Purdue 2017: Managing Work-Life Boundaries

September 29, 2017
Nicola M. Parry, BVSc, MRCVS, MSc, DACVP, ELS

Veterinary professionals who are able to keep their work and personal lives separate improve not only their health but also many aspects of 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 the Wellness Keynote Lecture at the 2017 Purdue Veterinary Conference, Dr. Kossek discussed work—life boundaries and their role in reducing stress, work–life conflict and burnout and in improving health, well-being and productivity. Work–life boundary dynamics concern the distinction between work and personal roles, and how individuals manage these roles in everyday life to achieve work-life balance.

Professionals such as veterinarians now face a unique overwork challenge, she said. With mounting workloads and 24/7 availability, professionals are placing work ahead of everything else. Various factors contribute to overwork pressures, said Dr. Kossek, including technological advances and 24-hour communication that allow professionals to take work home more easily. For many individuals, personal and professional identities overlap, leading to people increasingly identifying themselves primarily by their specialization. Many professionals have difficulty turning work off, she said, adding that it “is not good for health when people are continually thinking about work.”

Various trends contribute to work—life tensions for veterinary professionals, Dr. Kossek said. Not only are veterinarians now working longer hours because of rising debt, but today’s digital era requires them to deal with client reviews on social media sites. The profession has also shifted to include significantly more women than men, she noted, and the advent of smartphones now means that family members can contact busy veterinarians at any time during work hours.

Work—life conflict affects our physical and mental health, said Dr. Kossek. It is linked to problems such as increased risk of cardiovascular disease and depression, and it can lead to burnout. It can also feed back into the work environment, increasing the risk of accidents at work. Interventions are, therefore, needed to reduce work–life conflict and improve health and productivity.

Interruption Behaviors

Dr. Kossek discussed five interruption behaviors. These are the ways in which individuals combine or separate work from personal life, and they represent differences in how people handle work—life boundaries.

  • Integrators continually allow work and home life to bleed together throughout the day.
  • Separators, in contrast to integrators, 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.

Managing Work—Life Boundaries

Dr. Kossek shared some tips that can help manage work—life boundaries for integrators and separators.

She advised integrators to implement “time triggers” during meetings. Integrators often tend to run late, she said. So, setting an alarm for several minutes before the end of each meeting can help integrators end a meeting on time and allow them to stay on schedule throughout the day. Integrators should also avoid overscheduling their days, she said, and should consider the rule of three: “Things always take three times as long as you think they will take.” These types of strategies help to prevent job creep and family creep. Routines and rituals, including exercise, can also help integrators stay on track, she added.

Separators should discuss their availability and personal needs with their bosses and families. Dr. Kossek suggested that integrators should designate specific work areas at home to help keep a distinct line between work and personal life. Separators 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 not just important at the individual level, concluded Dr. Kossek, but also at the organizational level where it can lead to higher employee engagement, improved productivity, reduced staff turnover, a better ability to attract highly talented professionals, reduced sick leave, and improved workplace safety with fewer accidents.

Dr. Parry graduated from the University of Liverpool, England, in 1997, and 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 is passionate about veterinary education and serves on the Indiana Veterinary Medical Association’s Continuing Education Committee. She regularly writes continuing education articles for veterinary organizations and journals, and has also served on the American College of Veterinary Pathologists’ Examination Committee and Education Committee.