When life and work collide
I am at the tail end of the Baby Boomers. Old enough to remember Woodstock, the assassination of RFK and the election of Richard Nixon. And the Vietnam War sent shivers through me. Not just because of the senseless deaths on both sides but because I thought guerilla warfare actually involved gorillas. Really big nasty ones. A reasonable assumption given the fact that the war was taking place in a jungle and the soldiers on the nightly news looked fairly beaten up. I used to fear the gorillas would find their way into my room and hide under my bed. Needless to say, many of my childish nightmares included these distant DNA cousins.
So I claim the mantle of Baby Boomer lightly because I am more of a beneficiary than maverick as women moved into the workforce. The women’s movement in the 70’s opened the door for young women like me to have opportunities that my older sister couldn’t even dream about. But to carry the metaphor further, while the door opened, the floor has always been slippery, with very few managing not to slip let alone worrying about bumping their heads into a ceiling whether glass or not. And there is no floor plan for managing a meaningful career and life outside of work. So along with many of my baby boomer sisters, we wing it. To the question, “Can a woman have it all?” the answer can be a qualified yes. For the last 20 years there has been a growing area of interest in Industrial / Organizational psychology regarding the intersection of work and life outside of work. It goes by such titles as work life balance, work life interchange and work life strategies to name a few. The idea and research being that employees will be better employees and better people outside of work to the extent that they find a way to meet both their personal and professional goals. In general the research shows that if the stars align, if your coworkers and managers value your skills and talents, if your life partner shows a faint resemblance to Jesus, and if your children manage not to be high maintenance, then you can probably pull off some semblance of balance if your organization has policies that allow for flexibility, management that provides positive modeling and social support and the spillover between the two areas does not generate a tsunami.
But all bets are off when you or a loved one gets really sick. As I write this, one and a half million Americans have cancer. The National Cancer Institute estimates that an equal number of people will be newly diagnosed this year and 600,000 people will die. Multiply that number by any number of spouses, partners, parents, children, siblings and close friends and you have millions of people at any one time who are incapable of mentally or physically bringing their A-game to work. Baby Boomers are especially faced with this tragedy. Once again, I am watching women 10 years older than me, blaze a path, who after juggling careers and family for 25 years now find themselves with breast cancer, dealing with their fathers’ heart disease, husbands who are underemployed or lose their jobs 10 years away from retirement and adult children who can’t afford their mortgages or childcare. These women are competent and tough. They have worked hard, changed their company’s culture, demanded an end to sexual harassment and have quietly mentored me and the next generation of women through the minefields that they unexpectedly charged through. But the past 25 years look like a picnic compared to the family issues they face now. After a career of quietly proving their worth, they have to publicly raise a white flag and announce that something has to give which eats them up inside because they have never had to feel like such failures before.
So what role should Industrial / Organizational Psychologists, play as the needs of an aging workforce collide with work? Let me suggests that we foremost rely on our psychology backgrounds. As psychologists we whole heartily agree with the basic dignity accorded to every human being. We know that people desire to be efficacious and self-determined. That people strive for autonomy and competency. People are at their best when they can trust others and believe that they are being treated justly. People want to have hope, experience forgiveness and find meaning in even the most disastrous times. And all this occurs at its best in the context of supportive community. Meeting these basic human needs are even more critical for those who are dealing with illness. These employees want to continue to strive to do their best even when they are facing unknowns. They do not need to be made to feel like they are purposely letting others at work down or that they are shirking responsibility. As I/O psychologists, we come up with research that guides organizations to develop appropriate HR policies to provide employee respite. But we need to prepare managers to treat hurting employees with the dignity they deserve. To grant more grace than reluctantly following an HR policy, to not minimize or forget their tragedy, to avoid developing expectations that simply cannot be met nor make employees feel like they must choose between work and family when there really can’t be a choice. The mission of I/O Psychology is “to enhance human well-being and performance in organizational and work settings.” Yet the work of I/O psychologist has often overlooked the first part and emphasizing increased productivity with the assumption that productive workers will also be happy workers. But look at the mission again, “to enhance human well-being and performance. . .” We do not enhance human well-being in order to increase organizational performance. So perhaps we need to remember that we are psychologists first, offering healing to those in the workplace when their worlds collides and there is no floor plan for the maze they find themselves navigating . And do it without regard to the benefits afforded an organization but because it is the right thing to do.
-Dr. Margaret Diddams