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To achieve work-life balance, know your strategies


On Sunday morning, we all lost a precious hour of sleep. For those of us struggling to keep up with the conflicting demands of work, home and the classroom, the annual ‘spring forward’ can be a source of stress. But according to UTSC associate professor of organizational behaviour Julie McCarthy, a little self-reflection could do us all a world of good.
“People need to ask themselves, ‘What roles do I play?’ and ‘Are these roles working for me?’” says McCarthy. “And if they’re not working, we then need to ask, ‘What are the strategies I’m using to make things better?’”
McCarthy, whose research explores aspects of human resources such as performance management and workplace anxiety, says most of us employ one of three coping strategies to deal with opposing demands on our time, energy and emotions. We either engage actively with our problems in order to solve them (problem-focused), reach out to others and vent about our problems (emotion-focused) or ignore our problems altogether and distract ourselves with other activities (avoidance-focused).
Not surprisingly, the problem-focused approach is traditionally viewed as the best of the three, with avoidance-focused being viewed as the worst. But McCarthy’s most recent research adds a twist to this conventional wisdom.
McCarthy’s latest paper, co-authored with Tracy Hecht at Concordia University and titled Coping With Employee, Family, and Student Roles: Evidence of Dispositional Conflict and Facilitation Tendencies, looks at the struggles of undergraduate students who also work part-time jobs. The paper appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
The study subjects—all of whom were enrolled in UTSC’s management program—had to balance not just two, but three important facets of their lives: home, work and school. McCarthy, aware that we all play more than just two roles in our lives, wanted to explore how working students attempt to achieve balance.
“There is already a massive literature on work-life balance,” says McCarthy, “and much of it involves the interactions between just two roles, at home and at work. But most people play multiple roles in their lives. This paper is an attempt to recognize that fact.”
The first conclusion McCarthy and Hecht came to was that the problem-focused approach was actually a double-edged sword for many students. Apparently, focusing solely on your problems can, well, cause more problems. “Problem-focus is good to a point, but you can overdo it,” says McCarthy. “If you’re worried about school, and you study obsessively without taking a break, you’ve got no time to recover. This can cause serious resource depletion. People need time to refocus in order to learn or study well.”
The emotion-focused technique was used a fair bit by the students in the study, but it was found to neither help nor hurt conflicts between life roles. The most surprising conclusion, says McCarthy, had to do with the third coping strategy: avoidance.
“Avoidance was actually negatively related to conflict,” she says. In other words, students experienced a reduction in conflict between life roles when they simply put some of their issues on the backburner for a while. “This technique is traditionally seen as ‘running away from your problems’,” says McCarthy. “But maybe by backing off and taking breaks, students are able to replenish their resources.”
This study of students can easily be extrapolated to the rest of us. When we feel drained, we suffer lower levels of satisfaction with life and higher rates of burnout, depression and ill-health. To avoid these detrimental effects—and at risk of adding yet another responsibility to our busy lives—McCarthy says it’s important to take an active role in dealing with life’s conflicts.
“People need to assess which strategies they’re using to cope with their problems. They need to make sure they’re making time for resource recovery, because playing many roles in life isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Multiple roles can leads to a greater sense of accomplishment and achievement, and they make life stimulating and interesting. But too many can be detrimental unless we begin asking ourselves honest, pointed questions.”
For more on professor McCarthy’s work, click here.

© University of Toronto Scarborough