Media Releases

Having trouble achieving work-life balance? Knowing your strategies is key

March 29, 2011

TORONTO, ON — Essays are being writ­ten, final exams are loom­ing and class­es are reach­ing their busy con­clu­sion. With con­flict­ing demands from work, home and the class­room, this hec­tic time of year can be filled with stress. But accord­ing to new research from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough (UTSC), 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 Julie McCarthy, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of orga­ni­za­tion­al behav­iour at UTSC. “And if they’re not work­ing, we then need to ask, ‘What are the strate­gies I’m using to make things bet­ter?’”

In her lat­est study, the UTSC asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of orga­ni­za­tion­al behav­ior worked with Tra­cy Hecht of Con­cor­dia Uni­ver­si­ty to look at how under­grad­u­ate stu­dents attempt­ed to achieve bal­ance. All of the par­tic­i­pants were UTSC stu­dents with jobs out­side of school.

McCarthy and Hecht looked at three strate­gies often used to deal with oppos­ing demands on time, atten­tion and ener­gy: solu­tion-dri­ven active engage­ment (prob­lem-focused), vent­ing to oth­ers (emo­tion-focused) or ignor­ing those prob­lems alto­geth­er and dis­tract­ing our­selves with oth­er activ­i­ties (avoid­ance-focused).

While the prob­lem-focused approach is tra­di­tion­al­ly viewed as the best of the three, McCarthy and Hecht’s research found that strat­e­gy could actu­al­ly cause more prob­lems as a result of stress, over-exhaus­tion and lack of recov­ery time. “Peo­ple need time to refo­cus in order to learn or study well,” says McCarthy.

The most sur­pris­ing con­clu­sion had to do with the third cop­ing mech­a­nism: avoid­ance. When the stu­dent par­tic­i­pants sim­ply set aside some of their issues for a while, they actu­al­ly expe­ri­enced a reduc­tion in con­flict between life roles. “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.”

Feel­ing drained leads to low­er lev­els of sat­is­fac­tion with life and high­er rates of burnout, depres­sion and ill-health. And while play­ing mul­ti­ple roles can be stim­u­lat­ing, inter­est­ing and lead to sense of accom­plish­ment and achieve­ment, McCarthy says there are real risks we need to be aware of. “Peo­ple need to assess which strate­gies they’re using to cope with their prob­lems and make sure they’re mak­ing time for resource recov­ery,” she says. “Too many roles can be detri­men­tal unless we begin ask­ing our­selves hon­est, point­ed ques­tions.”

McCarthy’s study was co-authored with Tracey Hecht and titled Cop­ing With Employ­ee, Fam­i­ly, and Stu­dent Roles: Evi­dence of Dis­po­si­tion­al Con­flict and Facil­i­ta­tion Ten­den­cies. It appears in the Jour­nal of Applied Psy­chol­o­gy.


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:
Julie McCarthy
Depart­ment of Man­age­ment
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough

Karen Ho
Media and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Assis­tant
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough