TIP-Topics for Students: Do We Practice What We Preach? Maintaining Work–Life Balance as an I-O Graduate Student
Stefanie Gisler, Bradley Gray, Jenna-Lyn Roman, and Ethan Rothstein, Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY
One might think that graduate students in I-O psychology would be quite adept at achieving work–life balance. After all, researchers in this field have studied the subject for over 30 years (Greenhaus & Allen, 2011)! Furthermore, many I-O graduate students read about the work–life interface in their coursework and study it for their theses, dissertations, and collaborative research projects. Of course, having a theoretical understanding of work–life balance is one thing, but knowing how to implement those principles successfully is something else entirely. In reality, achieving work–life balance is often a struggle for graduate students, given the rigorous and unstructured nature of graduate schoolwork. Graduate students often need to juggle a variety of ongoing assignments and duties (e.g., extensive course readings, independent research, teaching). As a result, they may struggle to put down their work, which can make it difficult for them to enjoy their leisure time and take care of household responsibilities.
In this TIP-Topics column, we explore some of the most common challenges that graduate students in I-O Psychology face when it comes to achieving work–life balance, as well as some strategies that they can use in order to tackle these challenges head on. In order to shed light on these experiences, the TIP-Topics team surveyed current doctoral and master’s students in I-O Psychology. In the first part of the survey, students responded to quantitative items about their work schedules, overall levels of work–life balance and work–life conflict, and frequencies at which they engage in recovery experiences such as psychological detachment and relaxation. In the second part of the survey, they provided qualitative responses about the specific challenges that they face when it comes to achieving work–life balance, strategies that they have used to overcome these challenges, and how their graduate programs have supported them in this regard. The TIP-Topics team used content-coding in order to identify common themes in students’ responses. Throughout this column, we pull from both key insights from our survey and relevant findings in the literature.
Before we proceed, it should be noted that Aimee Kim and Kelsey Herb published a similar TIP-Topics column in 2012 about how I-O students can improve their work–life balance. The authors included a wealth of important information about the subject. In order to expand upon their work, we went directly to the source by gathering information about graduate students’ actual experiences.
Breaking Down I-O Graduate Students’ Work Schedules and Work–life Balance
In order to recruit participants for our study, we contacted faculty members from more than 20 graduate programs in industrial-organizational psychology, social-organizational psychology, and organizational psychology. Faculty then forwarded the survey link onto their students, many of whom decided to participate. Our final sample consisted of 79 doctoral and 42 master’s students. Both samples were majority female (62.7% for the doctoral students and 61.5% for master’s). We asked participants to report the number of hours per week that they typically spent on work for graduate school (e.g., course readings, research commitments, teaching requirements). The mean for doctoral students was 49.4 hours per week (SD = 14.9), and the mean for master’s students was 35.4 hours per week (SD = 13.1). These are quite substantial workloads, as 49.3 hours amounts to slightly more than 6 traditional workdays and 35.4 hours amounts to about 4 and a half. Results also demonstrated that graduate students accomplished a significant amount of their school work outside of typical business hours (9am-5pm, Monday-Friday). For hours worked during weekday evenings, the means were 9.47 for doctoral students (SD = 7.08) and 12.9 for master’s students (SD = 8.76). For hours worked during weekends, the means were 8.76 for doctoral students (SD = 4.34) and 12.5 for master’s students (SD = 5.16).
In order to quantify the extent to which students’ intensive workloads affected their lives outside of school, we measured their overall perceptions of work–life balance and work-to-life conflict. Work–life balance was measured with four items adapted from the Work–Life Balance Scale (Brough et al., 2014). A sample item was “overall, I believe that my work life and nonwork life are balanced.” Participants were instructed to only consider their graduate school work when they responded to these items. Work-to-life conflict was measured with four items adapted from the Work–Family Conflict Scale (Carlson, Kacmar, & Williams, 2000). A sample item was “I have to forgo things that I enjoy due to the amount of time I must spend on graduate school responsibilities.” Both scales were scored on a Likert scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Consistent with our expectations, we found that both groups of students reported fairly high levels of work–life conflict (M = 3.52, SD = 1.08 for doctoral students and M = 4.13, SD = 0.77 for master’s students). Similarly, both groups reported fairly low levels of work–life balance (M = 2.84, SD = 0.70 for doctoral students and M = 2.74, SD = 0.64 for master’s students).
Included in this column you will find a bar graph with the mean scores for work–life balance and work-to-life conflict for both doctoral and master’s students, as well as a pie chart that shows the response breakdown for the work–life balance sample item, spanning across both doctoral and master’s students. Specifically, the pie chart demonstrates what percentage of graduate students responded “strongly agree,” “agree,” “neither agree nor disagree,” “disagree,” and “strongly disagree” to the item “overall, I believe that my work life and nonwork life are balanced.”
Specific Challenges in Achieving Work–Life Balance
Overall, quantitative results suggested that both doctoral and master’s students have difficulties balancing their school responsibilities with their life activities and commitments. In order to probe deeper into the reasons why this can be such a significant challenge, we coded participants’ responses to qualitative items. We found that the majority of students’ work–life issues could be categorized by one of four broad themes: weak temporal boundaries separating work and home, weak spatial boundaries, low psychological detachment from work, and difficulties balancing graduate school with romantic relationships. In the following sections we elaborate on each of these issues, describe strategies that students can implement for each, and provide suggestions for how graduate programs can provide assistance.
Weak Temporal Boundaries Separating Work and Home
The vast majority of students mentioned that the general lack of structure in their school schedules made it hard for them to separate their work lives from their home lives. Whereas in most jobs it is clear as to when the workday begins and ends, such clarity is rare in graduate school. Apart from courses, teaching obligations, and lab and program meetings, there are few times each week that are officially designated for work. One might think that having this level of scheduling flexibility can be a good thing. After all, job autonomy is linked to a variety of positive outcomes, both at work and at home. However, many of the students that we surveyed indicated this flexibility was an encumbrance because it made it more challenging for them to separate the workday from the “home day.” When there is not a clear demarcation of what constitutes work hours and nonwork hours, work–life boundaries become more “permeable” (Clark, 2000; Desrochers & Sargent, 2004; Edwards & Rothbard, 2000). This makes it easier for people to devote more of their time to either work or home responsibilities, which can weaken work–life balance (Greenhaus & Allen, 2011).
Many of the students that we sampled mentioned that their scheduling flexibility simply made it feel as though every hour of the day was part of the workday. As a result, many students indicated that they checked and responded to emails right up until the time they went to sleep, which took away time from leisure and household responsibilities. Others noted that they could not afford to make plans with friends and family on weekends because there was always something else that they needed to work on. Several also mentioned that not having a set workday made it difficult for them to maintain a healthy lifestyle. For example, many often chose to forego sleep, exercise, and cooking because they felt that time was really meant for reading articles or working on their independent research.
Graduate students who face these issues may be able to improve their work–life balance by creating a clear boundary between work time and nonwork time. Some students provided great recommendations for how to go about this. For example, several mentioned that they create their own “set” work hours, so that they need to put down their work once those hours are up. Others indicated that while they are not quite as strict with their work overall, they refuse to check their email after 5 or 6pm. Faculty members can also help their students by sending them fewer emails in the evenings and on weekends. This could make a significant difference, as many students noted that their advisors expected them to answer emails at all hours and make themselves available at a moment’s notice. Another useful suggestion was to wake up on the early side, so that one could have ample time to do work during the day and relax at night. Many also mentioned that each week they strive to make either Saturday or Sunday an entirely work-free day.
Weak Spatial Boundaries Separating Work and Home
Along the same lines, many students indicated that their issues with work–life balance stemmed from weak spatial boundaries between work and home. This is quite sensible, given that graduate students generally do a significant amount of their work at home. Research suggests that when people work from home, there can sometimes be a lack of clarity between what constitutes one’s home space versus one’s work space. Such permeable spatial boundaries can make it more likely that stressors originating in one domain will spill over into the other (Clark, 2000; Desrochers & Sargent, 2004; Edwards & Rothbard, 2000). When stressors from either the work or family domain interfere with functioning in the other domain, the result is role conflict. Such conflicts can threaten one’s ability to maintain work–life balance (Greenhaus & Allen, 2011).
We found somewhat similar patterns in our graduate student sample. On average, we found that doctoral students completed 44.7% of their work at home and 43.4% of it on campus. The percentages for master’s students were nearly identical, as on average they completed 42.8% at home and 43.0% on campus. This even split between home and campus is promising, because it suggests that there are at least some spatial boundaries. Nevertheless, this is still a significant amount of “homework,” and many of the students we surveyed mentioned several ways that this negatively impacted their work–life balance. For example, some indicated that there were many distractions at home that made it difficult to focus on work, such as chores that needed to get done, the television remote being an arm’s length away, and roommates or significant others relaxing on the couch after completing their day at work when the graduate student has a paper due the next day. Others mentioned that their home simply felt like another office space, which made it difficult for them to put down their work and enjoy their leisure time. This also made it seem as though the people they lived with were encroaching upon their workspace, which made their work more stressful and occasionally led to them taking this stress out on those around them.
In order to circumvent some of these issues, students noted that they could create designated workspaces in their apartments or homes or spend more time doing work in coffee shops, libraries, and on campus. Another good idea would be to be straightforward with roommates, significant others, and family members about the need to use the home as a workspace. When there is a respectful agreement, this can benefit both parties. Finally, graduate programs can do a better job of providing their students with designated workspaces on campus. Although nearly every doctoral student had such an arrangement, few master’s students did.
Difficulties With Psychological Detachment
Another common issue was that even when students were engaged in nonwork activities, they could not take their minds off of their work. In the literature, we might refer to this as a lack of psychological detachment. Psychological detachment from work refers to the extent to which one mentally disengages from work during off time (Sonnentag & Fritz, 2007). This can be particularly important for graduate students, who face a multitude of work demands day in and day out. If they are unable to psychologically detach from work, then these demands will continue to strain students’ well-being and make it difficult for them to enjoy their nonwork time. Many students mentioned that it was difficult for them to be fully engaged in activities with friends and family because they could not stop thinking about the many work assignments that were on the horizon. Others even reported that they felt guilty when they decided to relax because of a perceived obligation to spend that time reading for classes or making progress on research. We also measured students’ levels of psychological detachment, using the psychological recovery scale (Sonnentag & Fritz, 2007). The results were consistent with students’ qualitative responses. Mean scores on the five-point Likert scale (with higher scores indicating more frequent detachment) were fairly low, at 2.36 for doctoral students (SD = 0.74) and 1.93 for master’s students (SD = 0.61).
This can be a difficult problem to address, as changing one’s mental habits is not an easy task. However, there are some useful strategies. For example, exercising, doing yoga, and practicing mindfulness can help clear one’s head and break free from graduate school thoughts. Although these were the most commonly used strategies, students can also psychologically detach by spending their leisure time on activities that are particularly engaging or mentally stimulating (e.g., hobbies, new challenges). These types of activities can help students recharge their batteries without letting work thoughts creep in. Another strategy is to simply take short breaks throughout the day in order to periodically clear one’s mind from work.
Graduate School and Romantic Relationships
Last, many students brought up challenges related to being in a romantic relationship while in graduate school. The majority of students in our sample (64%) were currently in a romantic relationship. Most of these issues seemed to stem from students having drastically different work schedules than their romantic partners. For example, many students noted that if their partners worked standard full-time jobs, there was an added pressure for them to get their work done during those hours. There was often an expectation that once their partner got home, the workday was over and the remaining time was meant to be spent together. Several students suggested that this pressure was actually beneficial, as it forced them to create a set work schedule for the week (which helped improve spatial work–life boundaries). However, others noted that their partners’ expectations were simply unrealistic, because they often needed to work during the evenings in order to stay on track. This could place strain on the relationship. A related issue was that students felt that their partners had very little idea what it was like to be a graduate student. Evidently, some partners believed that graduate students had tons of free time on their hands, because class time takes up such a small fraction of the week. Others apparently did not realize how challenging and time intensive research projects can be. Many noted that these types of misconceptions were disrespectful and led to arguments about whether one was prioritizing work over the relationship. Although there is no “correct” way to handle such issues, having honest conversations can go a long way. Graduate students can be forthright about their workloads and work schedules, and make it clear that at least on occasion they will need to work in the evening. However, they can also make concerted efforts to synchronize their schedules with those of their partners.
Furthermore, some students lamented that because they had the ability to work from home on a regular basis, they were often expected to handle the lion’s share of household duties (e.g., laundry, dishes, pet care). Again, being forthright can go a long way. Having an honest dialogue about why this is frustrating may lead to a more equitable distribution of chores.
The common threads in this survey revealed that many doctoral and master’s students in I-O psychology share concerns about the state of their work–life balance. Our survey revealed that both doctoral and master’s students in I-O psychology report fairly low levels of work–life balance and high levels of work–life conflict. We found that many of these work–life issues stem from unclear temporal and spatial boundaries between work and home, difficulty psychologically detaching from work, and trouble balancing graduate school with romantic relationships. Although there is no doubt that these are significant challenges, so many of the surveyed students offered clear, clever, and optimistic insights about how to combat the difficulties that they face. We hope that by being forthright about these work–life conflicts, we can foster open discussion about strategies that can be implemented on the individual and institutional levels. Conversations like these can provide I-O students with a sense of camaraderie and resolve. We are in a unique position to confront our struggles from an insider’s perspective given the nature of our academic studies. Our work–life problems may be difficult, but we have the tools and wherewithal to solve them together.
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Carlson, D. S., Kacmar, K. M., & Williams, L. J. (2000). Construction and initial validation of a multidimensional measure of work–family conflict. Journal of Vocational behavior, 56, 249-276.
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Desrochers, S., & Sargent, L. D. (2004). Boundary/Border Theory and Work-Family Integration. Organization Management Journal, 1, 40-48.
Edwards, J. R., & Rothbard, N. P. (2000). Mechanisms linking work and family: Clarifying the relationship between work and family constructs. Academy of Management Review, 25, 178-199.
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Sonnentag, S., & Fritz, C. (2007). The Recovery Experience Questionnaire: Development and validation of a measure for assessing recuperation and unwinding from work. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12, 204.
Stefanie Gisler is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. She received her BA from Bucknell University and an MS in I-O Psychology from the University of Central Florida (UCF). Her research interests include occupational health psychology, diversity, and selection. After earning her PhD, Stefanie would like to pursue a career in academia.
Bradley Gray is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. He obtained a BA in Psychology from Wake Forest University in 2010 and an MA in Clinical Psychology from Towson University in 2012. He researches occupational health psychology, with an interest in the relationship between supervisors and their employees, and is also interested in culture change and executive development.
Jenna-Lyn Roman is an MS student at Baruch College, CUNY. She received her BA in Psychology from the University of South Florida. She is interested in work–family research with an emphasis on nontraditional workers and understudied populations (i.e., military families), and gender parity topics. She is currently completing her thesis at Baruch and looking forward to beginning an I-O PhD program in August 2018. Jenna would like to be a university professor specializing in work–family topics.
Ethan Rothstein is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. Ethan obtained his BA in Clinical Psychology from Tufts University in 2013. His primary area of research has been the interface between work and family, but he has also conducted research on motivation, leadership, team processes, and occupational health psychology. After he graduates, Ethan would like to pursue an applied career in both consulting and industry.
The TIP-TOPics team can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org