Tips on Navigating Work and Family

When I think of balancing work and family, the 2005 film “March of the Penguins,” as told by Morgan Freeman, comes to mind. This movie is a dynamic and poignant tale of devoted parent penguins, who in the face of fierce polar winters, take turns guarding their offspring and trekking to the ocean in search of food.  It is a wonder to me how these penguin parents have mastered the challenge of both protecting and nurturing their members while also  fulfilling the rigorous demands of their “work” to provide food and shelter for their families.  They offer us a powerful model to use as a guide in balancing our own work and family responsibilities.

Combining work and family is a major challenge for today’s men and women, particularly under current economic conditions.  The majority of mothers work from the time their children are infants, and more fathers than ever are involved in child care and household management.  In 2001, both parents were employed in 68% of two-parent families with children under eighteen.  In families maintained by women, 73% of the women were employed (US Bureau of Census, 2006).

Men and women have roles within relationships based on money.  Men are traditionally considered providers in our society.  Their perception of how well they succeed in this role is based upon personal and income achievement, task and work environment, and the perception of spouse and friends.  The role of women in the workplace is changing.  There are more women working now out of necessity rather than choice. Work outside the home affects the children.  In addition, whether women work outside or within the home, they still do more of the household work than their partner. Role strain and conflict can arise as men and women try to juggle the needs of individual, family, and work.  The ideal situation is for both men and women to give each other support for working as this enhances their income potential and increases their relationship satisfaction.

Earning a lot of money is not necessary for relationship satisfaction, but having an adequate and well-managed income is.  It is important to learn to manage money well and have realistic expectations.  Couples who go too far into debt put a significant strain on themselves and their relationship, which affects all aspects of family life.

Work and children…

There are effects on children when both parents work.  In 1999, Ellen Galinsky in her book “Ask the Children: The Breakthrough Study that Reveals How to Succeed at Work and Parenting” expressed concerns that children’s opinions have not been included in the discussions of the effects of parents’ work on children and family life.  She interviewed a representative sample of 605 employed parents with children under eighteen and surveyed a representative sample of 1,023 third- to twelfth-grade children.  Children tended to give parents higher grades when the family is seen as financially secure.

Galinsky believes that words such as balancing, integrating, and combining do not fully describe how parents deal with work and family life, as they imply that these two spheres of activity are separate.  She believes that work and family life flow together to form a stream of experience that adults “navigate” rather than balance or combine.  Experiences at home carry over to work, and experiences at work spill over to feelings at home.

Navigating life is a term Galinsky likes because it refers to our challenge with work and family as an ongoing process, not an ideal state.  Navigating acknowledges the fluid interchanges among individual, work, family, and community rather than treating them as separate spheres.  Navigating works because there are many forces and factors that combine to protect us.  It works because as we stay our course and maintain an even keel, we need to be well attuned to the environment around us. Navigating works because we ultimately set the course we want to follow.

Current trends relating to work and family…

  • Women’s high level of work force participation continues to increase.
  • People are increasingly recognizing that work and family life mutually impact one another.
  • Many families are purposely trying to “scale back” work demands to carve out time for family. Job loss forces families to scale back.

The dynamic connections between work and family have been described by researchers as spillover.  This includes work-family interference, structural interference (which occurs when work demands make it difficult or impossible to meet family demands, or vice versa), and psychological interference (which occurs when experiences in one aspect of our lives — work or family — have negative psychological effects in the other, such as increasing our level of stress, putting us in a bad mood, making us depressed, or reducing our energy level).

Jobs deplete us for nurturing family relationships far more than family depletes us for our work.  Business must recognize that families are assets rather than deficits — a huge challenge during an era of limited resources.  Good quality jobs, supportive workplaces, and reasonable job demands are all associated with indicators of productivity.  A happy parent and spouse is a better worker.  Efforts to improve the work place can help us be the kind of spouse and parent we would like to be.

The work place can help with family stress by providing:

  • Benefits
  • On-site child care
  • Family leave
  • The option to work at home
  • Family days
  • Stress management programs
  • On-site fitness centers
  • Employee assistance
  • Maternal/paternal leave
  • Flexibility
  • Therapy

Strategies for navigating work and family life…

Adults feel most successful and least stressed when they have to time to just be with children and family without being rushed, time to engage in activities with them, and time to accomplish tasks at work.  Adults feel successful when they have control over how they raise their children and run their household and how they do their work. They feel successful when they have support from family, friends, coworkers, and the work culture and when they can rely on trustworthy day care.

Some of the most valuable strategies for coping with the challenge of navigating work and family include:

  •  Being proactive in making daily choices that enable both parents to have careers while also being committed to family.
  • Making choices at home and at work that support equality, which can mean scaling back work.
  • Making adjustments so that neither partner has the traditional career.
  • Mothers relinquishing their identity as primary caregivers and letting fathers assume more responsibility for child care and decisions about children, recognizing that children benefit when fathers are equal parents, and that adult relationships benefit as well because couples share responsibilities and neither partner feels overburdened.
  • Maintaining a strong and loving bond between the couple to promote successful combining of work and family.  Working couples who take care of themselves can take better care of each other and their children.  One way to care for the couple is to make a weekly “date” without the children.
  • Keeping up friendships. Exercising with a friend several times a week is a healthy practice I believe in.
  • Developing ways of easing the transition from office to home — rest for ten minutes after arriving home or take a quick shower before dinner.
  • Recognizing personal signs of stress and not ignoring them.
  • Discovering the most stressful times of the day and finding ways of relieving tension such as a different morning or evening routine.
  • Learning a quick tension reliever, like yoga exercise, deep breathing, or meditation.
  • Getting adequate rest and exercise.
  • Not being a “superperson.”  These are people who do things like skip lunch to run errands for the family. This is a cultural label that allows a person to regard themselves as efficient, bright, and confident, but in reality it is a cover-up for being overworked and frustrated.
  • Practicing cognitive restructuring.  This is adjusting your thinking to focus on the positive benefits of dual-earner/dual-career families — recognizing that both partners are better individuals, that there are more advantages than disadvantages, and that they can be satisfied with doing and having less.
  • Delegating responsibility to others for performing certain tasks.
  •  Reducing responsibilities by not taking on additional tasks.  Do you need to be class “mom” for your son again this year?
  • Learning the art of role compartmentalization.  Separate the roles of work from the roles of home as much as possible.  If you are not able to keep them separate role conflict and role overload can still occur and your efficiency drops both at home and at work.  We can’t be all things to all people.
  • Protecting leisure time.  Make time to relax a priority.  Leisure is important to help us deal with daily stresses.  Leisure is defined as the use of time to engage in freely chosen activities perceived as enjoyable and satisfying.

How to navigate work…

There are many demands at our jobs.  Seek the flexibility you need to manage your work and family responsibilities.  If you would like to have greater flexibility in your work schedule and it is not immediately available, make a “business case” for having this flexibility.  Prioritize what is most important for you to accomplish at work.  Set realistic expectations of what you can accomplish.  Say “no” when you need to.  Use problem-solving techniques regularly.  Use technology constructively.  Get help when you need it.

While at work uncover the assumptions that guide when and how work gets done.  Restructure your time or working space so that you have fewer interruptions.  Help others around you maintain focus.  Find a satisfactory level of multitasking.  One way to remove some of the clutter in our work lives is to focus on what is most important.  Continually evaluate if a work task is truly not valuable and eliminate it if at all possible. In the area of job quality, look for opportunities to have a say in how you do your work.  Create a learning environment for yourself at work.  Find meaning in your job or career.

Support at work is essential.  Try to bring out the best in your boss.  See whether “people skills” can become a part of your organization’s performance appraisals.  Find support for dealing with difficult situations.  Build positive relationships with coworkers.  Contribute to a supportive culture.  Keep your perspective when all else fails.  And when none of this is working it may be an indication that it is time to find another job.

How to navigate the transition from home to work and from work to home…

As you prepare to move from home to work get as organized as you can the night before.  Get up in time so that you are not rushed.  Set up rituals for saying good-bye, and change your perspective on good-bye if necessary.  Leave your children with care givers or teachers you trust.  Have a backup plan for emergencies.  Create a going-to-work transition for yourself, perhaps listening to a favorite CD while driving.

In moving from the work environment back home, deliberately phase out work at the end of the workday.  Develop rituals to help you make the transition.  Make sure your family’s needs are met when you see them.  Develop “hello” rituals.  Expect that family members will save their troubles for you.  If you have had “one of those days,” take care of yourself if you can and be honest with your family members about your needs.

When work responsibilities conflict with family responsibilities make sure that you provide explanations and inform about upcoming deadlines.  Set up a system so that family members know when they can interrupt you when you are working and when they cannot.  Work to resolve problems that emerge when work and family conflict.

How to navigate family life…

We all have family demands that require our focus.  Reframe the way you think about time with your partner and children.  Spend focused time with them.  Hang around with them.  Get involved in activities with them.  Promote their projects and “lemonade stands.”  Also think about how you want your family relationships to be and try to live up to these expectations.  Find people who support you.  Take care of yourself.

It is very important to communicate with family members about work and family issues.  Find the right time and place for talking. Find out what has gone on in their day as well as sharing your own story.  Be open to listening to what is really on their minds.  Get feedback from family members on how they feel about the way you are navigating work and family life.  Help your family understand the many reasons why you work and what you need from them to help you reach your goals.

Ellen Galinsky offers this healthy advice …

In work, do what you enjoy.  In family life, be completely present.”

When trying to balance self, family, and work, self gets neglected first when stress is present.  For many people, work has become home and home has become work.  Stress means less time for self, less time for partner and children, delayed child bearing, smaller families, and changing roles.  Many companies are recognizing the harmful effects of stress on workers and there is a trend toward providing wellness programs and benefits when economic resources permit.  The demands of providing care for the elderly has become an increasing source of stress as our population ages and lives longer.

My eighty-something year old mother, spending time with our family last winter, had an interesting closing remark after we watched “March of the Penguins.” Although both of us were in awe of the steadfast commitment penguins made to navigating the challenges of their work and family responsibilities, Mom wondered why as humans we often tend to make more work for ourselves…   Her advice is that we live simply and with purpose.

Debi Levine, MS, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Greenville.  She navigates a dual-career marriage and has raised two daughters.

This entry was posted in Aging, Anxiety & Stress, Marriage, Middle Age, Parenting, Relationships, Retirement, Self-Care, Work & Family and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Tips on Navigating Work and Family

  1. Jim Frey says:

    Hi Debi,
    Congradulations on this outstanding blog! Balancing work and family life
    definately is something most people struggle with and don’t handle well. There is a boat
    load of good information here -a little lengthy- but dead nuts on. Kudos to you.

  2. Debi says:

    Hi Jim,
    Thanks. Wrote this one awhile back when I was still in a rather academic headset. In a more playful frame of mind these days! So, this post is being recycled. 🙂

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