Learn to Manage Work-Life Boundaries, for Your Own Sanity

determines how
well you’re able to self manage
is how much your
job allows you to control
your environment.

Dr. Ellen Ernst KossekDr. Ellen Ernst Kossek

News flash: Campus faculty and administrators are in a service profession.

Here’s why. Students have issues 24/7. Technology has made faculty available from almost every corner of the world. And the work of administrators is never truly complete.

The new emphasis on service has moved the topic of work/life balance from the margins to the middle for everyone on campus, Dr. Ellen Ernst Kossek noted.

At the College and University Work Family Association (CUWFA) conference held in May 2012 at the University of Michigan, Kossek discussed how her WorkLife Indicator tool in partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership can be used to manage boundaries and achieve greater life satisfaction.

A distinguished professor in the school of human resources and labor management at Michigan State University, Kossek earned a PhD from Yale University CT in organizational behavior.

The co-author with Brenda Lautsch of CEO of Me: Creating a Life that Works in the Flexible Job Age, a popular book on the new “rules” that help achieve true balance, Kossek is involved with the Work, Family and Health Network, a federally funded research network to improve the health of families and employees by reducing work-family conflice in the workplace.  

Perpetuating the illusion

To the outside world, faculty are perceived as having great workplace flexibility. But to those inside the ivory tower, the reality is far more complex.

“Remaining research-oriented over your whole career is very hard,” Kossek said. “You bring home the identity and drive of a researcher to your kids, even though you have flexibility on the job.”

It’s no easier for teachers. Tenure is becoming harder to get. Barriers limit time for teaching. “Faculty may have more time and ability to self-regulate their schedules, but they also have more burnout and overloads,” said Kossek. “You don’t get a PhD unless you’re driven.”

Online teaching, once seen as a remedy for work-life conflicts, provides flexibility but trades it for less pay and prestige. “Telework used to be considered a panacea,” she said. “It’s helpful but can turn your home into an electronic cottage.”

There’s a personal and professional cost to upholding the illusion of flexibility. The academy has been “slow to embrace different ways of working over a career without being stigmatized,” said Kossek.

She sees little difference in the demands made on pretenure and post-tenure women. As hard as it is to be pretenure and race both the biological and tenure clocks, posttenure women often plateau at the associate professor level and give up. “The biological clock and the tenure clock overlap so much that post-tenure women need to recover from that,” she said.

Boundary management

For Kossek, work-life “balance” doesn’t describe the reality. She prefers the phrase “boundary management,” which she defines as understanding your priorities and learning how to integrate or protect them. The concept gives people “psychological job control—the extent to which an individual feels he or she has the personal freedom to control when, where and how to do his or her job,” she said.

People use three different boundary management styles. Integrators mix work and home all day, trading text messages with their teen while at work. On vacation, they monitor their workplace through emails and phone messages.

Separators “really do need to work in chunks,” said Kossek. They need to have blocks and boundaries, often setting up separate emails for work and home.

Volleyers or cyclers work in peaks and valleys. They have periods of high integration and high separation.

Where do women fall among these styles? In a 2012 study for the Journal of Vocational Behavior, Kossek, along with Marian N. Ruderman, Phillip W. Braddy, and Kelly M. Hannum, all from the Center for Creative Leadership, studied 591 managers attending a leadership development course who had taken the WorkLife Indicator.

Indicator components

The Work-Life Indicator provides information and the tools needed “to move towards a more productive and sustainable way of managing the boundaries between work and family.” This 10-minute self-assessment measures the degree to which a person “combines or separates work and family, identifies with and invests in work and family roles and feels in control of how she manages the boundaries between work and family.”

The Indicator’s 17 questions cover three general areas: identity, boundary control and interrupting behaviors.

Identity simply determines if you’re work centric or family centric. How would you answer the question about monitoring personal-related communications—such as emails, texts, and phone calls—when you’re at work?

Most women have a dual-centric identity, meaning they “put a high identity on both work and family roles and have dual investment in each.”

Control identifies how much power you have over your boundaries. Interruption describes how much you allow work to interrupt family time or vice versa.

Many research studies have found a strong correlation between feeling in control and lower stress levels, higher work satisfaction and better family interactions. Those who have higher psychological control identify more options and resources they can use to manage conflicts.

Survey participants responded to statements on a rating scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

The study found that it doesn’t matter whether you’re an integrator, a separator or a cycler. Gender, family situation and occupation also matter less in determining balance than how you self-manage your career.

What determines how well you’re able to self-manage is how much your job allows you to control your environment. On paper, teaching a night class might appear to be a perfect fit for a mother who can spend the day with her child. But if she must teach in an urban area with a high crime rate, that assignment isn’t so perfect. Boundaries should align with values.

Specialization, career development

Recognizing the diversity of their employees, some schools have created policies such as stopping the tenure clock for new mothers, allowing faculty to separate work and family more. On paper, the policy appears helpful, but often these separation policies come with traps.

Often there’s an unspoken assumption that those who stop the tenure clock are less serious about their careers. Others see the penalties for those who use the policy and instead practice “bias avoidance” by not using the policies that may generate bias against them.

Technology is seen as both a blessing and a curse, but it can be beneficial if you regulate it to fit your style. If you’re an integrator who is constantly on your smartphone, you may be happy. But check to see that the other stakeholders are happy too, including your colleagues, boss, family, partner.

Kossek contends that people should be allowed to separate work and life, and recommends more career development for each faculty member to learn how to do it.

Specializing could help faculty manage boundaries better. “Maybe after a certain time, universities can emphasize more specialization,” she said. “This might be more conducive for family life at different stages of a career.”

There needs to be a way for people to be both on- and off-track. “I think some faculty burn out on constant pressure to publish,” said Kossek. She suggests that for faculty who at a particular career stages feel better suited to focus their talents on teaching or service contributions, rather than having all faculty continuously publish, they could be required to get continuing education credits like medical doctors do.

To handle electronic interruptions, departments could help their faculty by developing email etiquette norms.

Recognizing the volleyer or cycler style—when to be fully work-focused or fully family-focused—could minimize problems and support the strengths of both integrators and separators.

• The faculty job is undergoing a metamorphosis. There needs to be a definition of “professional” work and what constitutes full time. Is it the number of hours per week, the number of articles published, the number of classes taught?

• Schools might create interventions to increase the sense of control for the separators, while the integrators need to be told it’s okay to leave their work at work.

Perhaps the best news is that there’s no one best way to manage boundaries. What may be a blessing to one person could be a nightmare to another.

Ellen Kossek:
or 517.353.9040

Interested in taking the WorkLife Indicator? Contact the Center for Creative Leadership: info@ccl.org or 336.545.2810. The price is $30 with quantity discounts available.

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