Things are only impossible until they’re not.
– Jean-Luc Picard
Volume 73 | Issue 2
March 2005

Keeping Our Balance: How to work in student affairs and still have a life

Sarah Comstock

A generation ago, work/life balance was a concept that might not have gotten a lot of “buzz.” This could be because everyone used to be much more balanced or we did not realize the value of balance. There were personal and professional boundaries in place, and employees and supervisors operated within them. Now, people are working in a 24/7 world and we need to try harder to find our balance between our professional selves versus our roles outside of work.

Helen Whitten (2003) says: “‘I feel guilty if I take time out for lunch’ is the regular cry of today’s worker” (A6 1). She continues:

Technological advances have been marvelous in their way and yet have placed an enormous burden of relentless pressure on people as expectations rise in parallel with the speed of technological progress. People frequently hold irrational beliefs around the expectations that other people have regarding their availability. E-mails and mobile phones need managing. If people are not careful they end up with no ‘downtime’ to refresh mentally, emotionally, or physically. The need to be needed is addictive—notice how hands fiddle anxiously with mobile phones and the ease with which people obsessively log on to their e-mail system. (A6 20)

Consequently, employers are implementing work/life balance initiatives to aid employees in achieving balance within this social construct. “Simply put, work/life balance initiatives are any benefits, policies, or programs that help create a better balance between the demands of the job and the healthy management (and enjoyment) of life outside work” (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, 2002, A6 4). Why are these necessary? Because we need help, but are not always aware we do or willing to ask for it; “Many people try to soldier along on their own without asking for help, and this can lead to a sense of isolation, martyrdom, and exhaustion,” says Whitten (2003, A6 23).

This concept calls to mind myriad questions: How do employees decide what their own work/life balance looks like? What responsibility do employers have to help find balance? But most importantly, how does that balance get achieved?


With more and more responsibility in both personal and professional lives, finding some equilibrium in life is difficult and different for everyone. In fact, some might say that the balance many employees seek is an illusion. In Fast Company, Keith H. Hammonds (2004) argues the idea of work/life balance is destructive in that it fuels an urgent, and yet impossible, quest to find balance that has bettered a consulting industry rather than employees. Hammonds says balance is a “relic, a fleeting phenomenon of a closed, industrial economy that doesn’t apply in a global, knowledge-based world. C9 You can’t have both a big paycheck and reasonable hours. The laws of economics won’t allow it” (p. 68).

But does a big paycheck equal success? For some, the answer might be yes, but for others it might just be society putting pressure on them to define success as such while personally, perhaps secretly, they would rather define their success outside the workplace. “Working hard has always been a measure of success in the office,” says Alie Hochchild author of “The Time Bind” (in Maher, 2003, A6 12). “Now we’ve internalized it. So instead of the boss harassing you to work more, we do it to ourselves.” Maher (2003) says success is not in how hard an employee works, but in the employee’s productivity:

The better the manager, the less time it takes him to do his job. A good worker takes care of his health and his sanity, and is as productive as possible during the hours he is working. C9

We should never confuse activity with productivity. No matter how many hours someone puts in, no matter how much they appear to be working, the only measurement that really matters is the results. (A6 13, 18)

So working long hours, taking work home with you, and sending e-mails in the middle of the night do not mean you’re a star employee. In fact, as Maher (2003) says, it might mean something is wrong:

Workaholics are people with problems. Do you feel guilty that you’re not obsessed by sex? C9 Or by chocolate? Do you feel guilty that you don’t want to spend your entire life playing golf or loafing, or reading or watching TV? Or that you’re not addicted to alcohol or narcotics? Why should you feel guilty that you’re too well rounded an individual to want to spend your entire life working? (A6 21)

In fact, you actually are doing a disservice to the organization if you are working yourself into the ground while trying to achieve “employee of the month” status. As Whitten (2003) says:

People frequently put themselves last and think they are being sensible in doing so. However, if you listen to the safety instructions on board an aircraft it becomes clear that ‘to fit your own safety mask before you fit a mask to others’ is actually the most responsible way to behave. They are no good to anyone if they allow themselves to become exhausted. (A6 5)

The reality is that it would be acceptable or even appropriate to value your success in your personal life and make sure you have the flexibility to excel in it.

Employee/employer balance

Regardless of how family is defined—children, partners, pets, or parents—professionals often spend more time at work than with their families. AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving found in 1997 that 23 percent of U.S. households had at least one person helping someone older than 50 with such tasks as eating and getting dressed or performing household chores (Hoffman, 2000). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2002), in 2000 the number of hours that a couple with children under the age of 18 worked was 66 hours, whereas a couple with no children worked an average of 70 hours, a 20 percent increase in the last 30 years. Furthermore, the Families and Work Institute reported that 45 percent of American families felt there was significant interference between their jobs and families (in Bond, 2002), and the AFL-CIO reported 66 percent of fathers and 51 percent of mothers responded affirmatively that they “are unhappy with the amount of time spent with their children.”

So how can we work toward a more positive situation? Sandra Bailey (2002) advises employees to assess the number of “hats” they wear; hats being the roles that a person is expected to play. She stresses that before people can know how to wear different hats simultaneously, they must recognize all of the hats that are currently worn and assess whether there is enough room to wear them all. Successfully meeting the needs of each role in life is just as important as knowing the roles in life. Each role requires different time commitments and different energy levels, and therefore has different rates of success. It is up to the individual, and no one else, to decide what it means to successfully wear a hat.

But it is not always as easy as just identifying hats. How do employers and employees get what they need? Whitten (2003) says:

The majority of people we work with have not had the courage to explain their predicaments to their boss for fear of being seen as weak. However many policies are in place, if fear (or consequences to bonus, career progression, job security) and guilt (at taking time for lunch, to exercise or to go home at a reasonable hour) are the predominant emotions, behaviour change on an individual or team basis will not happen. (A6 26)

The importance of work and life fitting together evenly is obvious for the employee. But why is it important for the employer? A 2003 study by Britain’s National Centre for Social Research found that employers saw benefits to providing their employees with work/life balance assistance including a happier workforce, higher motivation levels, and longer retention rates. Other employer benefits from work/life balance programs might include (CCOHS, 2002; Employers for Work/Life Balance, 2004):

  • Increased levels of productivity and satisfaction
  • Improved recruitment and retention
  • Building of diversity in skills and personnel
  • Lower rates of sickness and absenteeism
  • Decreased stress and burn-out
  • Reduced overheads
  • An improved customer experience
  • Improved morale
  • Enhanced working relationships between colleagues

Employees show more initiative and teamwork

According to Human Resources Development Canada:

When employees are ‘out of balance,’ they experience more stress and fatigue and tend to be absent from work more often due to these reasons. They have less focus while at work because they are worried about issues at home, and they are also more distracted at home because work matters weigh on their minds. The end result is that neither situation is healthy or productive; in short, it’s a lose/lose situation for employees, their families, and their employer. (in CCOHS, 2002, A6 6)

The United Kingdom’s Department of Trade and Industry (n.d.) reported that by supporting employees and their effort to balance work and home, one business showed a 37 percent increase in profitability, while another surveyed company saved A3250,000 through staff retention.

Realistic in higher education?

Higher education professionals are not always afforded the time, money, or space to find logical solutions to creating a more balanced life schedule; therefore, it has become incumbent on professionals in the field to forge their own route. The American Association of University Professors (2001) has taken a step in this direction by publishing a “Statement of Principles on Family Responsibilities and Academic Work.” The statement acknowledges the slow uptake of a changing culture on university campuses. While it speaks more specifically to faculty, the problems addressed and solutions suggested are relevant campus-wide. Under the section, “Flexible work policies and schedules,” the AAUP suggests: “Colleges and universities should, to the extent possible, coordinate academic-year calendars with other local educational institutions, or provide child care support when conflicts occur” (A6 32). While this suggested move might seem difficult to a campus’ calendar advisory committee, the benefit to faculty and staff with children can be enormous.

There are many workable solutions to the ever-growing problem of work and family balance, but the question of how college union professionals integrate these possibilities persists. There is no clear-cut research that identifies models for union professionals; therefore, it is often left to individual employees or supervisors to craft their own solution.

The first step is identifying what is causing an employee stress at work and at home. Employees can make a list of these items either on their own or during a retreat. Some of these tasks may be unnecessary and others may be vital; the supervisor then can assist employees in developing “action steps to remove the hassle-factors. If the essential activity is causing them stress, develop new ways of approaching the task so as to find a way to enjoy it. C9 Support the client in focusing time and energy on the things that matter most and seek activities on which they can cut down” (Whitten, 2003, A6 13–14).

Next, employees can dream about their perfect lifestyle, Whitten (2003) advises. In an ideal world, what does a perfect workweek and rich personal life look like? Based on the individual’s dream, the employee and supervisor might be able to determine changes that can be made to make that dream more of a reality. This could involve something as simple as allowing an employee to work different hours or take a longer lunch break. Once the employee and supervisor have agreed on a plan, “Initiate a trial period C9 [Then] monitor, re-survey, and make any adjustments that are necessary” (CCOHS, 2002, A6 12).

Types of benefits

According to Baker and King (2001), the number of employees in medium and large corporations that have access to child care benefits is only 10 percent. For those with young children, work/life benefits can range in cost from more expensive to practically nothing at all. Perhaps the department can arrange on-site child care through the institution. Or allow employees to come in early and leave late so they are home when their child gets out of school. Or perhaps a student organization would sponsor child care/babysitting programs during late-night meetings and times when day care centers are not traditionally open. Emergency assistance can be a huge relief when a parent unexpectedly needs to leave work to care for a child or needs child care in an emergency. Even simply maintaining a list of family resources within the university and community (e.g., kid-friendly events, reputable babysitters, tutors, pediatric medical and dental centers) is something small a department can do to create a family-friendly work environment.

Jim Schuster, director of Viking Union facilities at Western Washington University, offers a perspective on the role of employers in assisting with work/life balance; “I’ve let my staff know that I understand that their first priority has to be their family. C9 The staff have reciprocated by always taking care of business, putting in extra time, and being there for the organization and each other” (personal communication, November 17, 2004).

Whether they have children, employees each have unique needs that do not always operate according to an 8-to-5 schedule. Alternative work arrangements are something that many corporations are turning to in an effort to gain maximum efficiency from staff. Depending on the nature of the employee’s work assignments, providing flexibility in work schedule is not a difficult task. One employee might really want to attend a pilates class that is only offered at 10 a.m. Another could really use a nap at 3 p.m. And someone else might not spend the afternoon worrying, if she could check on an elderly parent mid-day. It might not always be possible to alter employees’ work hours to accommodate a compressed workweek or an hour off in the middle of the work day, but supervisors might consider it if it will help their employees be more successful and focused in their work.

From the employees’ perspective, they can help by educating their families about the requirements and rewards or their jobs. Margaret Vos, director of the Atwood Memorial Center at St. Cloud State University, notes how important it is to “involve your family with work as much as possible. C9 Invite extended family to see what it is we actually do” (personal communication, October 29, 2004). Likewise, Mandy Ellertson, student leadership coordinator at Portland Community College–Rock Creek, believes exposing her children to the profession at an early age assisted in making them more understanding of what she does and allowed them to “hear incredibly gifted speakers” and experience the rewards of volunteering (personal communication, November 1, 2004). The more families understand the college union as a chosen profession, and in turn the crazy work hours, the more likely they are to be accepting of the occupation.

When it is time to get away, time off can mean more than the number of vacation days employees receive. Most higher education institutions have family leave policies and sick time, and many also offer parental leave for adoptive parents and educational leave. However, other trends include “compassionate leave” for special or urgent circumstances (e.g., the death of a close friend or sickness of an extended family member), community service leaves, and self-funded leaves. While the actual implementation of these programs might seem unrealistic at first glance, supervisors might consider the return on investment. Sometimes knowing a supervisor is willing to consider such arrangements is such a morale-booster that employees are willing to put in a little extra time on the clock.

And if one of these work/life “balancers” does not sound like it would work, a department might consider creating its own cafeteria plan. Negotiate with a local or on-campus laundry service for pick-up and delivery on employees’ laundry, ironing, and dry cleaning. Create an outside-of-work service-swap program in which one employee might hem pants in exchange for another employee mowing his or her lawn, or dancing lessons in exchange for help with a computer program. Offer brown-bag wellness workshops or clinics for smoking cessation, stress management, nutrition, blood pressure, etc. to help employees focus on something outside of work while also learning. And maintaining a database or library of any kind of resources is always helpful (e.g., community service organizations, support groups, financial planning services).

It is equally important to encourage and model good work/life balance among colleagues. Julie Walters-Steele, director of Hinds University Center at Western Carolina University, says: “We must role model a balance between family and personal life. C9 I stress to new hires, particularly new professionals, that it’s important to establish personal time goals” (personal communication, November 17, 2004). Without employers as role models, it is easy for employees at any level to feel required to make the job their life.

There is no magic solution to work/life balance. While the corporate world has a jump on successful models, groups like the American Association of University Professors are beginning to translate corporate resolutions for college campuses. But individually and collectively union and activities professionals can seek ways and means to balance their professional and personal lives. Whether it is sharing knowledge and strategies or encouraging department heads, deans, and vice presidents to recognize the need for creative solutions, balance must be a priority.

Elizabeth Beltramini contributed to this article.


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