Juggling work and personal responsibilities can be a struggle. Some people focus all their attention on their careers while letting their health, relationships. and happiness fall by the wayside. Others can become too preoccupied with their personal lives. And some try to find the perfect work-life balance, a concept that includes prioritizing "work" and "home” duties, by keeping the two separate and only focusing on them during their designated time. For example, they might choose to leave work at the office and home at the house doorstep — that way, they can have a handle on their personal life and their performance at work won’t slip. New research published in the journal Human Relations, however, found that keeping work and home seperate may not always be the best strategy for employee wellbeing and performance.

Work-life balance is important, but for some time now, it's been thought that employees needed to have a strict separation between home and work in order to maintain concentration and high performance. After all, it can be distracting to think, “My daughter’s birthday is this week and I need to plan her birthday party,” while sitting in an office meeting. This act of being engaged in one role and experiencing off-topic thoughts regarding a different role is called cognitive transition. However, researchers from Ball State University and Saint Louis University argue that integrating both domains, rather than separating them, can reduce the impact of moving between home and work roles while also preserving employees' ability to be effective in their jobs.

"In the long run, it may be better to allow employees' minds to wander and take occasional phone calls from home rather than set up policies that establish strict and inflexible boundaries, which could discourage the development of functional ways to juggle both,” researchers wrote.

For the study, researchers combed through data from more than 600 employees who participated in  the Sloan 500 Family Study, which targeted middle-class, dual-earner families across the United States. The participants reported instances where they had thoughts that were either related or unrelated to their work tasks. Researchers outlined how individuals with integrated boundaries across home and work are likely to develop methods that help them transition between these domains more efficiently and with less mental effort.

They found that when people who tried to keep work and home life separate experienced cognitive role transitions, it had a negative effect on task effort and job performance. People who integrated their lifestyles with flexible working arrangements, such as "flextime" and "flexplace” policies, which allow employees to shift hours to accommodate family demands, or allow individuals to work from home, had it a little easier. Although they were more likely to experience cognitive role transitions, they suffered less disruption to job performance during times when home interruptions spilled over into the workplace.

"Overall, our findings suggest that integration, rather than segmentation, may be a better long-term boundary management strategy for minimizing resource depletion and maintaining higher levels of job performance during inevitable work-family role transitions,” researchers wrote.

The belief that people should keep their personal and work lives separate stems from boundary and border theory, or the “processes through which individuals engage in role transitions between different domains, such as work and home,” researchers wrote. Interestingly, this widely-cited proposition has not been directly tested.

When work-life integration policies are not feasible, people can reduce the number of cognitive role transitions they experience by using methods such as  goal setting, which involves creating plans that specify "what, when, and how" incomplete tasks will be accomplished. Creating these plans may help prevent mental distractions from unfinished tasks that are not relevant at work.

Source: Smit B, Maloney P, Maertz C, Montag-Smit T. Out of Sight, Out of Mind? How and When Cognitive Role Transition Episodes Influence Employee Performance. Human Relations. 2016.