Study: Striving for work-life balance not worth the trouble

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Many executives and employees struggle to find balance between demanding work responsibilities and meaningful personal life experiences. To achieve better work-life balance, people commonly impose barriers and rules about when they will and won't do work or check email. However, new research suggests maintaining strict boundaries between work and home roles may cause stress, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Instead of leaving work at the office and family and personal duties at home, integrating the two could be a better strategy for improving well-being and performance, according to the report.

This is due to a concept that psychologists call "cognitive role transition." When you're actively engaged in tasks that pertain to one role but begin thinking about another role, you are experiencing cognitive role transition. The more separate the roles in your life, the bigger and more stressful the transition, according to the report.

When a home-related thought pops up while you're working, you experience a cognitive transition from one role to the other, which can deplete the attention and energy you need to perform well at work. The same is true in the reverse situation; you could be having dinner with your family and suddenly remember something that needs to be done at work, causing stress.

Most previous advice on managing work and home roles has centered on creating boundaries and practicing discipline. However, researchers from Muncie, Ind.-based Ball State University and Saint Louis University have found integrating work and life might better prepare us to handle cognitive transitions without draining our cognitive resources, according to the report.

The study, which examined over 600 employees who responded to a Sloan 500 Family Study survey, found people with looser boundaries between home and work experienced more cognitive role transitions, but they were also less stressed about them. Also, researchers found when people tried to separate work and home roles, their cognitive role transitions required more effort and impaired their performance.

"In the long-run, it may be better to allow employees' minds to wander and take occasional phone calls from home rather than set up policies that establish strict and inflexible boundaries, which could discourage the development of functional ways to juggle both," the researchers wrote in the journal Human Relations.

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