Managing Work-Life Boundaries
Nicola M. Parry, BVSc, MRCVS, MSc, DACVP, ELS
Veterinary professionals who keep their work and personal lives separate improve both their health and many aspects of their practice.
Work and family life are increasingly intertwined in today’s digital era, and they continually influence each other, according to Ellen Ernst Kossek, PhD, MBA, Basil S. Turner professor at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management and research director of the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Presenting at the 2017 Purdue Veterinary Conference, Kossek discussed how work—life boundaries can help reduce stress, work–life conflict and burnout and improve health, well-being and productivity. Work–life boundary dynamics involve distinguish-ing between, as well as managing, professional and personal roles to achieve a proper balance in everyday life.
Veterinarians now face a unique overwork challenge, Dr. Kossek said. Mounting workloads, technological advances and 24-hour communication make it easier to take work home and, often, harder to turn it off. Personal and professional identities often overlap, leading to people increasingly identifying themselves primarily by their specialization.
Various trends contribute to work—life tensions for veterinary professionals, Dr. Kossek said. Not only are they working longer hours because of rising debt, but today’s digital era also requires veterinarians to deal with client reviews on social media. The profession has also shifted to include significantly more women than men, she noted, and the advent of smartphones means that family members can contact busy veterinarians at any time during work hours. Work–life conflict affects both physical and mental health, Dr. Kossek said. It is linked to higher risks for cardiovascular disease and depression and can lead to burnout. It also can feed back into the work environment, increasing the risk for accidents. Work–life conflict requires intervention to create a better balance and improve health and productivity.
Dr. Kossek discussed five types of individuals, based on how they combine or separate work from personal life. These labels represent the ways people handle — or mishandle — work—life boundaries.
Integrators continually allow work and home life to bleed together throughout the day. Separators draw a clear line to separate work and personal life. Work firsters are asymmetrical integrators. They allow work matters to interrupt their personal lives but do not allow personal issues to interrupt their work. Family firsters are also asymmetrical integrators but in the opposite direction. They allow personal matters to interrupt their work but do not allow work matters to interrupt their personal lives. Cyclers switch back and forth between integrating and separating. These include professionals whose workload patterns fluctuate throughout the year, driving them to follow recurring patterns of separation to focus on work, followed by periods of work—life integration.
Dr. Kossek shared some tips that can help integrators and separators manage work—life boundaries. She advised integrators, who tend to run late, to implement “time triggers” during meetings. Setting an alarm for several minutes before the end of a meeting can help them conclude on time and stay on schedule throughout the day. Integrators should also avoid overscheduling their days, she said, and consider that things always take three times as long as you think they will. These types of strategies help prevent job creep and family creep. Routines and rituals, including exercise, can also help integrators stay on track, she added. At home, integrators should designate specific work areas to help keep a distinct line between work and personal life.
Separators should discuss their availability and personal needs with their bosses and families, Dr. Kossek said. They may also find it helpful to use separate phones and other devices for work and home, she added.
The End Result
Improving work—life boundary management is important at both the individual and organizational levels. It can lead to higher employee engagement, improved productivity and work-place safety, reduced sick leave and staff turnover, and a greater ability to attract highly talented professionals.
Dr. Parry is a board-certified veterinary pathologist. After 13 years working in academia, she founded Midwest Veterinary Pathology LLC, where she now works as a private consultant. She writes regularly for veterinary organizations and journals.