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Marcello Russo


Assistant Professor, Management

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How can supervisors help employee work-life balance?


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Employees are increasingly having to balance family and work domains. On one hand, the prolonged economic crisis is forcing many to work longer hours. On the other hand, and different from the past, there is now a stronger societal pressure on individuals to fully participate in every area of life, without affecting other areas.

As a consequence, work-family tensions arise since employees are less capable of participating as they would like, or are expected to, in the meaningful domains of their life.  

How can supervisors help people better manage their work-life balance?

Work-family research, including a paper I have recently published (in collaboration with Filomena Buoncore, Carmeli Abraham and Liang Guo) in the Journal of Management, has found that critical to helping employees successfully handle their competing personal and professional demands is the support they can receive at work, particularly from their supervisor.

Supervisors can act as gatekeepers and with their behaviors can encourage or dissuade employees to use the formal family-friendly policies available in their organisations and/or to disclose at work their family-related problems and look for help.

Despite organisational norms and culture often discouraging employees to talk at work about their personal life, this can be interpreted as a sign of low commitment towards the work. Recent research has shown that talking about family life with coworkers and supervisors can be critical for a successful management of the work-family interface.

This because employees can receive at work unexpected help, emotional support and advice to better manage their daily and/or more strategic family issues. Furthermore, bringing the whole self at work (both the professional and personal self) can help employees to experience more fit and harmony between their personal and professional roles and multiple identities.

Being a researcher living abroad, in France, I have personally experienced the benefit of such behaviors, as the numerous discussions with colleagues and the boss about the difficulties encountered to adjust to the new country and culture has helped me to get important resources and suggestions (e.g., which hospital to choose for giving birth to our first daughter, where to look for a job for my wife, advice on which neighborhood in which to purchase our home, etc.) that have been critical to improve the functioning and effectiveness of my young family.

In the study, conducted using a sample of Italian and Chinese employees, we found that working with a family-supportive supervisor helps employees to experience a more positive management of their work-family interface and feel a stronger sense of thriving at work (defined as the joint experience of learning and vitality in the workplace).

More specifically, we found that the presence of a family supportive supervisor contributes to:

  • Enhancing the employees’ perceptions to work in a supportive environment where they can feel free to discuss their family-related problems and seek help without the risk of being penalised because of this behavior;
  • Facilitating the development and accumulation of critical resources, such as psychological availability, knowledge, positive affect and networks that enable employees to cope successfully with competing personal and professional demands and also to undertake proactive behaviors and self-development initiatives that are crucial to thrive at work;
  • Making employees experience a positive and enriching relationship between their work and family roles.

Do all employees respond the same towards the presence of family-supportive supervisors?

The results of our study also demonstrate that not all employees respond equally to the presence of a family supportive supervisor but some employees are more responsive than others: particularly those who feel a stronger need of being cared because of demanding family situations (e.g. employees who have children or elder parents to care at home) or simply because they feel a higher subjective need of being cared and appreciated by others.

This is practically important because our research can help supervisors to allocate their supportive resources more adequately by targeting at first those employees who are most in need of their family support.

When can a boss be considered to be family-supportive?

The work by Leslie Hammer and Ellen Kossek helps us to understand more specifically when supervisors can be considered as family supportive:

  • When they provide emotional support and show sympathy towards their collaborators’ family and personal lives;
  • When they provide instrumental support and offer day-to-day assistance and resources to facilitate the employees’ management of work-family demands;
  • When they become a role model for their collaborators on how to successfully cope with competing work and family demands (i.e. when supervisors are capable of experiencing themselves a good level of balance between the multiple domains of their lives);
  • When they decide to implement in their organisations innovative work-family initiatives that enables restructuring work in a way that can both reduce individuals’ work-family tensions and improve organizational outcomes.

What can organisations do to make managers more family-supportive?

Being a family-supportive manager is a fascinating but still a young idea; therefore, managers may not be sufficiently prepared to behave this way.

However, a series of promising studies conducted on the topic have shown that training managers on this particular idea is effective to promote a larger manifestation of these family supportive behaviors at work.

An ideal training program should provide participants information about the dimensions of family-supportive behaviors, examples about the effective use of family supportive techniques and resulting benefits on the workforce.

It is also important to make managers practice their family-supportive skills through the analysis of real or invented scenarios and also monitor their behavioral change over a period of several weeks with post-training sessions.


Allen, T. D. (2001). Family-Supportive Work Environments: The Role of Organizational Perceptions. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 58(3), 414–435.

Dumas, T. L., & Sanchez-Burks, J. (2015). The Professional, the Personal, and the Ideal Worker: Pressures and Objectives Shaping the Boundary between Life Domains. The Academy of Management Annals, 9(1), 803–843.

Hammer, L. B., Johnson, R. C., Crain, T. L., Bodner, T., Kossek, E. E., Kelly, D., Kelly, E. L., Buxton, O. M., Karuntzos, G., Chosewood, L. C., & Berkman, L. 2015. Intervention effects on safety compliance and citizenship behaviors: Evidence from the work, family, and health study. Journal of Applied Psychology, doi:10.1037/apl0000047

Hammer, L. B., Kossek, E. E., Anger, W. K., Bodner, T., & Zimmerman, K. L. (2011). Clarifying work-family intervention processes: the roles of work-family conflict and family-supportive supervisor behaviors. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(1), 134–150.

Russo, M. (2015). Work–home enrichment and health: an analysis of the mediating role of persistence in goal striving and vulnerability to stress. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 26(19), 2486–2502.

Russo, M., Shteigman, A., & Carmeli, A. (forthcoming). Workplace and family support and work–life balance: Implications for individual psychological availability and energy at work. The Journal of Positive Psychology, doi:10.1080/17439760.2015.1025424

Russo, M., Buonocore, F., Carmeli, A., & Guo, L. (forthcoming). When Family Supportive Supervisors Meet Employees’ Need for Caring: Implications for Work-Family Enrichment and Thriving­­. Journal of Management, doi: 10.1177/0149206315618013

Spreitzer, G., Sutcliffe, K., Dutton, J., Sonenshein, S., & Grant, A. M. (2005). A Socially Embedded Model of Thriving at Work. Organization Science, 16(5), 537–549.

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Marcello Russo

Assistant Professor, Management

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