Findings from the Commission for Student Involvement’s Work-Life Integration Project

Conversations of work-life balance and integration are central to the work and wellbeing on higher education and student affairs professionals across functional areas. Individuals have varied definitions of balance and work-life integration. ACPA’s Commission for Student Involvement (CSI) undertook a research project on work-life balance and integration among student affairs professionals to 1) understand strategies professionals utilize and 2) environments that facilitate successful work-life balance and integration. The research project ultimately identified a focus on integration rather than balance to acknowledge the multiple, often competing priorities individuals must juggle across professional and personal spheres.

Data were collected through focus groups at the 2015 ACPA Convention; a survey was distributed in the months following. In total, more than 150 individuals participated in the research project. This post shares the six biggest findings from the research, sharing both themes to illuminate the reality of work-life integration and resources to support more effective work-life integration in your organization and individual lives.

     1. In regard to professional development, supervisor support is more important than institutional support

While institutional support plays an important role in supporting work-life integration, participants identified supervisor support as being more important than institutional support for professional development. Participants identified a general feeling that institutions misunderstand student affairs work, meaning supervisors may have to be stronger advocates for access to professional development resources for their team.

Supervisors can greatly influence access to professional development in positive and negative ways. Supervisors should make space in 1:1s to understand their staff members’ professional goals, priorities, and areas of growth. Professional development plays an important role in employee engagement, retention, and success. Therefore, creating and asking staff to create professional development plans and instituting regular check-ins can support professional development.
     2. Professional development is not supported because of lack of money/resources

When discussing the value of professional development, participants noted that access to funding was a significant factor. Even staff members with the most supportive supervisors may face barriers in accessing professional development due to lack of funding. Supervisors can strive to be transparent about professional development funding to help staff identify realistic options. Approximately 95% of participants noted they actively seek out professional development opportunities. Supervisors can work with staff to identify scholarship and grant opportunities to fund access to conferences and prioritize access to more affordable options like webinars and local conferences.

     3. Supervisory relationships are very influential

Individual supervisor-supervisee relationships influence work-life integration in positive and negative ways. Supervisors can start by acknowledging the degree of influence they have over their supervisee’s work-life integration. By prioritizing conversations about wellness and personal and professional goals, supervisors can identify and support work-life integration. Additionally, role modeling and office culture can greatly influence individuals’ work-life integration efforts. Identifying and respecting boundaries are essential; supervisors who utilize vacation days and don’t expect email responses at all hours of the night can help their staff members feel like they can also take care of themselves outside of work.

 4. Degree of satisfaction and fulfillment in their current role

Most participants reported feeling valued and supported in their roles. Feelings of value and support come from a variety of sources: support for professional development, recognition, promotion, compensation, and affirmation. Degree of satisfaction and fulfillment is important for employee retention, contributions, and wellness. Supervisors can strive to understand the ways their staff like to receive feedback in order to reward staff appropriately. Furthermore, supervisors can help staff identify the most energizing areas of their jobs. As appropriate, supervisors can strategize with staff to increase opportunities to engage in energy-giving rather than energy-draining projects. Timely self and formal evaluations provide opportunities for employees to identify their strengths and degree of fulfillment; highlighting accomplishments and strengths contributes to role satisfaction.

     5. Student affairs doesn’t promote a culture of balance

Generally, participants reported that balance is unrealistic in student affairs because student affairs doesn’t promote a culture of balance. Participants reported feeling that they couldn’t turn work off because everything is always a priority.

While balance is viewed as unattainable, participants prefer the term integration. Supervisors can start by shifting the focus from balance to integration; acknowledging the real challenges to achieving balance. Prioritizing conversations and programs that promote balance can help staff work towards integration. Actively scheduling flex time; utilizing nutrition, fitness, or counseling resources; planning out professional development opportunities; and establishing strong relationships at and outside of work can promote work-life integration. Supervisors should be as authentic as possible in discussing their own work-life integration efforts; supervisors and managers don’t need to  pretend to have all the answers. By continuously exploring work-life integration, staff can feel that their office or department supports a culture of balance and begin to pursue work-life balance.

     6. Personal relationships with friends and colleagues were mentioned infrequently

In conversations about balance and work-life integration, personal relationships were mentioned infrequently. While professional development and balance were mentioned frequently, personal relationships were not an obvious part of individuals’ work-life integration efforts. While personal relationships were infrequently mentioned, relationships may contribute to perceptions of support and balance. However, relationships may not be an impetus for prioritizing balance, but rather a resource for balance. Maintaining multiple relationships in times of work stress can feel like added pressure for some people, where others find it energizing and rejuvenating.

The following infographic was created by CSI volunteer, Veronica Roman, highlighting details of the project, themes, and takeaways.

Work-Life Integration Infographic