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December 2008 Archives

I’m home in South Florida for the holidays writing this while my family hustles and bustles around me – corralling the puppy, mowing the lawn, lounging by the pool, and it occurs to me that most people don’t live in a place where you can barbeque outside in January without long underwear and a down jacket. This trip home had made me think about the impact of where you live and how the weather can affect your productivity. With warm/hot months year-round, it’s easier to be outside more often, stay active, and of course there’s the natural energy boost that comes from the sun.

On the other hand, when you think about gray skies, cold weather, and resulting afflictions like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and having to dig your car out of the snow, it makes sense that it could be more difficult to be productive when it’s chilly outside. A recent report on work environment and mood disorders from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that some individuals may notice their mood fluctuate with sunlight exposure. Adjustment periods aside, when the weather outside is frightful, are there differences in work productivity, satisfaction, and/or health?

I’m not the only one who thinks it’s important to carefully consider where you live. Richard Florida (seriously, that’s his name), an author who writes about economic competitiveness and demographic trends, claims that deciding where you live is "the most important decision of your life." Although I wouldn’t agree to that extreme, it’s more common to relocate for a job, spouse or family. Then there are personal differences – some people actually love the snow, some place the importance of living close to family over the climate, and others grow accustomed to the blizzards and ice (those are the people that usually tell me that I’ll “get used to it,” to which I reply [in my head of course] “yeah right, never”). It all has to balance out in the end though, otherwise wouldn’t all company headquarters be located in sunny California or Florida? Surely if there were a trend, corporate America would catch on.

Research specifically examining seasonal effects on presenteeism is limited, but seasonal variations are commonly taken into account when designing research. For example, giving a health questionnaire during Fall/Winter and then again in the Spring/Summer to account for seasonal fluctuations. Obesity rates, diabetes, and heart disease are all lower in warm cities like Fresno, California and West Palm Beach, Florida, but higher in Gary, Indiana. However, access to healthcare, availability and cost of nutritious food, etc. are the most common explanations, not the weather. Additionally, Fortune Magazine rates many “cold” places as top on their Best Places to Live list. How do Burlington, Vermont and Colorado Springs keep everyone so healthy and happy? In general, people must be more likely to exercise regularly, take advantage of sunlight during the day and eat healthy, nutritious meals. I think it really comes down to what you are personally searching for in a place to live and work. Here’s an interesting story on how ‘Best Places’ lists are created and what factors are taken into consideration, which you can use to help guide your future dreams, or there’s this quiz for fun. Regardless of the research, I’ll keep my eye on my long-term goal to relocate to a sunshiny-place, one day.

I have to say that I was a bit stunned when I read a recent article called Employees with most control take jobs home. The article reported on a poll of 2,600 US workers from 2002. The researchers found that having autonomy and more control over scheduling led people to bring work home with them. The implications of the article are that bringing work home with you is automatically associated with reductions in work-life balance (though all they measured was work-to-home conflict). Interestingly enough, while autonomy and schedule control were meaningfully predictive of the extent to which people brought work home with them, the prediction of actual work-to-home conflict by autonomy was substantially weaker, and the prediction of work-to-home conflict by schedule control was almost completely non-existent.

Yet, this discrepancy is never mentioned. Instead, the authors decide to draw the attention-grabbing conclusion that autonomy and schedule control might reduce work-life balance. What an inferential leap! This is even more surprising given the accumulation of research that shows direct positive links between work flexibility and feelings of work life balance (see Employees Benefit from Flexible Hours, Telecommuting)!

Case in point: I have a great deal of autonomy and schedule control! I regularly work less than eight hours in the office. Leaving by 4:00 pm allows me to beat rush-hour traffic. Instead of spending the last hour in the office and doubling my commute time, I bring work home with me. After my children are in bed, I often sit down for an hour or two and work on projects and tasks that I did not complete that day. Does this mean I have less work-life balance?

On the contrary, I have more work-life balance! I exercise control over how and when I allocate my time and effort to my work! That’s what work-life balance is, and that’s the purpose of autonomy and control over my work schedule. The problem is that some employees in positions that permit autonomy and scheduling control choose not to leverage those benefits, and that is the result of poor self-control or poor self-management. With increased flexibility comes increased responsibility for managing your time effectively. It seems that all too often the work-life balance crowd thinks that simply giving everyone flexibility in work schedules or work arrangements solves all of the problems associated with work-life conflict. Guess what – if you lack self-control, assertiveness, and self-management skills, having more flexible work options only creates more problems! And these problems become even worse if your boss doesn’t know how to manage people who utilize flexible work arrangements.

So, here is my advice to people who are having problems with work-life balance even though they have autonomy, scheduling control, and flexibility in their work: Consider the choices that you make that contribute to your perceptions of work-life imbalance. If you fail to exercise the necessary control, self-management, or assertiveness, you are choosing to have work-life imbalance.