Personal life affecting your work life? The other side of the balance equation

When we talk about work-life balance, the emphasis is usually on managing your work in order to enjoy your time at home. We're told to leave our stress in the office, and take steps to avoid the pressures of work having a negative impact on our personal lives.

But when seeking balance there is another side to the equation – the effect that stresses and pressures from our personal lives could be having on our performance at work.

This matter recently became the subject of research by the British Psychological Society, which looked at whether family worries can cause conflict with work colleagues.

In the study, participants were asked to rate how much family conflict had affected their concentration at work, whether they had experienced any conflict with their colleagues and in turn if this had led to further conflict at home.

"We wanted to examine how worrying about family issues can interfere with work and affect interactions with colleagues at work and with partners at home," lead researcher, Dr Sanz-Vergel told the British Psychological Society's Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

One of the conclusions from the study is that worrying about family problems during work time does increase conflict with work colleagues.

"The difficulty of focusing on work when distracted by family worries made employees irritable. This led to them reacting negatively towards colleagues instead of using more adaptive strategies, such as seeking social support or being assertive," Dr Sanz-Vergel explains.

Executive Assistant Fiona Murphy has had to deal with a significant amount of family stress in the last six months when her mother in law became unwell and was consequently unable to help with childcare arrangements.

"I was finding it very difficult to focus at work because I had so much on my mind," she says.

But unfortunately, Murphy's manger hasn't been willing to support her. Instead, she says that she just has to try her best to "get on with it." It's clear not all employers are as supportive as each other when it comes to helping women cope with family stress.

One way that employers can better support their staff to manage personal stress at work is to create a workplace culture that is built on compassion and respect, says leadership and people management specialist Karen Gately.

"Recognise when people are struggling and demonstrate compassion. Enquire as to the support they may need and do what can reasonably be expected to provide assistance," Gately explains.

While some organisations are conscious of providing support for their employees' wellbeing, the onus is generally on the employee to speak up and ask for support. But, as Gately notes, this can be problematic for some people, particularly those in senior roles.

"Often people in senior positions, particularly woman, worry about undermining their credibility by showing vulnerability," she says.

Gately's advice is to recognise that unless you ask for support you will continue to struggle. "Your career is entirely more likely to be impacted if you allow your emotional state to undermine your judgment than if you ask for help," she explains.

When communications manager Lisa Price* experienced difficulties in her personal life she noticed the knock on effect at work and went to her manager for support.

"I wouldn't say I was close to my manager, we had a very professional relationship," explains Price.

But having separated from her long-term partner, Price found that the emotional pressure was distracting her at work and was becoming short with colleagues. She decided to confide in her manager.

"I think she was relieved to know there was a reason that I hadn't been myself," says Price. "Having told her what was happening she understood when I needed time off and gave me some leeway on projects."

Catherine Rodie

Catherine Rodie is a freelance writer.

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