Frank, a successful software designer at an IT firm in Montreal, was on the phone during a break. His manager walked by and noticed Frank hunched over whispering into the receiver. A young father, Frank was fielding a call from his distraught wife who was struggling at home alone with their newborn son. The boss could hear bits of the conversation in the hallway. “It’s okay, no but I’ll be there as soon as I can”. “I know, I know it’s really hard, but can you call someone nearby? Look I’ve got to go, please don’t cry, I’ll be home right after work, I will, as soon as I can.”
Frank hung up and rested his head on his hands. His manager noticed Frank stayed at his desk, instead of heading to the morning production meeting. The manager knocked on the door saying “Can I have a word with you in private?”
Frank invited the manager to take a seat and anticipated the worst – maybe the loss of a promotion or even his job. He had let his private life interfere with his work and he thought that wouldn’t be tolerated.
Frank’s predicament – balancing home and work concerns – is more common than ever, given a significant demographic shift in the workforce that has been occurring over the last fourteen years.
According to Carleton University professor Linda Duxbury and Ivey Business School professor Chris Higgins, the contemporary workforce is now older, more ethinically diverse, includes more women, more mothers, more dual-income families, workers with elder care responsibilities, more child-care involved fathers and increasing numbers of “sandwich” employees who juggle child and elder care.
In their survey of employees in mid-to-large sized organizations, not-for- profit agencies and private companies, the researchers observed an increase in worker stress caused by too much to do and too little time. Exacerbated by technological innovation (lap tops, cell phones, email), plus downsizing, lay-offs, re-structuring and longer hours, this type of stress has increased enormously.
Another stressor was role interference – where family responsibilities reduce work performance or work responsibilities hinder fulfillment of family obligations. Workers caught in these work-family conflicts feel overwhelmed, overloaded and chronically time-starved. They are frustrated by the pervasive feeling that they’re not doing a good job either at home or work.
Mothers reported higher levels of stress and depression than their childless counterparts or working fathers. The researchers found that mothers were generally less satisfied with their lives than women without children and experienced greater difficulty balancing work and family than fathers.
Professionals, regardless of gender, were more likely than non-professionals to report role overload, while both professional and nonprofessional men were more susceptible to having work duties interfere with family needs.
Workers with high work-family conflict experience increased mental health issues, marital problems, decreased life satisfaction, increased burn-out, depressed mood and stress related illness such as headaches , sleep disorders and even heart attack.
These employees also experience fatigue, meet work commitments at the expense of their health, forgo leisure time to work and have more work related accidents and repetitive strain injuries due to too many long hours at work. They report increases in feelings of nervousness, irritability and dissatisfaction resulting in work absence and turnover.
Employers suffer too.
The inability to balance work and family demands is linked to reduced work performance, lower commitment and poor morale. Productivity decreases due to lateness, unscheduled days off, emergency time off, overuse of the telephone, missed meetings and difficulty concentrating on the job.
The economy suffers too. Absenteeism in Canadian firms by employees trying to balance family and work costs about $3 billion per year.
Workers who find it difficult to balance work and family duties are less committed to their organizations. They are less inclined to put extra effort into their jobs or remain with the organization if the company doesn’t support their family obligations.
Yet employer reluctance to help employees balance competing work and life demands remains. Many bosses still subscribe to the myth of a world where family and work needs never overlap. Some believe that being “family friendly” plays favourites, pitting employees with families against childless workers.
These are outdated attitudes that are being increasingly challenged by a rapidly changing workforce.
As baby boomers retire, a shortage of educated and skilled personnel is predicted to carry over well into the next century. At the same time, post- boomer aged employees are attracted to and retained more readily at organizations that support a balance between work and family responsibilities.
While an economic downturn will hide some of the effects of skilled labour shortages and appear to reduce demands for better work places in the short term, in the long run companies that ignore these factors will find themselves less competitive during economic upswings.
We have observed ongoing concern amongst our corporate clients regarding changes in the workforce and the effect these will have on of business success. Companies doing workforce succession planning are wise to include family/work balance issues as part of their formulas.
What can companies do to offset family/work conflict and ready themselves for the work force of the future?
- Hire and train excellent managers at all levels. Provide people skills training including communication skills, how to give constructive feedback as well as receive feedback non-defensively. Train management how to work collaboratively and handle conflict well.
- Competent managers support employees, are good communicators and are focussed on a job well done. They demonstrate respect for employees, are approachable and interested in employees well being and development. They understand that good relationships with employees are related to better morale, higher commitment and greater productivity.
- Give managers the time and incentive to focus on staff development and problem solving around family/work imbalances. Offer them the resources (e.g., a good company policy concerning family/work balance) to create solutions to employee problems with balance.
- Give employees more say over when and where they work – if possible let them work from home or introduce flexible hours.
- Encourage employees to talk openly about their needs for family/ work balance and find ways to implement solutions to family/work conflicts.
- Review the overtime and workload requirements at your organization in terms of the impact on employee families.
- Don’t forget that all employees bring their families to work. Supporting a family is the reason many people work. That reality makes families major stakeholders in any employee’s job. Just because an employee’s children, spouse or aging parents aren’t physically at work doesn’t mean they aren’t on an employee’s mind. If an organization cares about their employees and their families, they are rewarded with a loyalty that can’t be bought.
Back to Frank’s dilemma.
Frank invited his boss into his office. The manager told Frank that he was aware of the fact that Frank was a new dad. “Go home and come back when your baby and wife are settled,. They need you more right now than I do and you can’t concentrate when they need you,” said the manager. “We’ll cover for you and this won’t hurt your career,” he added. Frank returned home within an hour of his wife’s frantic call. He stayed home for three days and returned on Monday. The doctor diagnosed the newborn with colic and during Frank’s time away the couple were able to get support in place. Three months later the baby was no longer colicky.
And Frank, who was so worried about mingling work and family, received a promotion. The names and identifying information in case examples has been changed to ensure confidentiality.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.