A balancing act

The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s Fiona Ross lists four ways for universities to improve staff work-life balance

Maintaining a positive work-life balance is a challenge facing employees across all sectors. But it is a particularly pressing issue in higher education and could even be causing a ‘brain drain’ of future leaders. In the Leadership Foundation’s recent survey – the largest ever UK-wide study of leadership in higher education – it found that many in the sector are becoming reluctant to pursue senior roles because of demanding workloads. Fiona Ross considers four ways that universities can act to ensure that they are supporting staff and doing their best to retain talent.

1 – Stronger leadership on wellbeing

Leaders play a vital role in helping to keep staff engaged by creating a positive and inclusive work environment, where wellbeing is a priority for managers and senior staff. Creating a culture where staff feel listened to and confident in seeking support is the first step to ensure that staff are able to enjoy a positive work-life balance. Right now, many are deterred from pursuing senior leadership positions due to concerns around excessive workloads, so it is important for leaders to create an environment where staff feel able to speak up around challenges in their work or personal lives that may be impacting their role. Senior management should actively communicate the benefits of positive work-life balance to staff and be transparent about the support that is available. In turn, this will help encourage more people to pursue senior roles.

2 – Monitor work-loads

Because of the varied nature of academic disciplines, staff in higher education tend to work with a greater level of autonomy than in other professional sectors, so there is a reported culture of long working hours and many report feeling overwhelmed by ‘workaholic’ environments. Ninety per cent of men and eighty five per cent of women who worked in higher education at the time of the HELMs study say they work more than 48 hours in a typical week – well above standard contracted working hours in higher education. Steps such as monitoring workloads across the institution and implementing a fair and equitable workload management system could help to relieve the pressure felt by staff, increasing performance and motivation in the long-term.

3 – Value outputs first and foremost

Employees that are able to manage positive work-life balance are more likely to experience greater job satisfaction and demonstrate increased performance and productivity, as well as improved physical and mental wellbeing. Support for workload management is therefore a key motivator for employees and plays an important role in attracting and retaining talented staff. One crucial way of ensuring that staff feel supported is by rewarding and recognising outcomes achieved – rather than hours spent at work – so staff feel valued for the quality of the contribution they make first and foremost.

4 – Exercise caution around family-friendly policies

‘Family-friendly’ work policies can be an excellent indicator of organisational support for staff work-life balance. However, they are by no means a guarantee of effective support: the Leadership Foundation’s research has found that schemes such as flexible working hours were not necessarily associated with helping staff to achieve a better work-life balance. In fact, in some cases they could even be felt to exacerbate workloads or blur the boundaries between work and home life. As such, any policies should be used carefully and monitored to ensure they are having a positive impact amongst staff. It’s also important to ensure that all policies are inclusive too – and that those without families are catered for as well.

Professor Fiona Ross CBE is Head of Research at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

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