Employee Relations

Impact and Implications of Work and Personal Life Boundaries

Employees hold multiple roles in their lives, which can often conflict with one another. Multiple role conflict negatively impacts both job and life satisfaction and causes stress outcomes such as work withdrawal. Multiples roles may also positively impact employees’ lives. Researchers are beginning to look at the positive impacts of holding multiple roles, including work and personal life enhancement. Furthermore, researchers have been investigating how role boundaries relate to both negative and positive impacts.

What are Role Boundaries?

Role boundaries are how individuals organize themselves in each of their multiple roles. A boundary can vary in strength depending on its permeability and flexibility. Permeability is the extent to which one role intrudes or penetrates into another. A work boundary can be considered permeable if the employee receives calls from family while at work. A personal life boundary can be considered permeable if the employee takes work home to complete. Flexibility is the extent to which one role can be relaxed to meet the needs of another role. There are two aspects of flexibility in relation to role boundary strength: ability and willingness.
  • One may be able to flex a personal life role but is not willing to do so.
  • Another person may be willing to flex a work role to meet personal life role needs but is not able or allowed.
  • In other cases, a person may be both unable and unwilling or both able and willing to be flexible.

Boundary Management Profiles

The strategies that individuals use to manage their work and personal life role boundaries fall along a continuum of being fully segmented to fully integrated. Segmentation refers to when a role is low on flexibility and permeability, maintaining a complete separation of work and personal life. Integration refers to when a role is high on flexibility and permeability. Such an individual would be likely to bring work home or leave a family event to attend to work matters. There are 4 basic boundary management profiles that fall along this continuum. Most individuals fall into Profile 2. Profile 1.      Able and willing to flex both work and life boundaries, with high permeability of both. Profile 2.      Able and willing to flex work boundary, with low work permeability; also able, but less willing to flex the personal life boundary, with low personal life permeability. Profile 3.      Individuals who are neutral on most of the boundary flexibility and permeability measures. Profile 4.      Able and willing to flex the work life boundary but not the personal life boundary.

Boundaries and Role Interference & Enhancement

The way in which individuals manage their role boundaries affects their experiences of work and personal life balance. A less flexible and permeable role boundary generally results in individuals experiencing more role interference. In terms of enhancement, individuals who are able to leave work to attend to their personal lives and who are more willing to be flexible with their personal life boundary report higher work enhancement of their personal life. Flexibility has been shown to be a major predictor in role enhancement. Particularly, the more flexibility individuals have in one role, the more successful their performances are in other roles.

Implications for Practice

Deepen your understanding of employees’ boundaries. Because work and personal life balance continues to be an important issue for employees, employers must deepen their understanding of the boundaries workers set up for their competing roles. Demonstrate your respect for multiple roles. Individuals’ perceptions that their employer encourages segmentation of work and personal life roles is negatively related to organizational commitment, whereas perceived organizational respect for multiple roles leads to organizational commitment. Encourage flexibility in your employees’ role boundaries. This will likely enhance work and personal life balance while increasing job and life satisfaction and decreasing stress-related outcomes.

Interpretation by:

Lexy Adkins

The DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Bulger, C. A., Matthews, R.A., & Hoffman, M.E. (2007). Work and Personal Life Boundary Management: Boundary Strength, Work/Personal Life Balance, and the Segmentation—Integration Continuum. Journal of Occupational Health and Psychology, 12 (4), 305-375.