Sunday, July 19, 2009

Balancing Work And Family

image by ba1969,
Don't Let Work Tensions Spill Over Into Home, And Vice-versa

Years ago, a story used to be recounted on the internet about how a businessman, very aggressive and tension-prone at work, would, while returning back home, indulge in a small ritual. I don't remember the exact details, but he would remove his footwear nearby, bow before a small tree in front of his house or hang his tool on one of its branches, murmur some prayer of gratitude, and only then step into the house. This small act would transform him from a teeth-gnashing, foul-mouthing, fist-waving fearsome bread-earner to a very genteel and loving husband and a doting father. The implicit moral of the story that must have been sought to be propagated is that people must learn to demarcate workplace from home.

image by ba1969,

Though this small story might be a part of folklore, work-family research has taken such anecdotes seriously. The person who stands before the mirror everyday to get dressed, then commutes to a workplace to spend the next few, contracted hours performing productive labor, and then commutes back home to take rest and sleep just so that they can get up the next morning and repeat the same cycle --- may outwardly appear to be quite their normal self to the newspaper hawker and the florist they pass by en route. But peep inside, and quite possibly a can of angst-riddled soul reveals itself. Conforming to organizational expectations takes its toll on both physical and emotional health. Peer competition, coupled with demands of overload and working against deadlines - imposed artificially by self-serving supervisors or set ruthlessly by bang-for-the-buck-seeking clients - further add fuel to the proverbial fire. The outcome? The person commuting back home is not the normal self that the newspaper hawker and the florist think they see, but a very exhausted and battered and fatigued being who longs for the comfort of the familiar couch or sofa back home.

image by tizwas01,

The problem arises when we do not, like the businessman in the anecdote, perform that small ritual before stepping into the house. The consequence of not doing so is that work-related problems continue to cogitate the mind, and have an impact on relationships at home. The brooding, irascible father or mother who declines to participate in the easy laughter and bonhomie at the dinner table does not make for the best of parental role-models. The irritated and exhausted spouse who turns over to go to sleep the moment their body flops on the comfy duvet -- potentially adds to the catalog of marital discord cases at the local court.

image by jayofboy,

Somewhere along the way of building the home - and by home I don't mean the brick-and-mortar -, we forget that just like the workplace is an institution that places its set of demands and expectations, the home or family too is an institution that has its own set of demands and expectations. And while we jump to our feet to respond to even the hint of a reprimand from the workplace, we take for granted the cajoling and gentle persuasion from home. While to the colleagues and the supervisors at the workplace we are just another dispensable entity, just another face in the crowd of employees; to the children and the spouse we may not be as dispensable. Indeed, the latter depend on us not only for the bread and butter that we bring home, but also for the emotional nurturing that we are in a position to provide.

image by trash69,

In this context, a study conducted by psychologists on 49 employees working at different hierarchy points in a set of organizations in Madrid threw up some interesting conclusions. (The study appears here.) Focusing on the measures an organization can adopt to improve employee productivity, the study stresses the importance of including short breaks during the working hours. For the worker who positions themselves before the assembly line right from the moment they swipe their id-card in the clocking machine till the time comes for lunch, the short breaks give them time to dissipate the building fatigue. The study also emphasizes the role played by counselors and empathy-enabled supervisors, in whom the average employee can confide in and articulate their concerns and tensions. The simple act of articulation of thoughts and expressing one's emotions to someone one is comfortable with, can break the downward negative spiral.

image by jan-willem,

But these are suggestions about what the organization can do to make us happy and keep us happy. As individual employees and human beings, while waiting for the HR department people to read articles such as this and act upon the recommendations, we can follow the example of the businessman in the anecdote and add his daily ritual to our routine. Do you notice the small plant or tree that you walk past every day before stepping into the house? All that you need to do is to pause before the plant, remove your footwear...

image by taluda,

Your family will be grateful to the plant. Your organization will find you an indispensable asset.

image by hortongrou,

[Do you remember the first days when you launched your career? The I-will-take-on-this-world spring in your steps? The can-do-will-do attitude? And do you now compare it wistfully with your feelings now about the same job? Burnouts happen - they are a natural outcome of priorities gone topsy-turvy and approaches sliding off the right track. Read about it in this article: "Rekindle The Passion In Your Job".]


  1. This is an important thing for everyone to remember, whether you are self-employed or just employed.

    I never understood it as a child when I'd hear that police officers have a high rate of failed marriages due to the fact that a large portion of them can't help from "bringing their work home" with them.

    After being in the workforce for a number of years before becoming self-employed, I now completely understand how difficult that is sometimes.

    Thanks for the advice on how to do so, because its useful for all types of work--our family's shouldn't have to undergo the stresses we experience at work also.

  2. Yes, a good reminder to separate work from home. My poor kids sometimes get the brunt of a bad day's work and that's not fair on them.

    I will try a little ritual as you suggest in your story, but I work from home! Any tips?