Personal Business

Kids, bosses and work

Ross Laver February 24 1997

Personal Business

Kids, bosses and work

Ross Laver February 24 1997

Personal Business

Ross Laver

Kids, bosses and work

Linda Duxbury likes to say that she is living her research. An associate professor of business at Carleton University in Ottawa, she has spent eight years studying how Canadians cope with conflicting work and family demands. In her case, the subject is of more than academic interest. As the mother of an energetic six-year-old, Annie, Duxbury often finds herself torn between her family and the pressures of a demanding career. You might think that her research would make things a little easier, but she disagrees. “The truth is that studying this stuff doesn’t help a hill of beans. If anything, I feel more guilty than most mothers because I know what I should be doing, and still I don’t do it.”

Actually, Duxbury is selling herself short. She and her husband, John, who also teaches at Carleton, have devoted a lot of effort to structuring their lives so that they can spend as much time as possible at home with Annie. It’s still a challenge, but Duxbury knows that they are among the fortunate ones. For many working parents, she says, the struggle to balance work and family is becoming a great deal harder, not easier.

How can that be, when the fashion in recent years has been for companies to proclaim—loudly and repeatedly—that their most important assets are their employees? Duxbury has heard all the rhetoric, but she isn’t buying. “All those mission statements and plaques on the wall are meaningless if there’s no real commitment,” she says. “At most companies, what matters is whether you meet your deadlines, not how supervisors treat their employees.”

And it seems to be getting worse. As part of a study sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Duxbury and Christopher Higgins, a business professor at the University of Western Ontario, have been conducting annual interviews since 1994 with more than 700 working couples across Canada. In 1996, for the first time, none of the couples they talked to could identify changes at work that had

made it simpler to balance work and family. On the contrary, three-quarters said it was becoming more difficult. Many of the participants pointed out that downsizing had created increased demands and heavier workloads. Others complained that uncertainty and lack of job security had made it more difficult to say no when a boss asked them to take on extra work, stay late or come in on the weekend.

Duxbury calls this motivation by fear, adding that it is no longer acceptable in today’s business world for people who have jobs to criticize conditions at work. “The response is always, ‘What are you complaining about? At least you’ve got a job.’ The economic conditions make it easier for managers who are jerks to get away with it, because people out there are afraid.” In a separate study of 28,000 employees, Duxbury and Higgins found that men were more likely than women to say that family pressures interfered with work. The response puzzled them until they realized that fathers who stay at home to care for a sick child—or who switch to part-time work because of family demands—are more likely to be negatively labelled by colleagues and managers.

What’s the solution? Perhaps if the economy improves and workers begin to feel they have other alternatives, companies will be forced to implement more supportive policies to avoid losing valued employees. (Duxbury says that is already starting to happen in certain highly competitive sectors, including telecommunications and financial services.) Meantime, she advises people who are interested in more flexible work arrangements not to rely on moral arguments but to prepare a solid business case demonstrating why such an approach will improve the bottom line. Fortunately, she says, that isn’t often difficult: her own research shows that parents who are successful at balancing work and family demands are absent from work one-third as often as people who find it difficult to balance those responsibilities.

For many people, the struggle to balance jobs and family is getting harder, not easier