Work-Family Balance Isn’t Just About Time

Work-family balance can also be about how comfortable you are talking about family at work.

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Work-family balance can be tough. There are so many things to juggle. Getting to work on time, running errands, getting together with friends – all of these are important. But, they take time and energy. However, one area of work and family that is less explored is feeling like you can’t talk about your family at work. Having to hide details of your life from others can be difficult. My research, which I recently discussed at Harvard Business School, finds that hiding your family from coworkers can be stressful as well.

If you are confused at this point, bear with me. I’m positive that this article will help you understand others’ work-family balance challenges better. If you’ve been following so far, this article will probably really hit home. Those who feel like they can’t talk about their family at work, often have family members who may be misunderstood or stigmatized in society. They could also be folks who have family arrangements that are uncommon or that are associated with guilt or shame.

For example, those who are divorced may feel uncomfortable bringing that up at work. Those who have spouses or children with physical or mental health issues may have difficulty talking about their struggles in the workplace. Similarly, those in same-sex couples or those with children who are lesbian, gay or bisexual, may feel uncomfortable discussing their family dynamics or characteristics at work.

What happens when employees can’t talk about family?

Some people will say – well, why is it important to share those aspects of your life at work anyway? Can’t people just focus on their work and leave their personal lives out of it? As it turns out, this is pretty unrealistic. And it can be pretty unhealthy for work-life balance.

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Family is important! You should feel free to share!

Think about the act of putting pictures of family out on your desk at work. For the traditional, nuclear family, this act is simple and won’t bring any possible risks. However, for families that don’t fit that mold, this act may have different meaning and different consequences. In fact, in my research, participants constantly brought up tensions regarding how to discuss their family dynamics or characteristics at work.

When people feel like they couldn’t talk about their family at work, we found that they use a few different strategies. First, they try not to bring family members around their workplace or vice versa. That sometimes means not bringing spouses to holiday parties or to work picnics, for example. Second, they often try to suppress information about family at work. That results in avoiding conversations about children, spouses, or other family members or leaving conversations about what happened over the weekend. It also means trying not to connect with anyone from work on personal social media, to avoid folks seeing any posts or pictures that might give their family status away. Finally, they frequently have trusted friends at work who they do reveal more information to, meaning that they have to manage who they tell about what, as the workday goes on.

Why does talking about family at work matter?

So, the question still remains – so what? Who cares if folks can’t talk about their family in the workplace? Well, for the folks in my study, it mattered for their work-family balance, which impacted their health. The people we interviewed felt separated from their colleagues, mentally and physically.

They felt that they were less close to their coworkers than others because they weren’t sure what they could share. They also felt stressed out about the fact that people at work might look down upon their family. Those ideas led them to feel more negatively toward their workplace overall. They also felt more “on edge” around coworkers, since they felt unable to trust certain people. Related, they felt it was hard to keep track of who “knew” about their family life and who didn’t. Sometimes it was hard to manage thinking about their job and also monitoring their speech. Overall, not being able to share information that was important to these employees’ lives had negative effects on their health. And we know that negative health effects lead to decreases in work happiness and productivity!

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Can you put pictures of family on your desk?

What can you do to make things better?

So, what can you do? Well, if you have a family that you feel you can’t talk about at work, it might be good to seek advice from some of the trusted folks that you have at work. Talking to mentors outside of work can also help. They might be able to help you decide if it’s worth it to be honest about your family situation. You should be proud of the family you love – and being straightforward is better for you. But, only if the folks you tell are accepting. Talking to someone you trust can help you figure out how much of the negative reaction you might face in revealing your family is imagined and how much is real.

If you don’t fit this description, but want to help, there are things you can do too. Make sure that everyone at work knows that you are open and accepting of folks from all walks of life. Understanding that your openness and acceptance can have a positive impact on your coworkers and your workplace overall gives you power! You can make a change at work by hanging a sign on your door that shows your support for diversity or by having conversations with coworkers about challenges that you might have faced for not “fitting in” at some point. These clues can help people to know you’re an ally – and allies are important for driving work-family balance at work!

If you want to hear more about this, you can watch the talk I gave at Harvard Business School on this form of work-family balance. What are your strategies for being open and authentic at work? What are your strategies for showing others that you’re inclusive? We would love to hear from you in the comments section!


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