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Work+Life Research You Probably Won’t Hear About (But Might Make You Think Differently)

But first, check it out…my Workopolis TV interview for Canada’s Report on Business Network (Air date 2/14/07, so scroll down to almost the bottom of the “Thrive at Work” column for the link.) and my interview on The Cranky Middle Manager Show with Wayne Turmel on The Podcast Network (Love new technology!)

Back to the research….

The cultural dialogue about the challenge of combining work and life in today’s 24/7, high-tech, global work reality often gets bogged down in simplistic, stereotypical ruts. So here are some highlights from the thought-provoking work-life research published in the Alliance of Work-Life Progress 2006 “Best of the Best” conference summary.

The research included was selected through a rigorous and competitive international peer review process which I highlighted in last week’s blog. In other words, it’s very good, and therefore should be seriously considered in terms of the questions it raises.

Here are the headlines, as I see them, that you probably won’t hear about but might make you think differently:

Goodbye Working Mommy Guilt!

Publication: Child Development (Volume 76, 2005 pp. 467-482); Researchers: A. Huston of the University of Texas and A. Rosenkrantz Aronson

Data Source: National Institute of Child Health and Development’s Study of Early Child Care, one of the largest studies of early childhood development ever conducted.

Finding: “…There is no evidence in our findings that time with the infant increases the infant’s engagement with his or her mother or contributes to the child’s social or cognitive development…(Note: employed mothers in the study spent approximately 500 minutes on paid work–8 hours–and spent an average 100 minutes—1.5 hours–less with their child over the two day period studied than non-working mothers)”

My Take: My hope is that this research gets us one step closer to eliminating the implicit value judgment that if a mother works outside of the home at all it somehow hurts her child. Opting out of the workforce is an option for a minority of mothers today. The truth is most mothers have to work. And many mothers want to work. But there has been a prevalent sense of guilt among these mothers, a fear that somehow, in the process, they are hurting their children.

This is not to say that staying home with your child is not an equally valid choice for those who want to and can afford it. But we need to make clear what this decision really is—a very personal choice that only hurts your child if you are unhappy with it.

As this study shows, and the rigorous research of Ellen Galinsky, Families and Work Institute, has been saying for years, what matters is your sensitivity and engagement with your child. Not whether or not you work. Just this week a study of 19,000 children under 3 years old in England found “no evidence that mothers’ employment influences the extent of development problems in three-year old children.” But the same study concluded it was a lack of father involvement that did have an impact. Is this the start of “daddy guilt?” Let’s hope not.

All parents–working and non-working–need flexibility (both formal and informal) to find the unique “fit” that supports that parent-child engagement, given their personal and professional circumstances. So please stop judging yourself if you are a mother and your fit involves working.

It’s Not Just About Time, But Also the Physical and Emotional “Energy” You Expend

Publications:
Journal of Marriage and Family (Volume 67, 2005 pp. 337-351), Researcher: R. Erickson, University of Akron
Journal of Family Issues (Volume 26, 2005 pp. 756-792), Researches: K. Nomaguchi of Northern Illinois University, M. Milkie and S. Bianchi
• Journal of Organizational Health Psychology (Volume 10, 2205 pp. 393-414) Researchers: Sabine Sonnentag of University of Konstanz, Germany & Ute-Vera Bayer.

Data Sources:
• Erickson: 1997 National Study of the Changing Workforce dual-earner parents with children under age 18
• Nomaguchi: 335 married parents who were employed full-time
• Sonnentag: 87 workers from 10 public and private organizations provided data six times over a three-day period.

Findings:

Erickson—“The time and energy required to provide emotional support (recognizing the needs of others and expressing concern for them) should be seen as an important part of the work that takes place in families.” The more paid hours a husband works, the more “emotion work” and child care the wife did. However, when more economically dependent on their wives, dads took on more of these responsibilities.

Nomaguchi—Dads worked more paid hours than mothers and reported feeling like they didn’t spend enough time with their families. BUT, mothers were more bothered than fathers by a perceived lack of family time, whereas fathers were more bothered by the perceived lack of time for themselves.

Sonnetag—High workload and time pressure, whether chronic or just that day, reduced the ability of people to detach from work which affected their sleep, which in term affected how they felt the next day at work. Interestingly, long hours didn’t have the same impact.

My Take: Why did I put these three seemingly unrelated studies together? Because they prove how the emotional and physical energy we expend at work and at home, not just the time, influences our work+life “fit” reality. As I explain in my book, we often try to resolve our work+life conflicts using a straight time analysis. We don’t account for the energy we are expending at work and at home. Then we can’t understand why our time-based solution doesn’t work. We only have 24 hours in a day, but we also have a finite amount energy we can devote to all of the aspects of our lives.

This research offers insights into some of the personal energy challenges that are particularly difficult for women. Women often do much of the “emotion work” in families (part of what I call in my book the Definition of Caregiving Success). This work takes concrete time, but it also requires energy—thought, concern, and focus. The research found that in families where women contribute more financially, men are more likely to share the emotion work. This “emotion work” sharing does free up the wife’s energy, but then adds to the personal energy expended by the father.

Another energy draining challenge for women is the fact that they are more likely to feel worse about a perceived lack of time with their family than men. This “feeling bad,” or guilt (which, as we discussed above, is very likely not based on fact) also takes energy that adds to the work+life conflict of women more than men.

In terms of energy expended in the workplace, the research found that it isn’t necessarily the long hours that affect a person’s ability to detach from work and re-energize for the next day, but it’s time pressure and heavy workload. In other words, it’s the energy to get too much work done quickly, not the hours themselves. The National Study of the Changing Workforce has reported this same conclusion for a number of years.

What does this research mean to us as we search for our work+life fit, individually and organizationally?

Individually: Women and men need look at how much of the “emotion work” they take on in their families as they create their work+life fit. This is especially important when you experience a big work+life transition such as marriage, parenthood, and elder care when the emotion work level changes. Start by answering the following questions:

• How much of the emotion work in my family do I take on?
• How much of this emotion work can I realistically do given my work and personal circumstances? What does that mean for the work+life fit choices I have to make?
• Is all of the emotion work I take on necessary, or could I let some of it go? If I have a partner, could I let them take over some of it, and then what does that mean for their work+life fit choices?
• Are there people I know who seem to successfully manage the “emotion work” piece of their unique fit who I could talk to and learn from in order to find the answer that works for me and my family?

And women, whatever your decision is, move forward without unnecessary, energy-draining GUILT. For men, my observation is that this next generation of fathers is seeking a new model of how to combine paid work with taking responsibility for more of the family emotion work both because they have to and want to (see this Rebeldad posting). Start talking to each other.

Both men and women need to look beyond just hours when analyzing their work realities as part of the work+life fit equation. Look at how you work and the energy it requires. Are there constant time pressures? Is the workload unmanageable? Try to reorganize your schedule, responsibilities, and workload so that you can reduce the amount of energy you are expending during those hours. Work is completely different than it was even 15 years ago. In today’s 24/7, high tech, global work reality work will never be “done.” Finding a manageable solution to workload and work pace pressures requires a partnership between employer and the individual. Make sure you don’t get stuck behind the fear roadblock that “they’ll think I’m not working hard.” Propose a solution.

Organizationally: this research offers some important insights as companies struggle with how best to help their employees.

Consider making strategies and best practices for managing the energy related to emotion work part of your corporate flexibility and women’s initiatives. Recognize that hours worked is not an accurate measure of work related effort expended. Burn out, productivity and engagement and employee work+life fit are related to the amount and pace of work as well.

I want to hear from you. Have you come across any great work+life research that you think would help move our thinking forward? Let me know and I will try to get the word out.