The media is filled these days with stories about work-life conflict, stress, and the futile pursuit of balance. We're bombarded with lots of advice, and the accompanying expectation that we can rectify the situation by changing ourselves.
Nonsense, says Dana Becker, a professor in the graduate school of social work and social research at Bryn Mawr College just outside of Philadelphia, and a psychotherapist. That advice can be pernicious, because it diverts us from looking at the sources of stress, which are social and cultural.
"The term work-life conflict is problematic as it implies work-life are in conflict rather than we don't have policies that allow people to work and do caregiving at the same time," she says in an interview.
"We need to be thinking somewhat less about our personal responsibility to de-stress and instead look at what is causing the stress and what we can do collectively to change the situation."
She shares her ideas in a recently published book with the provocative title of One Nation Under Stress, in which she surveys the history of stress and its modern manifestation, taking issue with some leaders in the field as she pushes us to enlarge our thinking. She argues we have to discuss workplace policies, the role of government, and what is happening in households where men don't carry their share of the burden. She frowns at the tendency to turn stress into something marketers can sell products for – scented candles, bubble bath, and upscale spas to melt the stress away.
She acknowledges that in the short-term someone dealing with overwhelm must act on their own. But that won't change the outside forces that are critical and relentless. "We believe if we work on ourselves we can pretty much vanquish everything," she says, and that's wrong. Worse, we feel it's a personal moral failing to not take care of ourselves and manage stress better.
She has coined the term "stressism" to describe this ill-conceived approach – the belief that the tensions of contemporary life are primarily individual lifestyle problems, as opposed to the belief that the tensions are linked to social forces and need to be resolved primarily through social and political means. Stressism, she says, "saps our social and political will to act on these social forces affecting us. We are all caught up in a way of thinking of what the problem is that distracts us."
That traces to American individualism and the capitalist system. Her focus, as the title indicates, is on the United States but it applies as well, of course, to other countries, such as Canada. Indeed, she says that she is not aware of a collectivist model that currently offers an alternative – even in China, capitalism is taking over. She stresses that she is not replacing God with stress in choosing her title, but she feels it's a wonderful umbrella for the issue because it is such an American phrase and there is something particularly American in the way we approach stress so individualistically.
She notes the discussion of stress has been focused on the middle class, not single parents in poverty. Years ago, of course, stress was labelled hysteria in women, a pejorative term connected to emotionality, the latter being something we still link to women. In the 1950s, the focus was on men and their workaholism and the dangers for coronary heart disease. But stress became a super-critical issue in the past 20 years, when middle-class women moved in high numbers into employment. Critically, however, that shift was not matched by an equivalent transformation in the amount of men's caregiving and their household labour.
"The stress concept papers over our collective failure to act on the idea that care is both men's and women's work, and this makes discussions about caregiving work rough going for lots of couples – for some women because they're afraid of sounding like whiners or because they fear starting a fight they think they will lose, and for some men because it's disturbing to think about what a change in the status quo might entail. If we can't deal with this stuff at the family level, it's hardly surprising that it seems nearly impossible to elevate caregiving to a national level at the policy level," she writes.
The discussion has centred on women, and our stressism approach leads us to expect that women must solve the problem of work-life balance on their own. "Being a good man does not always include doing child care or the dishes," she notes in the interview. She dismisses Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's advice for women to find supportive men if they wish to advance their careers: "You can't find huge numbers of these men in a society where caregiving is not highly valued."
Interestingly, for all the talk of the horrors of juggling many tasks, her study of the research literature didn't find that juggling causes stress. Indeed, for some women juggling is stimulating, helping rather than hurting. But she dislikes the emphasis on juggling because she feels it implies women – the supreme jugglers – are unwilling or unable to make choices.
"If we're so worried about juggling, why not support the juggler so she can manage all these things? Why not take one of these balls from her and get to the point where women and men share more or we have policies that help us with work-family issues," she says.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter