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September 7, 2011 | Volume 5 | Number 8
September 7, 2011
For working parents, September signifies a shift in the structure of life. Vacations are coming to an end, summer routines and activities are dwindling and children are going back to school (or starting college). Both employees and their managers can take steps to ensure that the stress of “back-to-school” time is managed in a way that minimizes stress and promotes work performance.
“Back to school” time can breed higher levels of stress, as parents grapple with a number of realities:
Hence, this is a time of greater demands on working parents’ personal resources. Research suggests that people have limited time, energy and money to expend on the demands of life (Hobfoll, 1989; Grawitch, Barber, & Justice, 2011), which span both work and non-work roles. According to the job demands-resources model (Demerouti, Bakker, Nachreiner, & Schaufeli, 2001), this increase in demands can lead to stress and burnout, especially when sufficient job-related resources (e.g., supervisor support, job flexibility, autonomy) and personal resources (e.g., time, energy, money) do not exist to offset the effects of those demands. Thus, both working parents and organizations should take appropriate steps to reduce the stress they experience during this period of time.
From a personal resource perspective, workers need to ensure that they take the necessary steps to shore up their personal resources. Often, when demands require more time or energy than we prefer to expend on them (or more than we even have available), we tend rely on more maladaptive strategies to “survive.” These can include:
It is tempting for workers to justify maladaptive behaviors by considering them to be temporary, assuming they will readjust after they get through a particularly stressful period. However, even short-term changes can result in higher levels of stress, which in turn predispose people to experience mood disruptions and decrements in work performance.
For example, inconsistent and insufficient sleep interacts to produce negative effects on self-control and psychological stress (Barber & Munz, 2010). Specifically only individuals who consistently get enough sleep (at least 7 hours) during the week experience a decrease in stress and increase in self-control, which means the ability to “catch up on sleep” is a common misconception. As another example, physical activity has been positively linked to job performance (Pronk, Martinson, Kessler, Beck, Simon, & Wang, 2004), indicating that engaging in regular exercise can actually help produce more energy over the long term that you can devote to work tasks (and potentially other life demands). And, finally, exerting control over work and non-work demands (i.e., a planned approach to managing demands) can result in higher levels of engagement with those demands (Bakker, Hanaken, Demerouti, & Xanthopoulou, 2007).
The research is clear on this issue. When we fail to build up our personal resources or we fail to allocate them in a planful way, our well-being and performance suffer. Therefore, workers need to take a proactive approach to addressing the increased demands that come with this time of the year. Some specific recommendations would include:
As mentioned above, workers have a variety of behaviors within their control: exercise frequency, what they eat, how they sleep and holding themselves accountable for responding to demands proactively. Ideally, they should have the autonomy to exert flexibility over how they perform their work, including flexible schedules and telecommuting options (Grawitch & Barber, 2010). This flexibility increases a worker’s ability to respond to demands effectively in both their work and non-work life, and research has linked increased work flexibility with positive performance and well-being outcomes. Increased work flexibility has been shown to also predict engagement in healthy lifestyle behaviors (including sleep) and even attendance in health education seminar attendance over time (Grzywacz, Casey, & Jones, 2007).
Though formal organizational resources and policies (e.g., flextime or telecommuting policies) provide an added resource for workers, the mere presence of such policies and benefits is not enough (Eaton, 2003). Managers need to provide workers with the necessary support they need to respond to periods of increased demands, whether the increase in demands stems from work or non-work life. Workers will fail to use such resources if they think policies are not “really” available or if they feel it will affect future work assignments or job evaluations.
As a case in point, Tepper (2000) found that perceptions of fair treatment by one’s supervisor predicted a more positive work-to-life interface, and research has regularly found that supervisor support is an important stress-buffering resource (e.g., Bakker et al., 2007; Demerouti et al., 2001). Therefore, it is not sufficient for managers to point to organizational policy as the sole mechanism to improve employee stress management; managers are the primary agents of policy success.
However, many organizations do not offer such flexibility or may offer flexibility for only certain positions. Workers are left with limited choices for effectively responding to non-work demands that occur during the work day, such as using vacation days or personal time off. In such cases, the lack of autonomy can promote higher levels of stress (Greenhaus & Allen, 2011).
If the organization does not offer any sort of formal flexibility, a manager can still provide the support needed to help employees better manage the stress for their increased demands. Managers can take these specific actions during potential periods of high stress:
“Back-to-school” time can create a temporary increase in demands for workers who have children. Both employees and their managers have a responsibility to ensure that this more stressful time of year is managed in a way that minimizes increased stress and decreased work performance. Worker responsibilities include adhering to a healthy lifestyle (sleep, nutrition, exercise) and taking a proactive approach to monitoring and scheduling demands. Manager responsibilities include providing employees with support in terms of respecting formal work flexibility policies and promoting new policies that help all workers (not just those with children) manage non-work demands. Using these strategies, managers and employees can work together to improve employee well-being and performance at work, resulting in positive effects for the organization as a whole.
Bakker, A. B., Hanaken, J. J., Demerouti, E., & Xanthopoulou, D. (2007). Job resources boost work engagement, particularly when job demands are high. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99, 274–284.
Barber, L. K., & Munz, D. C. (in press). Consistent-sufficient sleep predicts improvements in self-regulatory performance and psychological strain. Stress and Health.
Demerouti, E., Bakker, A.B., Nachreiner, F., & Schaufeli, W.B. (2001). The job demands-resources model of burnout. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 499–512.
Eaton, S. (2003). If you can use them: Flexibility policies, organizational commitment, and perceived performance. Industrial Relations, 42, 145–167.
Grawitch, M. J., & Barber, L. K. (2010). Work flexibility or non-work support? Mapping the work-life balance research onto a conceptual framework. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62, 169-188.
Grawitch, M. J., Barber, L. K., & Justice, L. (2010). Re-thinking the work-life interface: It’s not about balance, it’s about resource allocation. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2, 127-159.
Greenhaus, J. H., & Allen, T. D. (2011). Work-family balance: A review and extension of the literature. In J. C. Quick and L. E. Tetrick (Eds.), Handbook of Occupational Health Psychology (2nd ed.; pp. 165-184). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Grzywacz, J. G., Casey, P. R., Jones, F. A. The effects of workplace flexibility on health behaviors: A cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 49, 1302-1309.
Hobfoll, S.E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44, 513–524.
Pronk, N. P., Martinson, B., Kessler, R. C., Beck, A. L., Simon, G. E., & Wang, P. (2004). The association between work performance and physical activity, cardiorespiratory fitness, and obesity. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 46, 19-25.
Tepper, B. J. (2000). Consequences of abusive supervision. Academy of Management Journal, 43, 178-190.
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