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The Path to Shared Care — Jessica DeGroot on Work and Life

Contributor: Kate Mesrobian

Jessica DeGrootJessica DeGroot founded ThirdPath Institute in 1999 to encourage employees at all stages in their lives to follow a “third path” – one that allows success at work while creating time and energy for their lives outside of work, as opposed to an exclusive focus on one or the other.

On his radio show, Work and Life (on Sirius XM’s Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School), Stew Friedman spoke with Jessica DeGroot about the overwhelming priority work receives and why we need a cultural shift in our approach to work and the rest of life. DeGroot offers practical solutions for individuals and couples to improve life outside work.

Following are edited excerpts of DeGroot’s conversation with Friedman.

Stew Friedman: What was the origin of ThirdPath Institute?

Jessica DeGroot: When I first came to Wharton as an MBA, I thought about what might be a logical solution to creating healthy families. Healthy relationships are good for an organization and for business. If you have an employee who is in healthy, satisfying relationship, they are more focused and ready to work each day. I wanted to equip families with tools for how do work differently. “Shared care” is about two people sharing in the care of a family. Some families figure out how both parents can care for the family.  – For example, both parents working, so that the dad isn’t the sole provider. Planning where the couple is headed and considering how they want to think about care together is important.

SF: We don’t have to choose between career and family aspirations. But so many people still struggle to make a shared care model work.  

JD: Yes, and right now, we are talking about professional families, where the mom and dad both work in professional jobs, and the biggest worry is that if they don’t follow the normal path, their choices will have a negative impact on their career trajectory and they will not be able to earn as much. We call that the “work first” model, where you have to have your work come first.What we’ve been able to do over the past six years is have leaders show that there is a different model out there in which male and female leaders have not followed the work first model and been able to gain leadership positions and make all parts of their life accessible.

SF: What would you say is most essential to making that model real?

JD: The couple needs clarity about their priorities and to watch each other’s back. They need simple solutions and a back up plan, what we call a Plan B, for situations that arise.

SF: What do you mean by Plan B?

JD: Starting your own job outside of the corporate world, writing for a year.  There are a lot of other alternatives nowadays if your current circumstances are not aligning with your priorities. One example is a mom who created a flex-year solution. She really wanted time with her kids, and summers were a big opportunity. So she went to a 20-hour per month schedule in the summer. Before the summers, she trained people to manage the time she was away. She was such an incredible mentor that her mentees were plucked away and put into other assignments because of their increased skill levels.  

SF: I talked earlier about the New York Times magazine cover story “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?” What’s your take on the connection between romance and the 50-50 model?

JD: I have done a lot of reflection on why we use shared care.  If both members of a married couple have a full time job, both have given most of their energy to work. The rest of their energy is reserved for family, children, bills, but probably not for sex. One in five couples are considered a sexless couple, meaning that they have sex 10 or fewer times per year. We are all just overwhelmed, and we need to take action today. This is bigger than the trend of egalitarian couples – as a society, we are overwhelmed, and we are disproportionally giving energy and time to work and not to the other things we care about. One unique thing about shared care couples is that we tell them to be more intentional about their time.

SF: So an important part of the solution is to be mindful and intentional with time?

JD: My husband and I go to Miami once a year, just the two of us. We prioritize this time. We not only prioritize sharing household responsibilities, but also what’s important to us. Personally, my priorities are about having a passionate marriage and having fun.

SF: What are some of the things you’ve learned about staying true to those priorities?

JD: We have learned what we call “21st century skills.” We learned how to turn our cell phones off, to take a vacation and “turn off” work by setting boundaries. There’s a pattern for learning better skills to cope with our crazy, overwhelming world.

SF: What are the important things for listeners to be mindful of to create boundaries?

JD: Experiment with these thoughts starting today. Take that vacation and turn off work for that whole week. If a family has kids, the primary focus is to develop this mindset to model these actions for your children, such as having dinner together and putting the cell phone away. This can be difficult with the slippery slope of letting work slide into our lives, but modeling the behavior is important. If my son tries to text during dinner, I will say “You know we don’t text during dinner,” and he knows that because we have been doing that for 15 years.Parents have to role model and show the value of prioritizing life and family themselves.

SF: Let’s talk about businesses and what organizations can do to enable the full immersion of both parents in both family and career life.

JD: Flexibility for everybody is key. Whether for caring for children or an aging parent, you want people to look for the right answer. I would tell companies to think of a solution for the triple win: effective for the employee getting work done, effective at meeting the firms’ own needs, and also good for their colleagues and clients.

SF: But there’s no one size fits all solution, and companies can make that mistake.

JD: You have to customize the flexibility to your business, and you have to have leaders who model what they believe in.  If you are in an organization and cannot leave, you can look inside the organization and find a more supportive manager to work normal hours, which means not working nights, still having dinner with the family, and not having to work on the weekend. If you set that boundary, you can improve your life quite a bit.  The first step is for couples to clarify their priorities, have a collaborative conversation, and become a resource to one another.

SF: Where do people find the time to step back and make change? Do you have to reach a point of stress where you need to make the change or can you be more proactive?

JD: The starting point is being able to step back and get off that gerbil wheel. Teenagers are actually more proactive with this. I can’t tell you how many times I see parents on their phones with their kids pulling on their sleeves, going, “Could you put the phone away?”

SF: It’s easy to ignore those signals to put the phone away and stop using technology when you have a client on the line.

JD:  I think of this as a muscle. These are families that want to change, but they absolutely make mistakes. People are developing this skill of how to set boundaries and turn off technology. Learn to see what it feels like to stop and turn of that cell phone and slowly develop that muscle.

SF: What have you learned in your work with families?

JD: I think professional families have a lot to learn from other families. Professional families put a lot of investment in their profession. I’ve learned from working class families, however, the importance of couples having their priorities pretty straight and making time for them. In many such families, they are willing to change jobs to have time for the things they care about. They demonstrate how to make work part of your life but not all of your life.  

SF: What would you want to say to current MBA students?

JD: Dream big.  It’s all possible. Keep track of what’s important. Don’t be afraid to experiment and learn from others who have experimented with different work/life style integrations with their partners.

Work and Life is a two-hour radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday from 7 pm 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 (mind, body and spirit).  Join Stew next week, Tuesday February 25, at 7 PM conversations with Deika Morrison, co-founder and President of Do Good Jamaica, and with Jerry Jacobs, Professor of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, and Founding President of the Work and Family Researchers Network.

About the Author

Kate Mesrobian is a sophomore in the Huntsman Program in Business and International Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. 


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