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Just Thinking About Work-Life Conflict Could Be Killing Us

Just Thinking About Work-Life Conflict Could Be Killing Us

Callie Enlow — In the Balance

Eli Miller

Eli Miller

The night before Make Change launched, I barely slept. But it wasn’t exactly due to nervous anticipation. After burning the midnight oil digitally crossing t’s and dotting I’s, I collapsed into bed only to be roused by the wail of my ill toddler crying out for Nurse Mom. I did the sick kid shuffle between his crib and my bed a few times before he woke for good at 6 a.m. And that’s how my first day as the editor in chief of our site started.  

This hectic night seemed like an outlier, but is it really? Aren’t most of us fulltime employees constantly evaluating work requirements against everything else? While I’ve long been interested in how adult Americans got so used to job demands dominating their lives, as a new working parent I’m becoming obsessed with this calculus. 

Unfortunately for me, there is new evidence that just thinking about work-life conflict can be bad for health. A recent study of 203 partnered American adults, published in the journal Health and Stress, stated that “there were significant direct effects of work–family conflict with lower life satisfaction, positive affect [mood], and perceived health as well as greater fatigue.” The study found that persistent repetitive thoughts associated with this conflict—ruminating on how a rescheduled meeting caused you to miss your ailing father’s doctor appointment, or worrying about how you can pull a double-shift and pick your kids up from school—were also linked with health conditions, such as stroke and diabetes, as well as anxiety and depression.

In a news release, the study’s lead author, Dr. Kelly D. Davis of Oregon State University, suggested several potential ways stressed-out employees could lessen the psychic burden of work-life balance, like practicing mindfulness or having reliable backup plans and support networks for when things get crazy at the office. She also maintained that these individual efforts must be matched on the organizational level. And while helping reduce workers’ personal stress might seem like a big, expensive chore, Davis claimed “There can be a good return on investment for businesses for managing work-family stress, because positive experiences and feelings at home can carry over to work and vice versa.”

For business owners and managers, the idea that shelling out for family leave plans, meditation training, and flexible schedules will make them money can sound pie-in-the-sky. But research bears out Davis’s assertion that supporting employees in balancing their work and home lives

is a boon to employers. For one, it can help attract and retain workers … a lot. A 2014 poll by Corporate Executive Board, an organization that  provides analysis and research to Fortune 500 companies, found that work-life balance was the second-most commonly cited reason respondents gave for finding a new job. There’s also evidence that after announcing these kinds of initiatives, companies often see a rise in share price. Some analysts believe the economy as a whole could see a boost, because if it’s easier to work, more people will do so, improving salaries and lifetime wages.

Finally, Davis acknowledged that public policy goes a long way toward helping employees feel more secure about their work-life balance, especially low-income workers shut out of creative benefits packages offered to white-collar employees. States like California, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island offer paid family leave, which allows employees to take paid time off to care for family members.

But paid leave policies are only part of the story. They progress rapidly, but our children are sadly unable to care for themselves at 12 weeks, or 12 months, or even 12 years of age. Chronic illness and serious injury rarely resolve tidily. For these and other concerns on the “life” end of work-life balance, holistic approaches to childcare, flexible schedules, commuting, and weekend and evening work expectations, may mean if not more, than just as much as a family leave policy.   

Davis mentions that one way to encourage a supportive work environment is for managers to be models of transparency when it comes to scheduling time for family and other personal life issues. I think we need to take it one step further. We talk a lot about being “busy” in this country, but we don’t often talk about the day-to-day struggles many of us have in trying to be a good parent, child, friend, citizen, and spouse as well as a good employee. Much like the frank conversations about money happening on our site and other outlets, which respond to a personal financial crisis felt by many Americans, we need similar real talk from people of diverse backgrounds about how they try to balance work and the rest of their lives.

This is a discussion that needs to include everyone. There’s a lot of side-eye aimed at the work-life conversation precisely because it seems to only focus on and respond to the concerns of white-collar workers in traditional nuclear families. Telecommuting, for instance, just isn’t going to work for many in the service industry, construction, or transportation. Teachers can’t really benefit from an unlimited vacation policy. Single caregivers can’t divvy up leave allowances with their partner.

Just as different types of people gravitate toward different types of jobs, solutions should be industry-specific and helpful to those working for small businesses and for themselves, in addition to those employed by Fortune 500 companies. As for me, I’m always game to try new tactics that promise to keep my work-life balance anxiety at bay. I’ll keep a keen eye on state and municipal policies, as well as those in other countries. Most importantly, I’ll look at companies that are modeling the behavior and choices Davis mentions.

While no policy or workplace perk would have prevented my son from getting sick or changed my deadline, what for my family was an unfortunate coincidence is for many others the way they live. But a growing number of businesses, employees, and politicians are realizing that it doesn’t have to be this way. Our health, no to mention our happiness, may depend on it.

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