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Juggling Act

Plenty of 'Role Strain,' Little Consensus on Easing It

Management: Sometimes employer support is lacking as workers struggle with life's other duties.


When family therapist Marcia Lasswell began counseling 35 years ago, she typically helped couples struggling to overcome sexual problems or cope with the fallout of extramarital affairs.

Today, though she still sees her share of straying spouses, she's encountering a growing number of patients whose problems have more to do with the office or factory than the bedroom.

"I call it 'role strain,' " said Lasswell, a psychology professor at Cal Poly Pomona. "People often feel overburdened with their roles of spouse, parent and worker."

The shift reflects dramatic changes in the last few decades in who works and what is expected of them on the job and at home. For example, 60% of women with young children work outside the home today, twice as many as in 1970, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, men have been encouraged to take a more active role at home, and both sexes are more concerned than ever with quality-of-life issues.

That leaves some men figuring out how to slip out of the office to take their daughters to 3 p.m. ballet lessons or women spending weeks away from families on business trips.

The changes come against a backdrop of massive employment cuts and increased demands on surviving workers.

Some of the changes, especially the increased opportunities for women, can make for a more fulfilling lifestyle. But analysts note that there are drawbacks. Family relationships can be frayed in a rush to meet workplace demands. And if family problems are dragged into the office, workers may be less productive.

Many companies have moved to accommodate employees with flexible work schedules and assistance for care of children or elderly parents. But along with downsizing, there are other, sometimes subtle, forces that clearly are less employee-friendly.

If they don't log long hours, workers may not be considered team players, said Arlene Johnson, vice president of the Families and Work Institute, a New York-based nonprofit organization. Additionally, many companies persist in holding meetings at 7 a.m. or 6 p.m., difficult times for people with children or other family responsibilities.

"I think there are areas such as child care where companies are getting better," she said. "But there are counterbalancing factors, so that I don't think you can say whether things are really getting better or not."

While there is more awareness of the strains many workers face, there is little consensus on what, if anything, corporate America should do about it.

"I don't think most companies are family-oriented," said Constance Ahrons, director of the marriage and family therapy program in USC's sociology department. "I think what you have is more lip service than anything."

Another sociologist, Ruth Milkman of UCLA, says the government needs to compel companies to become more employee-friendly.

"The real problem is that people are working too much [and] there are not policies in place to support families," she said.

She suggests improving the Family and Medical Leave Act, which President Clinton signed into law in 1993, by providing paid leave for family emergencies. Expanding paid maternity leave along the lines of the more generous standards in some European countries would also help, she said.

It's no surprise that not everyone shares Milkman's enthusiasm for more legislation to ease the tension between work and personal life.

"I think it's a real dumb idea," said Peter Eide, manager of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. "We've already got tons and tons of regulations on the books that businesses have to deal with."

The chamber supports some modest revisions to labor laws, such as allowing employees to take compensatory time off rather than receive overtime pay, Eide said. Some labor groups, though, fear that this move could be manipulated to become a cost-saving maneuver for employers rather than a flexibility boon for employees.

Broader reforms would be devastating, said Eide, especially for the smaller businesses often credited with generating most of the nation's new jobs in the last decade.

"It's easy to say we need more regulations, but I think a lot of these suggestions are not well thought through," he said. "Businesses need to make money to employ people."

Some observers suggest that the marketplace is more likely than the government to force workplace changes.

"'I think it's clear that in recent years more and more companies have done things to be more family-friendly," said Murray Wiedenbaum, chairman of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis. He cites the number of companies with flextime and child-care programs as examples.

"But it's been enlightened self-interest rather than altruism that has caused it," he said. "They've decided that these decisions are a good way to attract and keep good people."

Looking ahead, Wiedenbaum doesn't expect gains in employee-friendly policies to be allocated evenly across the workplace.

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