My cell phone rings while I'm immersed in writing a manuscript at my office. A publication deadline is looming, but my teenage son needs help with a calculus problem, now. Putting on my "Good Mother" hat, I stop to help him. When I return to my task, I realize that I've lost not only an important reference but also my train of thought.
While my family drifts off to sleep, my "night shift" begins. I work uninterrupted at my home computer with amazing productivity. But when my head finally hits the pillow, I remember that I didn't finish loading the dishwasher and I forgot to transfer laundry from the washer to the dryer.
Does your life, too, seem to straddle two different worlds, one at work and one at home? Does it feel like there aren't enough hours in the day or days in the week to split between them and give them both their due?
Male or female, single or partnered, most of us have a tough time balancing work and life. This is especially true for science trainees, who are embarking on highly competitive and demanding careers at the very same time they are trying to "compose" their personal lives.
Two sociologists at the University of Pennsylvania recently examined work-life balance among faculty members in academia, drawing heavily on data from the 1998 National Survey of Post-Secondary Faculty. ¹ The authors conclude what most of us already know: that "spillover" or tension between employment and family life generally results from three major sources: job demands, home demands, and normative or cultural expectations. Not surprisingly, they found that professional and managerial jobs become more demanding over time.
"Long hours on the job are expected in many professional and managerial settings, far in excess of the 40-hour workweek that was established as the national standard more than 60 years ago," they write. (In a previous publication, the same researchers documented that the average workweek for full-time faculty in the United States now exceeds 50 hours.) While longer workweeks are associated with greater success as measured by the number of publications, faculty members who work more are also more likely to report greater dissatisfaction with their workload, according to the Pennsylvania study.
Maintaining a comfortable balance between work and home is even more complicated for those who are parents. Fundamental changes have taken place in our cultural expectations of parental roles: Today, middle-class parents "are increasingly expected to cultivate every aspect of their children's social and intellectual functioning," the same researchers say. Modern technology that was designed to make life more efficient--computers, cell phones, and hand-held PDAs (personal digital assistants)--has blurred the divide even further.
Remaining single isn't a solution, either. It takes time to develop and maintain friendships and personal relationships. In work settings, it may be acceptable to tell a supervisor that you have to leave work to pick up your son at daycare or coach your daughter's soccer game, but it is considered less legitimate to candidly explain that you want to leave by 5 p.m. to meet a friend for a drink or go to the gym.
Work-Life Balance: One Size Doesn't Fit All
The New Zealand Department of Labor defines "work-life balance" as follows:
Work-life balance is about effectively managing the juggling act between paid work and the other activities that are important to people. It's not about saying that work is wrong or bad, but that work shouldn't completely crowd out the other things that matter to people like time with family, participation in community activities, voluntary work, personal development, leisure and recreation.
The 'right' balance is a very personal thing and will change for each person at different times of their lives. For some people the issue is being able to get into work or find more work rather than having too much work. There is no 'one size fits all' solution. --Work-Life Project, New Zealand Department of Labor
"Especially around deadlines, I feel this guilt coming over me," says a first-year postdoctoral fellow in science from Boston. "Am I spending too much time and energy at work? Is my kid missing out somehow? It is fair to keep him in daycare while his mom chases wild scientific dreams in the dark? Is it worthwhile when the daycare costs half of what I'm making?" she asks. "Instead of doing research to see which brain [male or female] is better wired for science, why don't they find ways for academics with families to have time for work, life, and sleep?"
Supportive policies, both governmental and institutional, are essential for resolving the tensions that hamper productivity and compromise personal well-being. The Association for Women in Science and Engineering outlines several broad areas that employers can address in this regard, including child care; elder care; parental and family leave policies; referral programs to local services and resources; flexible working arrangements; employee assistance programs; employer-sponsored seminars and workshops on issues such as stress and educational or training opportunities; and fitness facilities.
Yet experts agree that people--yes, even science trainees--have to exercise discretion in the commitments they make. To achieve better balance, they suggest the following:
1) Plan ahead and set priorities
Don't delude yourself into thinking you can do it all, says life coach Susan Battley of Stony Brook, New York. Set clear goals and priorities, both career-wise and personal, so you have a road map to guide your day-to-day decisions. Balance may be unrealistic early in your career, she says. "Excellence and career success typically come at a price, in science as in many other professional endeavors. Consider 'integration' as a more attainable goal. Ask yourself: How can I optimally integrate my particular work demands with the rest of my life?"
2) Remain flexible
Recognize that the work-life balance shifts over time, even over the course of a single day. "At times we may want to focus exclusively on work because of some deadline, challenge, or opportunity," says executive coach Linda Finkle of Potomac, Maryland. Another time, there may be a pressing family or personal issue that commands attention. What is important, she says, is to be able to respond flexibly to changes in your environment.
3) Communicate openly
Manage expectations up front, says Battley. This means negotiating and reviewing your choices about work and life with employers, colleagues, and family members. "In this way, you can avoid situations where family members or colleagues think you have violated a commitment or tacit understanding," she says.
4) Watch for signs of burnout
You may be able to do it for days, weeks, or even months, but over the long haul no one can continually juggle an unrealistic set of roles and responsibilities. If you're working longer hours but producing less or lower-quality work, it may be a sign of burnout, says Battley. If this is the case, she recommends a "microvacation," a half- or full-day break in your routine. This might be time spent with family, friends, or a pet--or simply a "mental-health" day to sleep late and listen to music. If you're short-tempered with your partner and impatient with your child, set aside more relaxed time to spend together. If this state of mind persists, be sure to pause and rethink your priorities.
5) Scientist, you're not alone
"I find it impossible to end the workday," says an assistant professor of molecular immunology from Brazil. "I usually go home at the point of physical exhaustion rather than with the determination to do different things outside the lab. Once at home, I keep thinking about work and dream about experiments and students' projects as well." Sound familiar?
"The delightful thing about scientific work is the joy and absolute involvement that a scientist has when engaged in his or her work," says life coach Rebecca Kiki Weingarten of New York City. "No wonder it's hard to focus on other things!"
But the same character and personality traits that make a great scientist, says Weingarten, may make it difficult to find balance. If you feel your life tilting too far in one direction or are experiencing burnout or other symptoms of stress, you may want to seek outside advice from a life coach or mental health professional.
References and notes
¹ J. A. Jacobs, S. E. Winslow. Overworked Faculty: Job Stresses and Family Demands. Annals, American Academy of Political and Social Science, November 2004, p. 104-129.
For more information:
The New Zealand Work-Life Balance Project
For the next Mind Matters column: Managing Conflict in the Lab
When people work together, conflict is inevitable. What kinds of conflicts occur in your lab? With supervisors? With peers? What strategies have you used to resolve them? Please send your thoughts to me at Irene.firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author:
Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part-time as a research scientist at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.