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It’s not just time that’s of the essence: Feelings of belonging at work also help create a better sense of work-life balance – Michelle Ryan, Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter


Michelle Ryan is Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology and Dean of Postgraduate Research at the University of Exeter and Professor of Diversity at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands. Together with Alex Haslam, she uncovered the phenomenon of the ‘glass cliff’, whereby women (and members of other minority groups) are more likely to be placed in leadership positions which are risky or precarious. This research was short listed for the Times Higher Education Supplement Research Project of the Year in 2005 and was named by the New York Times as one of the ideas that shaped 2008.

Professor Michelle Ryan
Professor Michelle Ryan

On 3rd December 2014, Michelle presented research where she considered work-life balance in relation to identity and belongingness at her keynote presentation to the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology in Glasgow.

Research on the glass cliff effect for women in senior leadership roles

Research on the glass cliff looks at the types of leadership positions that women tend to take on once they break through the glass ceiling. What our research suggests is that female leaders are often appointed in times of crisis, and as such their leadership positions are often risky and precarious. A timely example is Mary Barra from General Motors, appointed just before a large and damaging recall was announced.

Our latest research: Understanding perceptions of work-life balance

Our latest research, conducted in collaboration with Dr Kim Peters from the University of Queensland (Australia) and Dr Floor Rink and Prof Janka Stoker (both at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands) – looks at how we can understand people’s perceptions of their own work-life balance.

While the amount of time one spends at work, compared to the amount of time one has left to spend on one’s life outside, certainly plays an important role in perceptions of one’s work-life balance – we find that perceptions of work-life balance are also associated with issues of identity and belonging.

We conducted research with the UK Royal Navy and with surgical trainees in conjunction with the Royal College of Surgeons.

People feel they have a better work life balance if they feel as though they ‘fit in’

The key findings suggest that people feel like they have a better work life balance if they feel as though they ‘fit in’ with people who have been successful in their profession. That is, if you can look up and see that people like you have made it, you are more likely to feel like your work life is balanced with your personal life.

We can demonstrate a couple of different explanations for why this might be the case. First, feeling like you fit in within an organisation makes you feel like you belong in that organisation and that who you are at home is compatible with who you are at work.

Second, feeling as though others like you have been successful in your profession also makes you yourself expect to succeed and makes you more likely to be willing to make sacrifices for your career.

The reaction so far has been every positive – I presented this work last week at a conference of Clinical Psychologists and the findings very much resonated with people experiences.

But if all of our interventions to address work-life balance only focus on time, we might be missing a trick…

Time is very clearly an important aspect of work-life balance – but we know of many people who work incredibly long hours in jobs that they are passionate about and in which they expect to succeed and still feel they have the balance right.

If all of our interventions to address work-life balance only focus on time, we might potentially be missing a trick by not attending to issues of fit and identity and indeed some practices might even exacerbate these dynamics.

Employers who want to encourage women to stay in the workforce

I think employers should continue to offer flexible working options that address the need of employees to balance their work and their life outside of work. But organisations must also ensure that women feel as though they can be authentic at work and that they have role models who demonstrate that success is possible and that the sacrifice is worthwhile.

What’s next…

We are currently conducting more work to better understand perceptions of work-life balance and to design interventions that increase women’s feelings that they fit in and belong in the workplace.