Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Work-Life Balance Initiatives


by Barbara Silver, Ph.D., Research Coordinator
Helen Mederer, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology

The American workplace is changing dramatically, as women and men are now represented equally in the workplace, as dual-earner couples become the norm, and as the workforce ages and becomes more culturally diverse. Family demands now sit squarely in the middle of the worker-workplace relationship. As work attitudes and norms change and as workers' role demands become more intense and multi-faceted, workers are demanding more flexibility in how, when, and where they perform their jobs. The benefits of providing workplace flexibility have by now been well documented and are bi-directional. Policies such as paid family leave, job sharing, dual career hiring, telework, tenure clock stops, and myriad others have been shown to reap benefits on both individual and institutional levels. Fostering flexibility and an atmosphere of trust, respect, and responsiveness to workers' needs results in, for example, increased organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs) worker satisfaction, commitment, productivity, retention and engagement, and reduced absenteeism, stress, and attrition.

A national movement is energetically underway to help America transform its workplaces. Organizations, initiatives, and resource sites abound, and include: Families and Work Institute, Sloan Work and Family Research Network, National Clearinghouse on Academic Worklife, WorldatWork, Alliance for WorkLife Progress, Boston College Center for Work and Family, Center for Worklife Law, Corporate Voices for Working Families, Work, Family, and Health Network, Center for Work-Life Policy, Workplace Flexibility 2010, and many others. Many of these are affiliated with universities. Boston College, for example, is a national leader in this arena. The URI Schmidt Labor Research Center also understands workplace flexibility and work-life integration to be a current and highly relevant topic of research and advocacy, and is now focusing research attention in this direction.

Work-Life at URI. At URI, a Work-Life Committee (WLC) was formed in 2004, an outgrowth of the ADVANCE project and the President's Commission on the Status of Women. In 2008, it became a standing Presidential Committee, with about 15 members and Helen Mederer, Professor of Sociology, as its chair. The WLC is very active, and has had many successes, including playing a significant role in the passage of a paid parental leave policy, designing and spearheading both a dual career hiring policy for faculty, and a lactation support policy for all women at URI. With ADVANCE, the WLC has sponsored conferences, speakers, topical lunches, literature dissemination, and other initiatives. A work-life portal website was created (, as well as a work-life page on the ADVANCE site ( and the WLC is currently working with Human Resources to integrate all sites into one effective work-life site managed through HR.

As the ADVANCE project is coming to a close, the WLC has campaigned to have a work-life position be identified in Human Resources, as many progressive universities and companies have already done. A part-time position was approved by the Administration a year ago, though no movement has occurred to date to fill that position. While the WLC will remain active, without resources, or committed support from Human Resources, the pace of progress will be glacial.

The WLC recognizes that the Human Resources Administration and the URI Chapter of the AAUP have not yet embraced these initiatives as essential priorities as the URI workforce demographics continue to shift. We at the SLRC will continue to partner with the WLC to encourage a modernization of URI's perspective. As well, we are pursuing extramural funding to engage in work-life research.

Research Pursuits. The SLRC is currently seeking funding for the following topics of interest:

  • The Science of Generosity. Along with formal policies and informal workplace culture, is dispositional supervisor generosity, part of the equation when considering how willing supervisors/employers are to encourage flexible working arrangements? Where do barriers to implementation of flexible work options reside?
  • The Impact of Paid Parental Leave. URI implemented a paid parental leave policy for faculty in 2005. Five years later, how successful has it been? What have been the challenges? Why do some faculty choose not to use it? How has it impacted faculty and department outcomes (job satisfaction, OCBs, intent to stay, engagement, etc.)? How are administrators' attitudes and behaviors regarding flexibility related to these outcomes?
  • Child Care in Rhode Island. Prof. Matt Bodah has been collecting data on the child care provider subsidy program in RI since 2000, providing the potential for a longitudinal data analysis. We'd also like to interview providers for a more in-depth look at this industry. Finally, through providers, we'd like to survey working RI families who use child care about a variety of issues related to their experiences juggling work and family.
  • Work-Life Conflicts and the Nursing Shortage. One key factor in the current nursing shortage is the lack of sufficient faculty to accommodate the numbers of students applying to programs. While much is known about practicing nurses, less is known about the challenges and attitudes of academic nurses, including work-life integration challenges. We hope to build a collaboration with the URI College of Nursing on their DOC Expanding Nursing Educational Capacity grant.
  • "Organizational Motives for Flexibility Scale" construction and validation. Motives for implementing flexible work options range from seemingly altruistic ("to help employees lead better lives") to impression management ("I want to be the employer of choice") to business-related ("it will improve retention") to forced compliance ("it's the law"). We have little information about how motives (or perceived barriers to implementation) are linked to flexibility outcomes. The research potential with a scale of this kind is wide.
We welcome new ideas, funding leads, or participation on any of these projects.

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