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Forget work-life balance. Go for integration instead

A few years ago Craig Chappelow decided that the traditional model of work-life balance as a scale with both sides equal was bogus, and not something that applied in a practical way to most people's lives. The only time the scales were at the same level, it seemed from his life and those of others he knew, was when they passed one another. "Is the goal to have them level or is it to integrate them together properly?" he asks.

Mr. Chappelow, a senior faculty member at the Centre for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., heads a team that builds the evaluation questionnaires used for its personal development work with executives. So he decided to establish a tool that will help individuals to understand their work-life challenges better, partnering with Ellen Ernst Kossek, a professor at Michigan State University and author of the 2004 book, Work and Life Integration: Organizational, Cultural and Individual Perspectives.

The indicator, which you can take for a fee of $30 (U.S.) at the centre's website, starts by helping you to understand the degree to which you combine or separate your family and your work. This factor boils down to two important challenges we face daily: Family and personal time interrupting work, and work interrupting family and personal time. Five categories of behaviour are outlined:

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  • Integrators: They blend work and personal tasks and commitments, allowing work to interrupt family time or family to interrupt work time. At the office, they will take time to help a child with homework or plan a social event with a friend. On vacation, they keep up with some of the work flow. Integrators weave work and personal activities together throughout the day.
  • Separators: They are the reverse, keeping work and family/personal tasks in separate blocks of time. When at work, it’s all about work. When at home, work doesn’t intrude. They have clearly established boundaries protecting work time and family/personal time.
  • Work Firsters: They allow work to interrupt family and personal time. When at home or on vacation, work will still take precedence. They have clearly established boundaries protecting work time – but not for family or personal time.
  • Family Firsters: They allow family and personal affairs to interrupt work, but do not allow work to interrupt family/personal time. They have firm boundaries protecting family/personal time, but allow work time to be interrupted.
  • Cyclers: They switch back and forth between cycles of either highly integrating family or personal time with work followed by periods of intentionally separating them. Accountants, for example, might focus on work through March and April, but then catch up on personal and family time later in the year.

Mr. Chappelow says none of these patterns is considered preferable. What's important is understanding your behaviour, and the alternatives. "We don't prescribe one or another. It depends on the job and whether your current approach is stressing you. If it's not healthy, you need to adjust," he says.

As well as understanding your behaviour, it's important to understand your instincts. How do you see yourself when it comes to this challenge of work-life integration? He says there are four identities:

  • Work Focused: These individuals identify with and invest themselves primarily in their work roles. They structure their lives to give their best energy to their work.
  • Family Focused: These individuals identify with and invest themselves primarily in their family roles, structuring their lives to direct their best energy to their family role.
  • Dual Focused: These individuals identify with and invest themselves equally in both their work and their family roles.
  • Other Focused: These individuals have a primary identity and investment in life interests that do not necessarily pertain directly to work or family, such as athletics, community, a hobby, or a second job. They may still invest a lot in family or work, but are careful to protect time and energy for the other interest.

"The way we see ourself plays a large part in successful integration of our work and family," says Mr. Chappelow. If you see yourself as family focused but continually allow work to interrupt that time, you obviously have to make some changes.

That's where a third concept comes in: Boundary Control. This refers to the degree to which you feel in control as you manage the boundaries between your work life and personal life. The assessment divides people into high, mid-level, and low boundary control. Here you want a specific profile. Individuals with high boundary control feel in control of how they divide their time and attention between work and family. They decide when to focus on work, when to focus on family, or when to blend the two. He notes that people with low boundary control tend to be the most stressed.

Once you understand your own patterns and what you prefer, you can then try to make changes in your life, not to balance the mythical scales between work and life but to get the integration right. Mr. Chappelow and the reports he provides users of his questionnaire suggest a variety of approaches, including setting more control between the boundaries of your life, managing your expectations better, and determining whether the transitions between your roles should be more gradual or stark.

Mr. Chappelow's takeaway: Don't try to balance anything. Try to integrate instead, which requires awareness of your preferred behaviours, self-identity, and sense of control.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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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

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