Balancing act

June 23, 2015


Is work/life balance a possibility or a pipe dream? Faculty members talk about the reality on the home front, look at the work week with a different perspective and offer strategies for self-care.

(Originally appeared in M Alumni News -- Summer 2015)

It’s a buzz phrase that’s been around for a number of years. You may have heard about it on the radio during your morning commute or read about it while watching your child’s soccer game. Maybe you’re one of the lucky people who actually live what sounds to many like an urban myth, or perhaps you laugh at the impossibility of it—if you can actually find the time to laugh.

The coveted work/life balance.

Why do the demands of life and work cause so much stress for so many people? Why can’t we simply compartmentalize the two—caring family member in one column and committed employee in another?

Because most of us can’t do it all (in spite of what we see on Pinterest or Facebook), and even if we try, racing against the clock while juggling competing priorities too often ends in burnout. But there are solutions.

A squashed demographic

Dr. Fiona Angus, sociologist and assistant professor at MacEwan University, has been there. When she was a single mom in her late-30s, she decided to go back to school full time, juggling two part-time jobs on the side. Fiona isn’t only a knowledge expert on the “sandwich generation”—the 30- and 40-somethings (typically women) who juggle raising children and teens with caring for aging parents, working full time, and managing domestic responsibilities—she has lived it, and survived to tell the tale.

The sandwich generation is a term coined in the early 1980s, a decade after women began entering the paid labour force in full force. Fiona says that many women soon discovered their domestic responsibilities didn’t diminish when they began cashing a paycheque.

Fiona says it was optimistic, but unrealistic to think that ideologies in the 1970s around domestic labour would shift and that couples would “naturally gravitate” toward sharing those at-home responsibilities—taking the kids to school, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and everything else on the seemingly endless to-do list. “And 10 years later, in the early ’80s, there was the realization that this had not happened—and to this day it has not happened,” she says. “There has been very little shift; it has probably been one of the most persistent belief systems/ideologies that many women themselves embrace—that their primary responsibility is their hearth and home.”

One more ball to juggle

In the last decade, the baby boomer generation (people born between 1946 and 1965, according to Statistics Canada) began to reach retirement age. The 2011 Canadian census recorded the baby boomer population to be 9.6 million, or three out of every 10 Canadians, so naturally elder care is a growing concern across the country, and a growing responsibility for many 30- to 50-year-olds. Baby boomers are living longer and elder care services are more prevalent now than they were 10 years ago, but they will inevitably reach a point where they need care, and their children (many with children of their own) are stretched thin caring for others at different ends of the age spectrum.

“Many women in their 40s and 50s are sandwiched between both of those responsibilities because the gender ideologies around who takes care of whom extend to who looks after the aging parent, and it’s almost always the wife,” says Fiona. “And she may be looking after her own parents—or her husband’s.”

Going nuclear

At one time considered ideal, Fiona says the nuclear family of two parents and 2.3 children has created family units that live in silos—often separated from extended family members (aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents). Families move to where the parent or parents can find work, oftentimes crippling their built-in support structure. Then, because of the distance between family members, the elders are often placed in care facilities in separate buildings, often in separate communities.

“Look at other societies and cultures where all family members are highly valued, especially the elders,” says Fiona. “We do not value our elders in most Western cultures because we tend to create social value based on people’s alleged productivity. As soon as people stop being active members of the paid labour force, they are often rendered as ‘off to the glue factory.’”

Something has to give

Taking on the role of caregiver saps time and energy and takes an emotional toll. If you’re concerned about a sick or dying parent or worried about your child struggling in school, you may find it hard to stay engaged in your workplace. Sometimes personal responsibilities bleed into your work hours. And for many in the sandwich generation, in addition to the stress of this complicated and seemingly endless juggling act, they experience strong feelings of guilt.

You want to spend more time with a family member in need, or put more attention into your work, or reconnect with friends, but you’ve already cut back on many of your own needs and wants. And it’s not reasonable to expect a work/life balance to come naturally—because the truth is sometimes it just doesn’t.

“Progressive organizations are now recognizing that facilitation of work/life balance is really a strategic recruitment and retention tool, and not just a discretionary gesture of benevolence by an employer,” says Douglas German, faculty member in the Human Resources Management program at MacEwan University.

There is a range of options that employers may offer to achieve that balance: compressed work weeks, telework, part-time options, job sharing, flextime and more. Doug mentions a new trend in the U.S. is the “results-only work environment,” which includes unlimited vacation days—“you can take all the time off that you want or need as long as the operation requirements are being satisfied”; companies like Best Buy, Virgin and ATB Financial have adopted this approach.

But how realistic are these options?

Making a case

The more interdependent your job is with the jobs of others, the less likely you will be able to incorporate flex work options into your role. Other than that, it’s not impossible to negotiate a solution with an employer—it’s all about how you frame it.

Doug says you need to consider “what’s in it for the employer.” An employee who benefits from a new work arrangement shouldn’t do so at the expense of the workplace, “and it doesn’t have to be at the expense of the organization. There are win-win opportunities.”

Where should you start?

Determine what kind of option you’re looking for and understand that not all jobs are conducive to every arrangement. Then take a good, hard look at your position—and your performance. “Try to determine, from your boss’s perspective, whether or not you, given the nature of your job, are a good candidate for this,” says Doug.

He further suggests crafting a proposal that outlines how you will accomplish your tasks and how your flex option might affect your responsibilities or the responsibilities of others. Address potential concerns and provide solutions. “What you’re addressing is the sensitivity that you won’t be flexible when the organization needs to be flexible,” he explains.

And, perhaps most importantly, make sure to suggest a trial period in your proposal. “If managers know there’s a way out, if need be, they’ll be more likely to accept it in the first place.”

Realistically, you may not get what you’re looking for, but Doug says you may find that all you had to do was ask. He adds, though, that whatever your reason for needing a change in your work schedule, remember that your employer won’t agree to your proposal if it’s framed entirely in terms of personal benefits to you.

Taking care of self

Gail Couch’s office is peppered with a number of strategically placed decorative items. There are vacation mementos on a table, family photos hung adjacent to her desk, and an angel magnet on her filing cabinet. The items are not simply to spruce up her work environment—they’re tools she uses to practice self-care.

Gail has seen her share of family and work stress, and as chair of the Post-Basic Nursing Practice: Hospice Palliative Care/Gerontology and Holistic Health Practitioner programs at MacEwan University, she also has the knowledge, experience and strategies to deal with it.

“Everybody’s different,” she says. “You need to do something to soothe your own soul, whatever that may be, because what you might like to do and what I like to do might be two different things.”

Not everyone can change their workload or work schedule, but Gail says taking breaks in small doses—a minute spent looking out the window or stepping away from your work environment—can be manageable and beneficial.

Fiona shares a story about an acquaintance who had to physically leave her home for weekend stays at a hotel. She left her children in the capable hands of her husband to steal time away so she could recharge.

“If you don’t have the cushion to absorb further stress, then if there is a crisis you don’t have the resources in you to deal with it,” says Fiona. “You can become very ill and your whole system can come crashing down.”

“Realize that you have to look after yourself, or else you can’t look after anybody else or do your work well,” says Gail.

A human issue

The struggle to find or make time for one’s self and juggle responsibilities could soon be less of an issue than it is today. Doug says there is a generational shift happening and it’s being led by Generation Y (sometimes called “Millennials”). Gen-Yers don’t aspire to have 35-year careers with a single employer. “They want interesting work, flexibility and opportunities to learn, and if the employer doesn’t provide it, they’ll move on,” he says. “The whole idea that you have to be in your chair to be working is crazy to them.”

Interestingly, Gen-Yers also don’t see a “strict dichotomy” between work and home life because technology keeps them connected to both at all times. “What they want is flexibility.” For example, they perhaps would respond to emails in the evening, yet be able to leave the office early on occasion. “This is the generation that works to live and doesn’t live to work.”

If you have a work/life balance, hold onto it. Manage it so that it continues to be balanced (and with little stress on your part). If you don’t, consider ways to make it happen for you—but don’t stress yourself out over it.

“I don’t view alternate work arrangements or work/life balance to be a women’s issue or a youth issue,” says Doug. “I think it’s just a human issue.”

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