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Separators, Integrators, and Cyclers — Ellen Kossek on Work and Life

Contributor: Alice Liu

Work and Life is a two-hour radio show hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111.  Every Tuesday from 7 to 9 PM EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community and the private self.

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Dr. Ellen Kossek, the Basil S. Turner Professor of Management at Purdue University and Research Director at the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence, about focusing on high-value tasks, setting boundaries, and taking small breaks to recover and enhance long-term productivity at work and at home. Following are edited excerpts of Kossek’s conversation with Friedman.

Stew Friedman: How did you first get into the field of work and life?

Ellen KossekEllen Kossek: I was a PhD student at Yale. I had been married about three years, and right in the busiest time of my fourth year of school, I was pregnant and about to have my first child. If I had taken any time off, I would have been stigmatized and I would have lost my fellowship, so I stuck it out. I think a lot of our choices as leaders stem from what happens in our own lives. I became passionate about wanting to make organizational changes to help others. I focused on this in my dissertation, and I never looked back.

SF: What is a healthy organization?

EK: A healthy organization provides social support to employees on the job. I think managers and workers need to support each other both with daily tasks and with recognizing when people have to handle their own difficulties. It’s actually family-friendly if you have a boss who is very clear about what matters most for high-value work. There are some things that really add a lot of bang for the buck to the company.

SF: Focusing on high-value of tasks can make a big difference. Is that something you see happening in your work?

EK: Very much so. If we feel like we have to redesign our whole life or change the company’s whole culture, change will never occur. One of the other things I’ve looked at is boundary management.

SF: What exactly do you mean by “boundary”?

EK: Well, we have psychological and physical boundaries in how we organize our roles and parts of our life. Even when some of us are physically at home, psychologically we might still be at the office. For example, if we are at dinner, we might see that email coming in on a smart phone. The small thing I’ve tried to focus on is to be in the moment, especially for high-value tasks. We know we shouldn’t text while we drive – why do we think we can look at our smart phones while we are listening to a friend or our family member?

SF: But people are expecting immediate responses to emails and texts, so isn’t creating that boundary particularly challenging in today’s digital age?

EK: Part of it is setting expectations and filtering. Most of the time we can wait a little bit. When people go away on vacation, sometimes they’ll send a message saying, “I’m out of the office for the holidays, if this is an emergency, contact me. Otherwise, I’ll talk to you in January.”  I think we make ourselves more important than we need to be. We might be less stressed and get more done if we didn’t keep moving back and forth.

SF: So how does this relate to your study of boundary management?

EK: There are three different ways that we manage boundaries. First are “separators” – these are people who like to manage boundaries by working in chunks. For example, I’m trying to teach myself to be more of a separator by not sneaking a glance at my email on the weekends when I am taking a break.  Another group is the “integrators” – people who are switching back and forth between personal and work all the time, and it’s one big blur. Some of them are fusion-lovers and in high control, and others are reactors, always feeling pushed and pulled by different communications. The last group is what I call the “cyclers”. They’re people that switch back and forth in patterns. Sometimes they have periods of high separation when they would really like to be able to integrate more. Think about somebody going on a big business trip. They’re forced to separate at times when they don’t want to. And when they come back from that trip, all of their personal life comes down on them. They would like to have fewer peaks and valleys.

SF: So what do the “cyclers” do?

EK: Some of them get very depressed and have a crisis. I think sometimes if we don’t take little breaks we just shut down. If you feel stressed, if you feel cranky, if your mood is difficult, it may be time to take a small break. One way to do this is to take advantage of transition times. For example, a woman I spoke to who works at an East Coast bank has a seventy-five minute commute each day. She says, “I love it, because I put on National Public Radio and start planning my weekend.” Most of our transitions are shortening. We’re on the phone while we are commuting. The vanishing vacation ­– or the vanishing weekend – is one of the problems many people are facing.

SF: How do you advise people to manage the problem of the vanishing vacation?

EK: If you never take a weekend off, there are health effects. In fact, there have been studies coming out of Europe that show your productivity on a Monday morning can be higher if you’ve taken a break over the weekend. Making time to exercise or doing things that you love that make you feel relaxed, and can enhance your productivity. Having breaks can be linked to recovery. If everybody is slogging along with 60-hour work weeks, it can hurt your creativity and well-being.

SF: But to play devil’s advocate here, don’t you get more done if people are working longer?

EK: In the short run, yes, but in the long-run, you burn your talent out. To have long-term change, you need to train leaders.  You also need to have teams and co-workers and individuals relate to each other authentically and have conversations about how we are at work to support the company in a way that allows people to be all that they can be in their total life. Part of this dialogue is encouraging people to bring their identities to work, whether that’s mother, father, LBGT, older worker, married, divorced, runner, etc. and backing each other up.

Ellen Kossek has been among the most prolific researchers in the work-life-family sphere and is a mother of four. She is the President of the Work Family Researchers Network and the author of CEO of Me: Creating a Life that Works in the Flexible Job Age.

Tune in to Work and Life on Tuesday, February 4 at 7 PM Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111 for conversations with Marci Alboher and Katrina Alcorn.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the Author

Alice LiuAlice Liu is a senior studying Management at The Wharton School and English (Creative Writing) at the College of Arts & Sciences. 

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