Quick quiz: You're a manager, and two employees are asking to leave work early. One wants to attend their child's soccer game. The other is training for a marathon. Do you treat the requests differently, or the same?
Let's add a third choice: Somebody who is taking a course that they hope will progress their career also needs to leave early to meet with a class team on a project.
Notions of equality might lead you to say all three should receive the time off. But if only one could be allowed that discretion, Ann Marie Ryan, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, says you would probably lean to the worker wanting to attend their child's soccer game. "We have implicit values," she says in an interview. "Companies would say they treat employees equally but it's hard to pull off for a manager trying to get things done."
And an implicit value these days honours the tug between family and work, with flexible schedules and other programs. But Prof. Ryan's most recent study for the Journal of Vocational Behavior, co-authored with four graduate students, argues that with all our focus on work-family balance we are neglecting the pressures work creates on other aspects of life – and, in turn, the rebounding problems in the workplace when people are discontented because they can't train for marathons, study for professional development, engage in romantic relationships, or otherwise live their life fully. In particular, that means people without children find their own non-work activities treated as less important than the family activities of colleagues with children.
Much of our concern with balance, of course, has been fixated on families. But Prof. Ryan, a mother of two teenagers, decided to explore beyond that dimension. Her study sets out eight domains that can face a crunch with work, and many in the sample of alumni of her university that she later surveyed found that schema an illuminating checklist – reminding them of aspects of their life they had been unknowingly short-changing. You might find the list similarly helpful:
Education; health; leisure; friendships; romantic relationships; family; household management; community involvement.
So while not all of us might be engaged – or want to be engaged – in each dimension, in most work forces, overall, people will want to be engaged in all of them. She says managers need to be aware for each employee which domain could be suffering unduly. "We need a more inclusive, holistic approach," she says. "Organizations recognize diversity. But a manager trying to do that has a number of challenges."
Her study looked at three types of stressors that interfere with our fullest immersion in life's different domains. The greatest was time, when time pressure from one role prevents us from meeting expectations in other roles. The second was labelled "strain," when one role creates fatigue, tension, or worry that makes it difficult to fulfill other role expectations. The third, behaviour-based interference refers to when patterns of behaviour established in one role are incompatible with behavioural expectations in another role. Since time is a precious resource, constantly on our mind, it was the item survey participants were most aware of and most likely to cite as a problem.
But the big finding was that work could be as big a nuisance in its impact on education, health activities (such as seeing the doctor, or eating healthily) and leisure activities as its impact on family. And the result, for some people, was that when they felt this tension – this loss of opportunity in other domains – they began to be affected in the workplace. Job satisfaction dropped. Turnover intentions increased. Satisfaction with life and mental health were also influenced negatively.
The report notes that while education was considered of lesser importance when the respondents were asked to rate the eight domains, work interference with education actually could be quite potent. "A common reason for employees to pursue continuing education is for professional advancement," the report notes. "It would be a frustrating situation for an employee if promotional opportunities hinge on furthering his or her education but work demands are making it difficult to do so, which could result in reduced job satisfaction and [an increased] intent to quit." So maybe more attention has to be paid to that employee who wants to leave early today to work on a class project.
But if the report has any message, it's that managers may be ignoring the plight of single people in their concern for families. Prof. Ryan points to the single person who seems to be willing to work long hours but may, as a result, not be fulfilling himself or herself in other domains. "Managers must make sure they are satisfied and can handle life outside work," she says.
It's not easy, because of our bias towards family. Even her team of authors ended up in heated debate, since some were moms and some weren't. "From my end, I noted I couldn't leave my kid in child care and not pick her up. It's a moral and legal responsibility that's different from getting a haircut or going to the gym. But others said, 'you made a choice to have children; I made another choice and I shouldn't have to work more.' "
In a workplace, where everyone is eyeing everyone else expecting equality, divisions and grievances can easily arise over such issues. Managers, she note, have to be viewed as acting fairly, even though views of fairness will vary amongst employees. But certainly, just accepting family as the only other domain than work that is important doesn't fit the reality her study illuminates.
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