Stressed Out and Hung Over

Can we be honest here? Work-life balance is a fantasy, at least among those for whom the promise of balance (read “fulfillment’) was almost a given: college educated, mostly white, professionals.

Pew Research recently released findings from a survey conducted between September and October of over 1,800 US parents with children under the age of 18. The survey catalogued a profound shift in American family life; in 1970, 46% of households exemplified the traditional model of full-time working father and stay-at-home mom. Today, only 26% of households fit this description, marking a deep change in how American family life is experienced.

Economically, the two working parent model bestows great advantages. Two working parent families bring in, on average, slightly over $102,000 per year while families with a full time working father alone yield $55,000. But this economic benefit is slim victory in terms of long-term career advancement for working mothers. Pew found that 41% of these women report motherhood as a negative factor for career advancement. As I’ve written before in this blog, the workplace does not reward “balanced” people. It rewards those whose primary priority is employer. Buttressing this perception is the survey’s discovery that while modern fathers parent more actively and share the upkeep of the household more readily than their predecessors, the majority of family “management” work – overseeing schedules, appointments, activities – falls disproportionately to the mother. It’s hard to be fully devoted to one’s employer when the management of one’s family grabs a chunk of one’s focus.

Yet in my view the most interesting finding in the research is the existence of a stress gap marked by race and education level. College-educated parents, as well as respondents who identify as white, are much more likely to find work-life balance difficult compared to their survey peers. This is something quite new. The benefits of having a college degree are well documented: lower unemployment rates vs. the general population, higher salary levels, better overall chances for economic advancement and better health habits. Having a degree can also stave off untimely death as a recent study by Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University uncovered. Case and Deaton found that between 1999 and 2013, the death rate among middle-aged whites (ages 45-54) rose steadily, the only studied demographic to do so. The increase was most notable among whites with no more than a high school education.

Since the end of the Second World War, the prevailing belief has been that having a college degree brings a special guarantee, the guarantee of a comfortable life. Pew’s research calls this belief into question. If the definition of living a comfortable life now requires two incomes as well as the added stress of managing family and work, how much better of a life is it?

Let’s take a quick look back at modern history. Less than 20 years ago work essentially stayed at work. Sure, people would work late, occasionally log in a few hours at the office on the weekend or bring papers home to review. But there still existed a line between work and home for the majority of professionals. No more. Technology, higher productivity demands and the desire by many for career progression in flatter organizations has created the reality of the always-on work life. The benefits of greater flexibility in terms of where you do your work as well as the ability to step out occasionally to tend to non-work matters is countered by the clear expectation that work is no longer confined to the office. Instead it follows you, tethered by iPhone and remote access app. This creates what I call work “overhang” – a state of mind where one continually checks emails, texts and voicemail to make sure nothing is missed. Overhang creates stress, a nagging sense that one’s free time can be readily interrupted by work demands and saying no is not a true option. How many times are vacations interrupted by “just one” conference call or quick conversation with a colleague? I wonder what our children will one day recall of their family holidays and vacations; will the specter of workplace interruptions be as vivid a memory as the family’s Disney vacation?

No wonder those who expect their jobs to be “careers” (ie, college-educated professionals), are finding work-life balance elusive. It is. And it feels as if there are few alternatives. Yet I’ve seen a glimmer of hope come from Hollywood. Shonda Rhimes, the immensely talented creator of hit TV shows Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder remarked last week on NPR’s “Fresh Air” that she does not read work emails after 7pm or on the weekend. As Rhimes notes, “Work will happen 24 hours a day/365 days a year if you let it…Why are we doing this to ourselves?”

Work will happen, always. Admittedly, Rhimes is at a point in her career where, as head of her production company, she can set the tone. I applaud her for using her leadership position to do so. Because what she is saying – and what the Pew study is saying – is that work is work and life is life. Thinking that either side of the equation will figure out the right blend is naïve at best. It is up to every leader, every organization and every professional to put the imbalance right. Our collective efforts and response should be to find ways to get rid of the overhang and trust that the work will get done, and get done well. After all, what good is an education and healthy career ambition if you’re too stressed out to enjoy its advantages?


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