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How workplace flexibility can make things worse at home

When we think about multitasking, we often think of trying to carry out several tasks simultaneously in the workplace. But University of Toronto sociologist Scott Schieman has been focusing on another aspect of our multitasking lives: How we blur work and family by carrying out work and family tasks at the same time while at home.

His analysis provides a clearer picture of who is caught up in such work-family conflicts, and how some of the arrangements for flexibility we have devised at the workplace with an eye to improving work-life balance might well be exacerbating the problem.

The first finding of the research with recent PhD Marisa Young, not unexpected but significant as we moan about work overload and complain about the burden of family responsibilities, is that work-family multitasking is not distributed equally among the population. Be careful whom you complain to about your situation, because they may not be caught up in the same dilemma.

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His analysis is based on the results of 5,625 interviews in the 2011 Canadian Work Stress and Health study. While multitasking was more significant for Canadians with children, the biggest predictor was social-economic status.

People with higher levels of education, higher income, and higher levels of occupational status were more likely to be multitasking when at home, combining work and family. Each of those three factors mattered independently, but of course, often are intertwined. The most significant of the three factors was education, with those at the top of the education scale reporting the most multitasking.

The impact of social-economic status is not surprising. But Prof. Schieman notes an interesting conundrum. People with high social-economic status usually have better health. At the same time, they are more likely to be blurring work and family, and multitasking at home, which is said to create stress and lead to poor health.

He also investigated the job factors that could create or alleviate such multitasking. Negative pressures on our home life usually come from working more than 50 hours a week; excessive job pressure, with more work than can be handled; and work contact with colleagues after normal working hours, never being able to totally shut down. Not surprisingly, those contribute to more multitasking. But when combined with social-economic status, they served as the explanation for the impact that had been previously pinpointed.

"Why do the well-educated, higher earners, and higher-status individuals have more multitasking? It's because of their higher job demands," he says in an interview. "This explains why social-economic status matters in multitasking. It leads to higher job demands."

But certain aspects of our work are designed to help us deal with the stresses of life. Sociologists call those "job-related resources," and he investigated four that are normally acclaimed as helpful: Control over your own schedule, job autonomy, job authority, and challenging work.

But the sobering reality was that each of those four supposedly positive attributes of work are related to greater multitasking on the home front. Indeed, he says they "predict more multitasking." So if you have greater schedule control, he can predict that it's likely you'll multitask more between work and family when at home.

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"It's surprising that schedule control is predictive of multitasking since it involves when you start and finish work. It's a form of flexibility – and flexibility is good. But people may be using flexibility to blur the borders between work and family," he says.

He presumes they leave work early, but then continuing work at home, in and around family time. He'll be probing that in more detail in future studies. But for now, he says the message is clear, and important: "Things that should be helping aren't. When it comes to multitasking, these job-related resources aren't helping and could be resulting in more multitasking."

The study also looked at self-employed individuals, and found they tend to multitask more than the norm. Looking at where people worked, he found that people who worked at a client's office, on the road, or at home, were more likely to multitask. But interestingly, people working at home didn't report as much conflict because of this multitasking. Perhaps they are arranging their lives so that role blurring is less of an issue.

Prof. Schieman says that follow-up interviews will give him a better understanding of the tensions. But for now, you can use his work to study your own multitasking, and perhaps understand the causes.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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