Work-life balance is something we often think and talk about, but the implications of that balance being thrown off in one direction or the other aren’t always clear. And as workplace demands shift away from a standard 9-to-5 for many young adults, it’s harder and harder to know when to put down the phone or laptop and concentrate on home-turf needs.
But one study of the subject might encourage you to find a way to balance your work and home realms as quickly as possible—it shows that workers who feel their jobs are preventing them from taking care of responsibilities at home are less likely to meet long-term job goals and end up making less money because of it.
Theresa Glomb and Colleen Manchester of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, Patricia Dahm of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Sophie Leroy of the University of Washington-Bothell School of Business conducted the research by asking the work preferences of about 1,500 professors at a large public university.
The research team asked the faculty members how they wanted to spend their work time and how they actually spent their work time, Manchester said to Rewire. They also asked them to rate their work-family balance.
People who felt like they weren’t able to take care of their home-life obligations “had a harder time allocating their time at work to more long-term goals or achieving their time allocation goals in general,” Dahm said in an interview with the University of Minnesota. “We asked people, ‘How would you like to spend your time at work?’ We called those their work preferences, and we found people got very misaligned with those when they were experiencing high levels of work-family conflict… Specifically, they were spending more time on things that had short-term rewards and less time than they really wanted to with things that were more complex, things that were harder to do that had more delayed satisfaction.”
A more complex, long-term work project might be a research paper, a big investigative story, a large-scale financial analysis—anything that can be intimidating to start because it’s hard to know when the work on it will end.
People who have greater discrepancy in our study had lower work satisfaction, they had lower psychological wellbeing, they had lower physical wellbeing,” Glomb said in the interview with the U. “There were also implications for salary.”
Employees who felt more unable to meet family obligations because of work made less money than those who maintained a balance. The researchers linked the faculty member survey results to the university’s salary records to figure that out, Manchester said.
Why we reach for low-hanging fruit
When we feel depleted by trying to juggle home and work, we tend to be drawn to the easy things on our to-do list: checking and responding to emails, organizing our workspaces, scheduling a meeting or two. But while it feels good to get simple tasks out of the way, focusing only on these things doesn’t do much to further our careers.
The researchers “kind of invoke self-regulation theory and hypothesize that when you are depleted you are less able to kind of persist at tasks that require more cognitive capacity and longer-term fulfillment,” Manchester said. “So you’re just more worn down. This has been applied a lot in dieting situations. If you’re depleted you’re more likely to be tempted by having that sweet treat, you’re less likely to say no. There’s this discrepancy, you get depleted from having to make a choice between work and family and that makes you less able to fulfill your intentions at work.”
We’re not making these decisions consciously, she said.
“It’s not like someone is saying, ‘Oh, I can’t do research today,’ they just gravitate to other tasks.”
What this means in the 21st century
With many of our jobs at our fingertips 24/7 in the form of smartphones, it’s often tough to unplug. Lots of workers feel like they’re always on the clock.
My sense is that we’re probably more depleted than we think we are and that’s potentially affecting the type of choices were making at work and what work we’re doing,” Manchester said. “If we’re not taking the time to regenerate or rest, if we’re constantly feeling like we’re working, we’re less likely to have the resources to work on the long-term goals.”
That’s when we fixate on the little things rather than the career-changing projects.
How to fix it
One of the motivations behind the research is to encourage work mindfulness, Manchester said.
“It raises the importance (and says) there are consequences for how depletion affects or relates to on-the-job behavior,” she said.
“We can very easily get knocked off our preferences and at the end of the day, week, month, year look back and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t do what I wanted to do and now I don’t like my job, I feel less happy, maybe I’ve had less career success,” Dahm said.
Now that you know how your work-family exhaustion can impact your career, you can develop strategies for fixing it. Manchester suggested breaking big projects into smaller pieces and scheduling time in your calendar (and sticking to it) to work on them.
She also suggested trying a concept Glomb calls “parking downhill.”
“It means listing out what you accomplished last on your project and what the immediate next steps are,” Manchester said.
“People like work, people like getting things done, people like accomplishing their tasks, but sometimes they’re just working on the wrong things,” Glomb said. “If we can get people to think more intentionally and planfully about their workdays, I think it will also bolster their job satisfaction long-term.”
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for the daily newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she edits and writes the articles that appear on Rewire, and works with its pool of freelance journalists. She has also written episodes of PBS Digital Studios series “Sound Field” and “America From Scratch.” She’s the host of the history webseries “30-Second Minnesota,” which was nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.