclusively the case. These policies are cross-gender and can provide positive outcomes for both men and women.

What ideas can businesses explore to improve positive spillover between work and family?

Family-supportive behavior is a skill that can be trained. Managers can learn to create an environment that is favorable to family issues. For example, it can be as simple as a manager being willing to promote discussion about work-family conflicts. By opening the door to discussion, managers can improve employee engagement and thus facilitate positive spillover. Encouraging flexibility and enabling employees to help define solutions for work-family issues are excellent ways to increase family-supportive behavior.

Research article

Caroline Straub, Barbara Beham & Gazi Islam (2017):
Crossing boundaries: integrative effects of supervision, gender and boundary control on work engagement and work-to-family positive spillover,
The International Journal of Human Resource Management,