Earlier this week I attended the 2011 Division of Occupational Psychology conference, held in Stratford-upon-Avon. Aside from presenting a poster on my own doctoral research and attending the usual round of presentations and workshops, I was invited to be the discussant at a symposium on Work-Life Balance and Health Behaviours.
Organised by Dr. Almuth McDowall of the University of Surrey and Prof. Gail Kinman from the University of Bedfordshire, the symposium consisted of a collection of papers focusing on the impact of work on health-related behaviours such as healthy-eating choices and strategies for post-work relaxation.
The collected papers indicated the impact that perceived imbalance between work and home domains can have on our behaviour outside of work.
Almuth and Gail discussed their research with UK Police officers and the impact that perceived levels of control over work had on participants’ Work-life Balance. In other words, it’s not so much the volume of work that predicts work-to-home conflict as much as it is the control an individual feels they have over organising their work.
Their results also highlighted the particularly negative experience of shift-workers when it comes to work impacting on their personal life.
I was also very interested in the research conducted by Fiona Jones and Joseph Grzywacz, which illustrated how when work impacts negatively on home life, women are more likely to engage in unhealthy eating behaviours such as snacking and eating convenience food. They examined the experience of working mothers recently returned to the workplace.
The relationships between work-life balance and eating variables were partly explained by long working hours (e.g. “I’m too tired to cook something healthy”) and emotional eating, which refers to food consumption in response to negative emotions, as opposed to hunger.
In this case, the emotions resulting from work negatively impacting on home life resulted in women in the sample engaging in more emotional eating than the women who experienced less work-to-home conflict.
This paper was interesting both because it addressed the impact of work-life balance (specifically work-to-home conflict) and eating behaviours, but also because it used a longitudinal methodology, tracking the women’s behaviour over a period of 16 months. Work-life Balance research is often criticised for adopting a cross-sectional or “one point in time” approach, which makes attributing causality very difficult.
I was also impressed by the inclusion of research using a qualitative approach in the symposium. Work-life Balance researchers have traditionally relied on quantitative methods, such as surveys. However interviews and diary studies can bring a richness and level of understanding to the experiential data which is quite refreshing.
Overall, the symposium highlighted the need to examine the impact of Work-life Balance not just on the psychological health of employees, but also the behaviours that directly impact their physical health, such as eating, smoking and the consumption of alcohol in direct response to the experience of work.