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The secret to work-life balance Add to ...

You make your own schedule. You decide when to hit the keyboard and when to hit the playground with your kid. You've got the latest BlackBerry to ensure you don't miss any important calls while you're cleaning up after dinner. Work doesn't own you - you own work, right? Think again. There may be some major drawbacks to all that purported freedom.

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When you blur the lines between work and family while you're at home, you may be setting yourself up for more stress than your clock-punching counterparts ever face, according to new research.

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People who report being very or completely in charge of their work schedules are much more likely than others to report multitasking at home. The same people, in turn, report more work-family conflict, says study author Scott Schieman, a University of Toronto sociologist.

It's not hard to understand why, says Prof. Schieman. Anecdotal evidence has pointed to this connection for quite some time. "People will tell you, 'I don't feel like I can do both at 100 per cent.' "

The study, which is based on a 2007 sample of 1,200 American workers, had participants outline whether they control the start and end of their work day, whether they work at home and multitask, and whether they experience conflict between those two roles. Prof. Schieman embarks on a much larger version of the study with a sample of 6,000 Canadians next month.

And it's not just the occasional spat with a spouse or child that concerns Prof. Schieman about these multitaskers - there are major health implications, too.

"We know work-family conflict is a major source of stress," he says. "It's strongly predictive of problems in role-functioning, distress, forms of anger, guilt, anxiety, depression and physical symptoms related to those."

The study, which appears in the current issue of the Journal of Family Issues, also adds a new layer to the received academic wisdom on the effects of control over one's daily schedule.

Previous research pegged being in control of where and how you work as a marker of a flexible, low-conflict existence. It was only reporting part of the story, he says. It turns out that it wasn't the schedule control that resulted in lower levels of work-family conflict. It was the absence of the need to multitask at home by some people who control their own calendars.

"[This study]is consistent with the everyday theories people are having: 'I know this is supposed to be good for me, but it's blurring my work and family life in ways that aren't always desirable.' "

Toronto marriage and family therapist Betty Stockley often sees this dynamic play out in her office. And she says the key to fixing it is to address the perils of multitasking in the home head-on.

A recurring complaint she hears from clients is that their spouse is there in body, but because they're on the computer of Blackberry, they're just an annoying hologram.

"The physical body there is actually more of an irritant than if the person was actually at work," she says. "It's like they're being taunted, almost."

Most of us adhere to the notion, consciously or not, that if you're home, you should be fully there. So, she recommends that multitaskers consider staying late at work to get the job done, rather than coming home and being unavailable. (But don't forget the courtesy call.)

If working at home is unavoidable, she says setting boundaries is a must - even setting a timer to keep you honest. But take a moment to mention the plan to your spouse and children when you walk in the door.

" 'I love you, but I need to do this,' " she suggests saying. " 'And this is why. It's not that I'm distancing myself from you. This is crucial - but you're crucial too and I'll get back to you.' "

 

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