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Grace Lemmon: Promoting balance between work and life

Grace Lemmon
Grace Lemmon is an associate professor of management and faculty director of the management honors program at DePaul University. Her research focuses on the intersection between work-life balance and employee engagement, illustrated by DePaul's commitment to staff health. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)
Since 2011, Grace Lemmon has taught management and leadership courses in DePaul's Driehaus College of Business. Now an associate professor and faculty director of the Management Honors Program, Lemmon's research focuses on the intersection of work-life balance and employee engagement in the workplace. Read on to learn more about why this Double Demon believes work-life balance is important and how it all begins with the organization and employer.

What is work-life balance?

Work-life balance is a person's ability to manage conflicting demands from their work-life and their life-life. This doesn't just mean balancing work and family - some people are unattached and don't have kids, but they still have a very rich and full-of-obligation life outside the office. So overall, work-life balance is balancing work, family, friends, school, personal hobbies, and anything else that completes us as human beings.

Why is work-life balance important?

It's important for sanity of the American workforce! Research shows that balance among these aspects is key to success and overall health. Typically when we set goals for ourselves, it's natural to have both personal and professional goals: "I want to make partner at the firm by age 40. I want to climb a mountain. I want to learn a new language." Having balance allows people to strive to achieve things on both sides of their bucket lists.

Balance also is important because a lot of learning can go on between the work-world and life-world. There are many resources people can build in one domain and use in the other. For example, if I had kids I would likely use and build my patience skills regularly. I could then transfer that skill to when I'm working in the classroom at DePaul. Having balance provides people with opportunities to use, develop and transfer resources to different areas of their lives.

What are some common misconceptions about work-life balance?

The first prevalent misconception is that you can have it all. It's become engrained in our culture, especially for women. Work-life balance has become this idea that if you only work hard enough, you can attain it. In reality, it isn't about working harder, it's about finding organizations that have structures in place that support work-life balance and enable you to live with the balance you want. It's more of a structural problem within organizations than a personal problem.

People also tend to believe work-life balance happens only to women. It certainly happens to men, and men often have to stuff down some of their perceived imbalances because it's not in line with the masculine identity of being a provider.

Another misconception is that work-life balance is achievable for all types of employees, but I think imbalance hits certain employees more than others. Underprivileged employees - workers who do not make a lot of money or who work at organizations with high turn-over rates - are the most susceptible to this imbalance. A lot of my research focuses on work-life balance as an issue not just for "professionals;" it's an issue for all types of employees and it really hits low-skill and low-wage employees very hard.

What can employers and organizations do to support work-life balance?

There are two parts to providing employees with work-life balance: structures and attitude. From a structural or systemic view, an organization could provide more flexible work schedules or better paid leave to employees - things of that nature. But these structures must be backed by a workplace culture that makes it acceptable to engage in those structures.

For example, paternity leave for new fathers is growing, which is a good thing. However, although organizations have paternity leave, many new fathers are only taking a portion of that leave, about one week out of the six weeks typically provided. This often is because it's just not "culturally accepted" at those organizations for men to be on paternity leave for that long.

Unless an organization develops a system and shifts the culture to support that system, balance will not be achieved.

How do you tie your research into the classroom?

I do talk about my research a lot, probably to a point of getting a little preachy, but I'm okay with that. If we're going to talk about leadership, let's talk about structures you're going to put in place and how to deal with different types of employees.

Even if students are taking a business course as an elective, there are transferable skills that come from learning about leadership and management.