By Dr Peter Langford MAPS and Dr Louise Parkes MAPS, Voice Project, Department of Psychology, Macquarie University, and Joanne Abbey MAPS, School of Arts and Sciences, Australian Catholic University

Could managers be right and psychologists wrong? Despite great efforts of psychologists the average manager continues to respond negatively when faced with the argument that more effective management of stress, workload and work/life balance will lead to greater productivity, morale, attraction and retention. Data that Voice Project has compiled suggests managers may intuitively know more than psychologists would like to believe.

Voice Project is a research and consulting team based in the Department of Psychology, Macquarie University. We specialise in using organisational surveys to diagnose leadership, culture and human resource management. As part of an ongoing research project we recently compiled data from 10,021 employees from 876 business units across more than 700 organisations. All of these employees completed a 102-question survey asking about their level of employee engagement and their assessment of 28 other characteristics of their work environment. We also gathered further information from the organisations about turnover, absenteeism, safety and financial performance. We recently submitted a journal article describing this research in detail (for a copy of the paper or the survey please contact the first author). While the implications of the research are quite varied, we found some extremely surprising results that conflict with much of the current excitement about wellbeing and work/life balance in the workplace.

Putting peace in perspective

Before starting our main analyses, we explored ways of simplifying the employee survey data to make it more manageable. Using factor analysis we found that the employee responses clustered onto the following seven broad categories:

1.Purpose (belief in the vision, direction and ethics of an organisation);

2.Property (quality and availability of resources, technology and processes);

3.Participation (the extent to which staff feel involved, recognised and growing);

4.People (motivation, talent and teamwork of coworkers);

5.Peace (wellness and work/life balance);

6.Progress (achieving objectives, successful change and satisfied customers); and

7.Passion (equivalent to the currently popular term 'employee engagement' with three subcomponents of organisation commitment, job satisfaction and intention to stay).

In support of the current media hype and much high quality research, we found a positive relationship (r = .38) between peace and passion. But in stark contrast to the priority currently being given to issues such as wellness and work/life balance, all of the other workplace characteristics predicted passion more strongly than did peace. Purpose, participation and progress showed the strongest relationships with passion (r = .63 to .65)

Moreover, of all 28 workplace characteristics, work/life balance showed the lowest correlation with passion. When controlling for other workplace characteristics, work/life balance showed a significant negative correlation with passion - that is, the higher an employee's work/life balance the lower that employee's level of commitment to the organisation, the lower the job satisfaction and the lower the intention to stay with an organisation. Wellness (representing the absence of stress) performed more favourably, showing a positive and moderately strong relationship with passion. Even then, however, wellness still only managed to rank 13th out of the 28 workplace characteristics for strength of relationship with employee passion.

It is easy to see how the average manager might be less than excited about the relative importance of peace in the workplace. Unfortunately we found further bad news when we unpacked passion into its components of organisation commitment, job satisfaction and intention to stay. Of these components, the average manager tends to be most interested in intention to stay (to avoid the disruption and cost of staff turnover), moderately interested in organisation commitment (because organisation commitment taps into an employee's loyalty to an organisation and willingness to put in extra effort for the organisation), and least interested in whether or not an employee is satisfied with his or her day-to-day job. In contrast, peace shows the unfortunate profile of being most strongly correlated with job satisfaction

(r = .44), followed by organisation commitment (r = .37) and showing the lowest correlation with intention to stay (r = .21).

If we haven't yet entirely destroyed the average manager's willingness to give peace a chance, then the following results may tip the balance. Expanding our focus beyond the employee survey data, we explored the relationship between workplace characteristics and more objective data including turnover, absenteeism, safety and financial performance. Peace showed the weakest or second weakest relationship with 12 different measures of organisational performance. It was the weakest predictor of turnover and absenteeism, and second weakest predictor of measures of safety and financial performance (the factor of 'people' showed the weakest relationship with safety and financial performance).

Finally, again in contrast to what the popular press would have us believe, the average worker is reasonably satisfied with his or her levels of peace (70 per cent favourable), wellness (66 per cent favourable) and work/life balance (74 per cent favourable). Examining the 28 different workplace characteristics, work/life balance ranked 5th highest in overall satisfaction (behind teamwork, diversity, results focus and role clarity), and wellness was ranked 13th highest.

In summary, our data suggest that peace, wellness and work/life balance are not at particularly low levels and are not particularly important for passion, progress and profitability.

So why the excitement?

The above results surprised us and other practitioners and researchers we have since spoken to. We have examined our research methodology and cannot see any explanations there for these results, so it remains to be explained why there is a gap between our findings and the current level of interest in wellness and work/life balance from practitioners, researchers and the media. In discussing our results with others a few explanations have been suggested.

First, if we had studied peace in isolation (that is, not directly contrasting peace with other workplace characteristics) then we would have reported a positive relationship between peace and outcomes such as employee engagement, turnover, absenteeism and safety. It would then be tempting to conclude that the average manager should allocate resources to better managing peace. However, by comparing the relative importance of these workplace characteristics we have to conclude that finite resources might be better allocated elsewhere if passion, progress and profitability are desired goals.

Second, it has been suggested that peace may be of greater relative importance for particular groups of people. A common suggestion is that work/life balance is particularly important for younger employees and may play an increasingly greater role in organisations as younger generations replace older generations. Our answer to these suggestions is both yes and no. We have examined the relative importance of peace for different age groups and demographic characteristics. We have found differences, but not those the popular press would have us believe. The frequently offered explanation is that peace is more important for generation Y than for X'ers or baby boomers. Our data suggest the complete opposite - peace, wellness and work/life balance are least important for Y'ers and of relatively greater importance for X'ers and baby boomers. Although not as exciting as the current debate about generational differences, our data show the unsurprising finding that peace is most important for middle-age employees with kids.

Third, some recent research projects by postgraduate Masters students at Macquarie University (in particular Portia Bridges and Megan O'Brien) shed light on the components of work/life balance. Examining a broad range of methods used to improve work/life balance in the workplace, their research highlights the importance of flexible work hours. One interpretation of this research is that the label 'work/life balance' may not be the most appropriate. Many people imagine work/life balance refers to a quieter life, working fewer hours, and achieving greater separation between work duties and life/family duties. We would suggest this isn't what most people want. Employees seem to be very willing to work long hours in a job they love, so long as they have some control over where and when they work. Employees want the flexibility to leave work early to pick up the kids or do some banking, and many are quite willing to replace the lost hours by working at nights or on the weekend.

Choosing passion and progress before peace

As a society, as organisations and as individuals we are choosing passion and progress before peace. We are putting in the hard yards and we enjoy doing so. Indeed, if our schedule empties a little or our job isn't inspiring us to get up earlier, then we find more goals or another job. Although we may seek pockets of peace to help us momentarily recover from a particularly heavy load, we aren't looking for the quiet life.

Peace may be a legitimate goal for ethical or moral reasons, or in an attempt to reduce direct costs associated with stress claims. We may, however, be doing ourselves a disservice, as individuals and as a profession, if we continue to argue that peace is a primary method for enhancing productivity, morale, attraction and retention. Through years of practical experience managers appear to have intuitively grasped the disconnect between peace, passion and progress. Our profession's credibility may fall a notch every time we try to convince them otherwise.

For any further information related to this article, please contact Dr Peter Langford on peter.langford@mq.edu.au.