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Balancing Act: Time Out for Family

6/24/2008 --

Ross study suggests organizations formalize policies to help working fathers manage inevitable conflicts.

Ann Arbor, Mich.—Juggling the demands of work and family is no longer an issue facing just mothers. Working fathers, too, are grappling with parenting pressures as they forge stronger connections with their kids, says Ross School Professor Lynn Perry Wooten (pictured at right).

Adam Hyder, EMBA '08, tries to spend as much quality time as possible with his two daughters, 11-year-old Hana and eight-year-old Nadia. On weekends, he coaches them on the tennis court, but during the dawn-to-dusk work week, the stiff demands of his job as senior director of engineering at Yahoo Inc. in Santa Clara, California, often prevent him from attending the girls' after-school activities. This ongoing friction between work responsibilities and family obligations occasionally rubs raw nerves.

"On one occasion, Nadia had prepared a speech she was going to deliver in front of several hundred people on the final day of her public-speaking class," Hyder recalls. "Unfortunately, I was scheduled to attend a very high-level strategy meeting at 4 p.m. that day and couldn't get away." Young Nadia was crestfallen when she learned she'd have to perform without her father in the audience, but she gamely told him, "Attend your meeting, Daddy, and I'll do my best."

Hyder is not alone in his quest to find the right balance between work and family. What was once considered a "mommy issue" is now giving many working fathers a healthy dose of angst, says Wooten, who has co-authored a new study examining the effects of shift work on parenting. "When we look at societal pressures, changing values, and demographic trends in the workplace, we find fathers are taking a more active role in parenting," she explains. "Many men have wives who work, so they have to pick up the slack at home. There also is a new generation of fathers who want to be more involved in their children's lives in nontraditional ways. This different notion of fathering may focus on coaching sports teams and attending ballgames or participating in Scouting activities and homework assignments."

Wooten reports that approximately one in six full-time hourly wage earners and salaried employees works a shift outside the traditional bounds of the 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. work day. Alternative shifts are particularly common among breadwinners earning their paychecks at restaurants and bars, hospitals, and manufacturing plants. So how do these down-in-the-trenches daddies grapple with the difficulty of managing work-family conflicts?

To find out, Wooten, who is clinical associate professor of strategy, management and organizations at Ross, teamed up with Lawrence S. Root, professor of social work and director of the University's Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations. The two interviewed 59 workers and managers at a Midwestern auto-parts plant and asked this predominately male workforce to talk candidly about the challenges of parenting in the face of relatively inflexible shift schedules. Their study, "Time Out for Family: Shift Work, Fathers and Sports," targeted the afternoon-evening shift, where fathers tend to be most work-constrained from taking part in their children's extracurricular activities after school and in the early evening.

"Surprisingly, we found workers donít rely on formal company policies for balancing work and family," Wooten reports. "Rather, they resort to informal approaches, such as asking a sympathetic supervisor to look the other way or getting a buddy to cover for their absence when they need to leave work early or take a long lunch break. In extreme instances where people feel very passionate about being there for their children, they are more willing to take independent actions on their own, sometimes bordering on civil disobedience and endangering their jobs."

In the study, much of this work-family tension crystallized around fathersí strong desire to participate in organized sports with their children. After one supervisor refused to allow a shift worker the flexibility to attend a Saturday afternoon championship game being played by his kidsí football team, the worker feigned a traffic accident on his lunch break and did not return to work that day. On the following Monday morning, the worker discovered that his less-pressured, off-line repair job had been filled by another employee and his supervisor had put him back on the assembly line in retaliation for his absenteeism.

The pressure of balancing work and fatherhood isn't confined to rank-and-file employees. Longer work hours, proliferation of 24/7 connectivity and not-so-subtle business pressures have chipped away at the flexibility once enjoyed by company managers and executives. Indeed, a 2005 Fortune magazine survey reported that 84 percent of male executives at the largest U.S. companies want more time for things outside work. Hyder says he often dials into conference calls while driving his daughters to school, and works late nights and weekends at home. Yahoo's enlightened culture and written policies allow employees greater flexibility than most companies, but circumstances often impose unwanted rigidity. "If I've arranged an important strategy meeting months in advance and other people are flying in to attend it, I have to be there," Hyder explains. "Even though I try to balance my work, family life, and now my Executive MBA coursework, it's impossible to do everything remotely."

Wooten believes business organizations stand to benefit from fostering family-friendly work environments supported by formal written policies that can help working fathers manage the inevitable conflicts. "Companies also have to walk the talk by encouraging employees to take advantage of these policies rather than frowning upon them for doing so," she says. Wooten argues that instituting work-life balance programs provides a significant return on investment for firms by enabling them to retain their best workers, reduce turnover, and realize associated cost savings. She suggests leaders take a proactive role in implementing strategies, such as incorporating human-resource managers in extended-hours operation teams, training supervisors and middle managers to be supportive of work-family conflict, providing extended-hours childcare and creating affinity groups for working fathers.

"Building a high-quality organizational culture is critical for reconciling the changing demands of work and family," Wooten concludes. "When you have trust, good relationships, and other variables in place, you can create a work-family environment that is in balance."

Written by Claudia Capos

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847, bernied@umich.edu