Relationships & paid work

The EEO Trust's research on personal relationships and paid work shows that there are clear links between workplace productivity and personal relationships at home and at work.

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Paid work can have positive and negative effects on personal relationships, and vice versa. This toolkit offers employers resources to assess their workplace and implement initiatives to maximise staff morale and productivity.

Helping employees deal with difficult working relationships and encouraging practices that enhance good personal relationships at work and at home will lead to happier staff, more stable relationships in the workplace and a better work culture.

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How personal relationships affect workplaces

Positive relationships outside the workplace can be models for good relationships with colleagues. Employers can enhance the benefits of employees' good personal relationships while taking steps to minimise the negative impacts of poor personal relationships on the workplace culture.

Similarly, work problems can cause or influence relationship breakdowns. Employee wellbeing can be affected by extra stress, depression and anxiety brought on by financial impacts of divorce, childcare responsibilities and loneliness. These can in turn impact on workplace productivity and safety, staff morale and retention.

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Types of work and how they affect personal relationships

The establishment and maintenance of relationships and social networks can be affected by the type of work people undertake. Certain types and patterns of work are more likely to have detrimental affects on family life or networks. Influencing factors include the type of role, the responsibilities of the work, pay structure and time demands.

Higher paid and professional-type roles

These roles may demand long work hours due to workplace culture or to meet specific goals, deadline pressure, travel (either frequent short-term or long-term commuting), relocation through transfer or for career progression, and intrusion of work into personal time through cell phones, blackberries, email etc.

Lower paid, manual or blue collar roles

Low paid workers often need to work long hours to meet basic income requirements, often through multiple part-time jobs. Other factors which impact on relationships include shift work and irregular or unpredictable hours.

Shift work

Many low income couples with children work opposite shifts so one is always available to cover childcare. These employees are often unable to participate in social and family activities, and have higher divorce rates than regular day workers. People working shifts may also miss out on work social events held in evenings and on weekends.

Casual and part-time roles

Work-life initiatives are often available only to full-time permanent workers. If work is offered at short notice, casual workers may have to cancel prior social engagements with a consequent negative effect on their relationships.

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Personal relationships outside the workplace

The quality of personal relationships depends on time spent together free of work interruptions or preoccupations. A conflict between work and home life can result in tension, stress, separation or divorce. If work demands are a problem for one partner in the relationship, even if the other partner is happy with the work-life balance, it will affect the relationship.

Gender and work hours

Men who work long hours or whose work intrudes on personal time may be putting their relationships at risk if it affects the time they spend with their partner or friends, or the distribution of household labour, even if they don't mind the hours themselves. Women who spend more time at work are less likely to receive support from a partner prepared to tolerate this choice.

Young people and work

Long hours make maintaining a relationship difficult; when one or both partners work long hours they often don't have enough time to spend together. Lack of secure work can make it difficult for young people to maintain a relationship to the point of establishing a family. Young people often combine study and part-time work, which can reduce time available for meeting people and developing friendships.

Gay/lesbian people and work

Workplace policies that exclude gay/lesbian partners from benefits available to partners of married employees disadvantage their gay/lesbian staff. Such benefits include relocation or travel arrangements and provisions, and inclusion in work functions or social events. This type of exclusion can limit career advancement opportunities and affect relationships.

Friends and work

Friendships are important networks that support performance at work and contribute to personal wellbeing. Employers should bear this in mind when considering the social context of employees' lives. Friendships are often an important precursor to marital type relationships. For single people, friends can be an important source of support. Although they may be important facets of employees' lives outside of work, friends are rarely invited to workplace social events or recognised in company bereavement leave policies.

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    Relationships in the workplace

    Relationships between workmates can suffer when work pressure creates friction or tension amongst staff. Employers need to be aware of ways to avoid or diffuse these situations or they may impact on staff performance and morale.

    The workplace has become an important place for meeting people and romantic relationships can often develop. Long work hours mean workmates tend to spend more time together and may find they have more in common with their colleagues than with their marriage partners. This can result in "the office affair", which can have negative outcomes for the organisation and staff, such as bias, harassment, bullying, confidentiality or mitigation issues. For this reason some workplaces have guidelines on romantic/sexual relationships between staff.

    At the other end of the scale, people in non-standard, shift or casual work can find it difficult to develop workplace relationships and may be excluded from workplace social activities and functions. This isolation or exclusion can also occur when employees are on parental, study or extended sick leave.

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    Benefits of good personal relationships

    Good supportive relationships have a positive impact on employees' wellbeing and health and can improve workplace performance. Often important interpersonal skills are learnt from relationships outside the workplace. Couples that have been for relationship counselling may acquire skills that are transferable to the workplace, such as communication, conflict resolution, negotiation, role modelling and positive reinforcement skills. Employers that promote family days, social activities and family-friendly work options are likely to benefit from higher staff morale and retention rates.

    Friendships and support networks

    Friendships and social support systems contribute to a sense of self-worth and personal wellbeing. Friendships between women are a major source of reciprocal childcare provision and provide resource and responsibility exchange. This can have a positive spill-over into the workplace. These networks can offer employees emotional sustenance and can act as a buffer when dealing with workplace stress or relationship problems.

    Migrant integration and language development

    For New Zealand's new migrants, particularly those with English as a second language, relationships and friendships in the workplace are an important part of the language development process and cultural integration. Migrants' networks within their own communities may generate customers or new employees, while communities in their home countries may become important contacts abroad.

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    Impact of poor personal relationships

    Relationship problems can lead to stress, preoccupation, reduced sleep and fatigue. These symptoms can cause a loss of productivity and drop in safety standards in workplaces, and an increase in absenteeism. Employees facing problems at home may look for work that has minimal impact on their personal relationships, leading to increased staff turnover.

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    Assessing issues affecting employees' relationships

    Surveying staff can help identify any relationship issues that may be relevant to, or affected by, work demands. Employers can use the sample questionnaires and checklists in this toolkit or hold focus groups with staff.

    It is important to communicate clearly with your employees from the start of the research procedure to ensure they know what you are doing and why.

    Suggested steps to take when you begin the research process

    • Determine what research method is appropriate for your organisation.
    • Set timelines; tell employees in advance how and when they will hear about the results and make sure you follow up.
    • Ask for positive and negative feedback.
    • Remind staff what initiatives are available to them and the processes involved.
    • Be realistic and do not over-promise; you are not committing to act on every suggestion.
    • Communicate; some suggestions may take longer to implement so provide progress reports.
    • Be consistent; if you promise confidentiality ensure it happens.
    • Monitor the procedures you put in place as a result of the research.

    You may decide to use the questionnaire or the checklist tool below to research your organisation. Your decision may be influenced by the size of your organisation or work team, the gender breakdown of employees, the ways you normally communicate with your staff and if you already use a staff survey tool.

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    Using questionnaires to research your workplace

    This survey method may be appropriate where the organisation or work unit is large, confidentiality is important, employees are not comfortable with face to face discussions and where written literacy is reasonably high.

    The questionnaire is designed in modules. You may not need to use them all. Questions can be adapted or added. The language and distribution method (electronic or hard copy) may need to be adjusted to suit your organisation.

    Relationships sample questionnaire (Word doc 89K)
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    Using discussion checklists to research your workplace

    This research method may be appropriate where the organisation or work unit is small, communication is generally less formal, people prefer to talk rather than write and there are clear opinion leaders in the organisation.

    You can adapt these checklists to use in focus groups, discussions at a staff meeting or tea break, or interviews with key people or opinion leaders.

    The prompts under the topics are designed to assist the discussion and are suggestions only. You may need to change the language to suit your organisation's culture.

    Relationships sample checklist (Word doc 26K)
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    Suggested initiatives for the workplace

    Research shows that positive relationships, both at work and at home, help create a productive and enjoyable work environment.

    Workplaces can implement flexible work options and family-friendly initiatives that are conducive to positive personal relationships and support work-life balance. It is important to ensure that senior mangers are committed to these initiatives and are good role models.

    How employers can encourage good relationships at work

    • Provide social facilities or a space for informal socialising and relaxation.
    • Subsidise social club events, sport/wellness programmes or gym memberships.
    • Establish social networks; establish support networks within or outside the workplace for workers of different cultures or ethnic or minority groups. This may include helping set up the networks, providing space and time to meet, providing refreshments etc.
    • Provide online networking systems to support specific groups such as women, minorities or gay and bisexual employees who wish to contact others within the organisation. This could be a page on the intranet etc.
    • Train all employees on EEO principles to help build a culture of understanding and tolerance.
    • Establish cultural awareness training/groups/information sharing. One workplace developed an interactive Māori language CD to help people pronounce Māori words correctly.

    How employers can encourage positive relationships outside of work

    Develop a healthy workplace culture

    • Train managers in the importance of healthy personal relationships.
    • Ensure managers are role models in prioritising healthy personal relationships.
    • Acknowledge and celebrate non-work related events in employees' personal lives such as citizenship ceremonies, graduations, anniversaries etc.
    • Limit long working hours; provide training on managing workloads in order to reduce the number of hours employees spend at work.
    • Encourage productivity not "presenteeism".
    • Provide flexible working options including part-time work, working from home, compressed working week and job sharing.
    • Ensure all employees have adequate evening and weekend time off.
    • Ensure all employees can make and receive personal phone calls during work time. Likewise limit phone calls to staff during their personal time.
    • Large workplaces could assess the need to develop a programme to provide support in the workplace for employees who are experiencing domestic violence.

    Provide fair relocation and travel arrangements

    • Minimise the amount of travel on out of town/overseas assignments and travel during personal time.
    • If employees travel regularly, pay for their partner to join them on alternate weekends or pay for travel home on weekends.
    • When employees are away on business pay for regular phone contact with family/partners.
    • Provide for time with partner/family on return from out of town assignments.
    • Allow time for jetlag or time zone changes where appropriate before returning to the office.
    • Avoid making promotion dependent on relocation.
    • Offer dual-career policies within the organisation
    • Provide dual career relocation policies; find work for an employee's spouse/partner if an employee is offered relocation options.

    Consider shift-work and on-call implications

    • Involve staff in rostering decisions and preferences; allow and facilitate shift swapping.
    • Subsidise childcare to help shift-workers get more sleep.
    • Minimise last minute call-ins requiring staff to rearrange their commitments.
    • Ensure that any refusal by call-in staff to work at late notice does not jeopardise their future work opportunities.

    Offer Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) counselling

    • Make confidential counselling services such as EAP available for relationship counselling and subsidise the first few sessions.
    • Allow time off to attend counselling without needing to "make up time".
    • Ensure EAP/counselling programmes meet the needs of men as well as women.
    • Offer counselling on work-related problems to employees' partners.

    Include partners/friends in social events

    • Ensure de facto and gay partners are eligible for the same benefits as married couples.
    • Ensure de facto and gay partners are welcome to attend work social events.
    • Extend invitations to employees' friends for work social events when appropriate.

    Offer flexible leave provisions

    • Enable workers to use sick leave to care for family and friends.
    • Provide domestic leave to care for dependents and or to cope with personal or domestic crises.
    • Include a Diversity Day leave option where a day can be taken off a year to observe a day of special meaning to the employee.