Whether it’s caring for a child or an ailing parent, participating in community activities, or pursuing a hobby, faculty members have and deserve lives beyond work. Formal policies, which vary across disciplines, are important, and academic leaders should actively promote such policies and programs because they can significantly affect faculty morale and retention. In addition, academic leaders at all levels can implement measures at the local level to promote work-life satisfaction and effectiveness.
In an interview with Academic Leader, Laura Koppes Bryan and Cheryl A. Wilson, authors of Shaping Work-Life Culture in Higher Education: A Guide for Academic Leaders (Routledge, 2014), offered recommendations on how to promote work-life satisfaction for everyone’s benefit.
The work-life movement began as women entered the faculty ranks and had child care responsibilities. The definition of “life” has expanded over time, and Bryan and Wilson advocate a broad interpretation to include things such as elder care, professional development, career assistance for a spouse or partner, self-care, retirement planning, religious and social activities, and hobbies. Bryan is dean of the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Science and professor of work and organizational psychology at the University of Baltimore.
As a first step, Wilson recommends becoming familiar with the policies and programs that the institution has in place to support-work life satisfaction. “Be informed so you know whom to ask about those options. There’s so much available, but there is a lot of misinformation flying around, and oftentimes faculty don’t know about it. I think being able to point them in the right direction or get them connected with people in human resources or academic affairs is really important at the local level,” says Wilson, associate professor and chair of the Klein Family School of Communications Design at the University of Baltimore.
Bryan and Wilson offer the following ways to support work-life balance:
- Compile a list of resources. To help connect faculty to resources on campus, Bryan recommends compiling a document that provides information on work-life resources and sending it to faculty members. In addition to alerting faculty to what’s available, it sends the message that it’s OK for faculty to make use of these policies and programs. This endorsement can help faculty who may otherwise be reluctant to seek help for fear of being stigmatized for doing so.
- Choose your words carefully. The way you communicate is essential for putting the faculty at ease. Your choice of language can make a difference in the way faculty feel about your stance on work-life issues, Bryan says. For example, faculty may interpret the word “accommodate” more negatively than the word “support” when you refer to these issues.
- Create spaces to talk about work-life issues. Wilson also recommends having family-friendly events to acknowledge that faculty have lives outside the office. And simply asking “‘What did you do this weekend?’ reminds individuals that you know that they don’t just “disappear” at the end of the work day. “I think everybody engages in that kind of conversation differently, but it starts to create a space in the workplace where you can have a little bit more blending of life and work,” she says.
- Include work-life information on your unit’s Web page. Bryan did this shortly after becoming dean, and “I’ve actually had several faculty and staff candidates say that when they saw that, it encouraged them to apply to the university.” Another way to demonstrate your commitment to work-life issues is to form a work-life committee. This also can help you understand the faculty’s work-life needs to enable you to develop policies and programs to address them, Bryan says.
- Be flexible and creative in looking for solutions. There is a wide range of options that leaders have at their disposal to address work-life issues. “They don’t all have to be grand policy gestures. Some [measures] can be very small things that make a huge difference to the faculty or staff member,” Wilson says. For example, one way to support faculty members who need to drop off and/or pick up their children at day care or school is to avoid scheduling meetings in the early morning or late afternoon.
Bryan regularly uses the first five or 10 minutes of meetings to “check in with everybody around the table by asking ‘What’s going on in your life right now? What do you want to share with the rest of us?’ That shows I’m interested in knowing about them as people. They also learn about each other,” Bryan says, noting that not everybody is comfortable sharing this type of information, so it’s important to make this optional.
In addition, when leaders talk about their own work-life situation, “We saw as a common theme how important it was for the leader to be transparent about their own work-life responsibilities. When leaders who shared that they had child care or eldercare responsibilities, they were viewed as more work-life friendly,” Bryan says.
When faculty members have life-changing events, Bryan strives to create some flexibility in their schedules. “We’ll actually modify their duties. They’re still on contract and working full time, but we will modify what they do as a way to have more flexibility in how they spend their time at the university,” Bryan says.
For Bryan, the main motivation for implementing policies and programs to support work-life satisfaction is to help faculty and staff succeed. But there are other benefits as well. “Ultimately, it’s about recruiting and retaining the best faculty and staff. If you really care about individuals succeeding, then you have to recognize that there is life outside work. What can we do as an institution and leaders to help them succeed?” Bryan says.
Rob Kelly is the former editor of Academic Leader.