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Love vs. WorkHow You Lose by Making Employees Choose

September 1, 1997
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Stress Management, Featured Article
Michael Stern (a pseudonym) was clocking 60-plus hours a week at his job as a cost accountant with a large chemical company in Atlanta. Not by choice, he says, but because it was expected. Dragging himself home at 10 p.m. night after night, all Stern wanted was to drop into a well-worn easy chair and relax-to spend some quiet time alone free of demanding co-workers, inept managers, outdated computer systems and the thousands of other minor irritations that make up corporate employment. Instead, what he usually faced was an angry wife who didn't understand his long hours.

With arms crossed and eyes held steady, she'd demand to know why Stern couldn't make it home earlier. "She accused me of being a workaholic," he explains. "She didn't understand I didn't want to be working so hard. If I didn't put in the same hours as everyone else, I'd lose my job." Instead of relaxing, Stern would spend his brief time at home fighting the same tired fights with his wife. "There were a lot of times I thought I wasn't going to have a marriage," he says.

The stress at work and the agony at home eventually caused Stern to leave the corporate world altogether. Today, he teaches management at a university in Baltimore and consults with companies on human resources issues. But perhaps more importantly, his 11-year marriage has survived. "My wife and I just moved to the suburbs," he says. "We now have more time to be with each other and to play with our new puppies. It's a nice life again."

Stern is one of the lucky ones. He got out of a job that was destroying his relationship before the damage was irreparable. Countless other American couples-straight, gay, married and unmarried- aren't so lucky. Jobs are becoming the great American couple-killers and they're not just killing the "mood," so to speak. They're chipping away at the entire foundation of close relationships by stealing people's time, attention, energy and patience.

Job demands are so great today that traditional marriages, the only relationships that are tracked, are being torn asunder in record numbers. Just take a look at the statistics: In 1994, 2.3 million couples performed the most optimistic of human rituals and got married. That same year, 1.2 million couples officially agreed their marriages couldn't be saved. Simply put, five out of every 10 marriages today are expected to end in divorce.

Although relationships fail for myriad complicated reasons, job stress increasingly is seen as a factor. "Job stress and relationship stress are related 100 percent of the time," says Deborah Bright, president of Bright Enterprises in New York City, who consults on job performance issues. Why should HR professionals care about something as personal as whether or not their employees have happy relationships? Because recent studies have shown a positive-and costly-correlation between relationship conflict and job productivity.

A study of 8,100 people reported in the August 1996 issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family showed that people suffering from marital distress lose an average of 1.34 workdays a month. Multiply the average earnings of study participants by the entire labor force, and work loss associated with marital problems costs American companies an incredible $6.8 billion per year in lost productivity. Conversely, people who have healthy relationships make better employees. A study of 300 dual-earner couples funded by the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, showed that people who have positive relationships with their spouses feel less stress at work and cope better with work problems.

So what makes the difference between a good relationship and a bad one? There are thousands of factors, to be sure. But there's no denying that the quality of a person's most intimate relationship depends, to some extent, on the quality of his or her work life. The association between job stress and spousal conflict is reciprocal. Job strain can harm relationships and relationship strain can hinder job productivity.

Despite this association and the accompanying bottom-line impact, HR has left relationship issues out of the discussion about work/life balance, preferring to focus on the tangible, seemingly less-personal issues of child care and elder care. A straw poll of companies well-known for their family-friendly policies, including Johnson & Johnson, Hewlett-Packard, CIGNA, IBM and the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., uncovered no programs directly aimed at helping employees develop and maintain positive relationships with their significant others. "I think this issue may be viewed as too personal for companies to formally address in an open way," explains Chris Kjeldsen, vice president of community and workplace programs for Johnson & Johnson, based in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

That may be, but given the enormous social and economic consequences of divorce, not to mention the emotional pain of any relationship in disarray, there may be a role for Corporate America to play in keeping couples together-especially since it may be Corporate America that's tearing them apart in the first place.

It really is that bad.
In company lunchrooms, in private therapy sessions and in intimate conversations with friends, more people are discussing the impact work stress is having on their romantic relationships.

"My husband doesn't like it when I bring the laptop home," explains the editor of a business publication. "Job stress affects marriage? Tell me about it," says the public relations director for a major consumer products company. No less than half of the sources interviewed for this story shared some private anecdote about the difficulties of having a thriving career and a happy marriage. "We'll have to talk before Thursday," says Bright, "because if I don't take Thursday and Friday off to be with my husband, my own marriage will be on rocky ground."

When given a choice between devotion to a job and devotion to a spouse, increasingly, it seems, jobs are winning out. Not because people have lost the ability for old-fashioned romance, but because corporate work has become all-consuming. In a 1994 Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. public opinion survey, 80 percent of Americans said they weren't having a difficult time following through on commitments they'd made to their employers. Nearly half of them, however, felt torn "fairly often" or "very often" between meeting commitments to their jobs and meeting commitments to their spouses and families.

So what's causing this strain? Stress and overwork, for one thing. Workplace stress levels are two times what they were in 1985. Americans are working 180 hours more per year now than they were 20 years ago, and one-third of all people say job stress is the single greatest stressor in their lives. The vast majority of workers is being asked to do more work in less time with fewer resources.

"We're all products of our environment," explains Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. "You don't leave this kind of stress at work, you take it home with you." Then, over time, the effects of stress begin to mount, and couples that used to be able to withstand crises suddenly find they can't stand each other. The problem is especially prevalent among professional, dual-career couples. Why? Because white-collar "knowledge" workers are not only regularly expected to put in long hours, but they're expected to do so without complaining-and without being compensated with extra time off or pay. In short, there's little or no "down" time anymore. It translates into overworked employees and underdeveloped relationships.

If there's any doubt about the impact of overwork on marriage, just take a look at professions such as law and accounting in which the enormous pressures of attaining partnership cause even the most stable relationships to falter. "I did some consulting work with a large accounting firm and over the course of three years more than 50 percent of the employees were divorced or divorcing," explains Len Sperry, professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Much of this was due to the long hours and extensive travel required of younger associates.

The pressure to put in longer hours has been helped greatly by the proliferation of electronic communication devices such as pagers, cellular phones and laptop computers. Today, it's not uncommon in dual-career households for one or both partners to be checking voicemails, writing e-mails and logging onto the Internet anytime it's convenient-be it after dinner, before Sunday brunch, while on vacation, during sex or in between innings at junior's Little League game. The urge to stay in touch this way may be characteristic only of the most obsessive-compulsive professionals. Then again, it may also be driven by changing expectations on the part of corporate employers.

"If the culture of the company is such that you're expected to be married to your job or division or team, that's where you're going to devote your time and attention," Sperry says. "Under these conditions, anyone who wants to pay attention to [his or her] marriage would be considered an adulterer." Another factor contributing to the increased pressure on relationships is the erosion of job security. The psychological contract between employers and employees has changed so much there's now the omnipresent prospect that an employee may not have a job the next day. To guard against this, people are putting in more face time, working longer hours, taking on special assignments, enrolling in classes after work, or volunteering for community organizations with which they can network and learn new job skills.

Unfortunately, one of the easiest ways for people to steal time for these endeavors is from their significant relationships. Why? Because people tend to assume their spouses will always be there for them. "One gentleman told me he always thought he could be fired from work, but not from his family," explains Linda Duxbury, a Carleton (Ottowa) University business professor who's involved in a study of work/life issues of nearly 30,000 working Canadians. "Now, he's separated."

Another side effect of the changing employment contract is economic insecurity, which also places enormous pressure on relationships. In fact, a significant predictor of marital satisfaction is a person's economic security on the job, according to research conducted over the last five years by Arthur Brief, a business and psychology professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. "According to my data, as economic insecurity increases so does marital dissatisfaction," he says.

Why HR is ignoring relationship stress.
Given the growing prevalence of relationship stress, why aren't more human resources departments addressing the issue directly? Over the last 10 years, a majority of Fortune 500 companies have established programs to help employees achieve better balance between their work and family lives. Yet few, if any, of these programs include targeted efforts to help employees maintain healthy relationships with their significant others. Don't spouses count just as much as young children and elderly parents in the family equation?

Specialists in the work/life arena point to three reasons why employers haven't addressed this issue directly. First, it's because they don't perceive a business reason to get involved. "No one has built a business case linking the loss of productivity to failing or failed relationships," says Marci Koblenz, president of MK Consultants in Evanston, Illinois. Yet, a closer look reveals plenty of business reasons for HR to include relationships in the work/family discussion.

For starters, there's the research showing the $6.8 billion relationship between marital strain and lost productivity. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison also have shown-thanks to a seven-year investigation of 1,100 employees at a large insurance company-that ongoing marital conflict puts people at much greater risk of having a serious health crisis. Then there's financial impact of divorce. "Corporate America doesn't realize that divorce stress causes extremely low productivity," explains Lynne Gold-Bikim, a family law lawyer in Philadelphia and a founder of the American Bar Association's Preserving Marriages Project. This effort, founded in 1994, is designed to teach relationship-building skills to young couples in an effort to prevent divorce.

According to Gold-Bikim, divorce causes severe depression leading to absenteeism and a lack of motivation. Divorcing employees also miss a lot of work for depositions and court proceedings. People who are fighting child-custody battles may even give up their current jobs to have an advantage over their former spouses. "Then, if employees end up as single parents because of divorce, they'll start leaving work early to pick up their children from day care; go home to washing, shopping, cleaning and cooking; and then fall in bed at night exhausted," Gold-Bikim says. "With schedules like that, they can't possibly be up to par at work."

Another business cost of failing relationships is the issue of talent drain. Last year, the corporate communications director of an international pharmaceutical company separated from her husband, moved into a one-bedroom apartment and sold the house they owned together. Midway into divorce proceedings, they realized it was job demands that had been tearing them apart. After reconciling with her husband, she quit her job and is now looking for one with "more reasonable" hours.

Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated incident. A 1996 study of more than 1,000 employees at Baxter Healthcare Corp. in Deerfield, Illinois, found that 49 percent of the company's male employees and 39 percent of its female employees had looked for another job due to work/life conflicts, including marital conflict. In a tight labor market like the one now, the willingness to shop around for more understanding employers is bound to become more prevalent.

In fact, Generation Xers, many of whom are children of divorces, already are. "Because these individuals have firsthand experience with divorce, they're going to try harder to preserve their own marriages," says Bruce Tulgan, author of "Managing Generation X," (© 1995, Merritt Publishing; Santa Monica, California). "This no-fear generation is making its personal priorities clear," he adds. "When [Gen Xers] see family-friendly policies aimed [only] at [helping employees with] children, younger workers without kids are wondering: Does this mean my marriage doesn't count? Does this mean my significant other doesn't count as family?"

Work/life programs are only a start.
The second reason employers aren't addressing relationship issues directly is because they think they are already. They'll point to employee assistance programs that offer marital counseling as proof of their commitment to their workers' relationships-which is great. In fact, 75 percent of companies that offer EAP programs report that mental health counseling, including marital counseling, is one of the most-used programs. (Which should give some idea of the amount of marital strain people are experiencing.) The problem is that this benefit typically is utilized after couples already are in conflict. It does nothing to prevent the conflict from occurring in the first place.

Companies with broad work/life efforts also will point to programs such as onsite day care and low-cost concierge services as proof of their commitment to "families." And certainly, all of these can help employees squeeze in a little more time with their spouses. But as pointed out in the book, "The Time Bind" by Arlie Russell Hochschild (© 1997, Metropolitan Books, New York), these perks may not be so much about achieving balance as they are about making it easier, and more acceptable, for people to work nonstop.

Flexible scheduling, another popular work/life program, also has come under fire recently as just another nice idea that does little to help employees achieve the balance they desire. In a recent report in The Conference Board's Across the Board, Ellen Bankert, director of the Work and Family Roundtable at Boston University's Center on Work and Family, writes: "What employees really need is real flexibility, not a laundry list of company policies that talk about innovative solutions such as flextime, job sharing and compressed workweeks. The irony is in the rigidity of these policies. In most cases, employees actually don't want a flextime policy that allows them to work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. instead of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; they also don't want to job share or work a 40-hour week in four days. What they really [want and] need is flexibility that is, indeed, flexible."

Of course, part of the problem is that flexible work schedules only work for employees who can get their daily work done in eight hours. For professional workers, the sad reality is that long hours are practically expected, especially of those employees who are trying to advance their careers in a company. Furthermore, it's culturally unacceptable for these workers to complain about overtime. Simply put, "whiners" don't get promoted.

Another problem with work/family programs as they currently exist is the narrow definition that's given to family. Not only do gay employees feel their relationships aren't valued, but so do unmarried heterosexual couples. The accompanying resentment can actually begin to spread throughout the workplace. (See the September 1996 Personnel Journal cover story, "Backlash: No Spouse, No Kids, No Respect," for more discussion of the dilemma created by work/life programs on single employees.)

"My wife's colleague passed away unexpectedly at 30 years of age," explains Jerry Jacobs, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "Although he was engaged [when he died], his fiancee's company didn't give her a single day off for bereavement because they weren't officially married. If an employee doesn't feel OK taking a couple of days off when her fiancee dies, how can you expect other employees to feel OK about saying they want to spend more time with their significant others?"

The third reason employers aren't addressing relationship issues directly is because employees aren't pushing the issue. This is partly because employees may not realize that job stress is the source of their relationship problems. No one who has ever been involved in an intimate relationship for any length of time needs to be told what conflict is like. Communication breaks down, fights erupt, the partners withdraw, and blaming and accusations take the place of rational conversation. Before long, a relationship that was once perceived as the loving and euphoric answer to prayer suddenly starts to seem like just another disappointing obligation. And so it goes with overstressed corporate employees.

The difference between job stress and other relationship issues, however, is that couples often don't perceive the job to be the source of the conflict. "In dual-career couples, in particular, job stress is almost always a factor in the relationship, although couples may not see it as a problem," says Sperry. "It's not where the relationship problems originate in their minds." Instead, people experience problems related to sex, kids or money, but what is almost invariably behind those issues is job strain. "Work stress puts even more strain on relationships than adolescent kids," Sperry explains. Even if couples do understand that work is the source of their stress, they may be too embarrassed to discuss it-and for good reason. In today's insecure corporate climate, employees don't want to do anything to appear "less than." As Sperry says: "It would be a chink in your armor to admit to marital problems. That's considered too personal."

But until recently, child care also was considered a "personal problem." Today, it has become so politicized that employees don't have to be ashamed to talk about having problems with a sick child. Elder care is another personal issue that HR is starting to address. Maybe someday, in the not-too-distant future, it will also be organizationally OK for employees to devote time to their spouses or primary relationships.

Granted, relationship issues will be trickier to solve, because unlike child- and elder-care problems, the solution isn't likely to be found in an external program or resource. Instead, it will be realized when companies on the family-friendly bandwagon acknowledge that spouses and partners are family, too, and that the more stressful a job becomes, the more a person needs the loving support of his or her significant other. Instead of tearing couples apart, there's a lot human resources professionals can do to keep them together, but it all begins with acknowledging that relationships matter.

As with so many important human resources issues, however, support for this type of cultural shift must start at the top. As Renee Magid, president of Initiatives Inc., a work/life and diversity consulting firm based in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, and a founder of the work/ life movement more than 18 years ago reminds us: The people who have the power must recognize how overworking employees affects their ability to be effective on the job and at home. "If the people with the power to change things don't approach these issues from the mindset that employees' personal lives do matter, then they won't really care if people's relationships aren't effective. To them, it's often a nonissue." HR must demonstrate, perhaps using this article as a tool, that employees' relationships are a work issue.

With a little thought and creativity, HR may be able to help improve the dismal state of relationships in this country and help the bottom line at the same time. In a perfect world, American couples should be able to proclaim: "Till death-not overwork-do us part."

Workforce, September 1997, Vol. 76, No. 9, pp. 66-74.

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