A Book Review of “Boundaries, Priorities, and Finding Work-Life Balance”

By Professor Anthony Patterson

Achieving a healthy equilibrium between work and personal life is an age-old struggle, but in today’s always-on digital age, it can feel harder than ever. “Boundaries, Priorities, and Finding Work-Life Balance,” an installment in the HBR Work Smart series, tackles this challenge head-on. Through a curated collection of articles from leading thinkers in business and psychology, the book provides a roadmap for professionals, particularly those early in their careers, to avoid burnout and craft a more sustainable, fulfilling life.

The book’s central theme, articulated by professors Ioana Lupu and Mayra Ruiz-Castro, is that work-life balance is a continuous cycle, not a one-time goal. They advise readers to regularly pause, take stock of their emotions, reassess their priorities, weigh alternatives, and implement changes. This framework sets the stage for the book’s subsequent sections which delve into setting boundaries, beating burnout, managing to-do lists, and prioritizing self-care.

Organizational psychologist Janna Koretz sheds light on how overidentifying with work can lead to burnout and lost sense of self. The remedy, she argues, is to consciously invest in an identity outside the office – in hobbies, community, and relationships.

 Liz Wiseman, author of “Rookie Smarts,” contends that burnout stems not just from overwork, but from having too little impact. Her antidote involves reducing “phantom workloads,” continuously optimizing job scope to focus on high-impact work, and proactively sharing leadership responsibilities.

 Carson Tate, a productivity consultant, presents a memorable E.M.P.O.W.E.R. framework for evaluating and diplomatically declining superfluous requests that can lead to overload. Amantha Imber, host of the “How I Work” podcast, argues that peak productivity is achieved not by time management, but by guarding one’s energy – taking restorative breaks aligned with ultradian rhythms and minimizing context-switching and distractions.

Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time management coach, provides tips for balancing full-time work with education, side hustles, or passion projects. Morra Aarons-Mele, host of The Anxious Achiever podcast, shares personal practices for quieting one’s inner critic – that internal voice pressuring us to be “always on.”

The book’s final section powerfully illustrates how boundaries and balance are ultimately about self-care. Professors Bonnie Hayden Cheng and Yolanda Na Li share research on how even small amounts of exercise can yield significant performance and well-being gains. Executive coach Rebecca Zucker enumerates the mental health, immune system, and even spiritual benefits of truly unplugging on vacation.

While professionals at any stage will find value in “Boundaries, Priorities, and Finding Work-Life Balance,” the book is a particular gift to early-career professionals who have an opportunity to establish healthy, sustainable habits from the start. The diverse array of expert voices, relatable anecdotes, and practical frameworks make the book’s insights highly accessible and actionable. For anyone feeling depleted by work and hungry for more in life, this guide provides a path forward.

Adapting to Change: Unveiling the Realities Faced by Working Mothers Amidst COVID-19 

by Dr Rachel Ashman, Dr Laura Radcliffe, Professor Anthony Patterson, and Professor Caroline Gatrell 

Dr. Rachel Ashman, Dr. Laura Radcliffe, Professor Anthony Patterson, and Professor Caroline Gatrell, delve into the experiences of working mothers during the tumultuous era of COVID-19. Together, we reflect on how national lockdowns triggered a profound shift in traditional gender roles, placing a unique burden on employed mothers. 

In response to the UK government’s efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 through national lockdowns, mothers found themselves juggling home-schooling and childcare while maintaining their professional commitments. This unintentionally exacerbated existing labour market and caregiving inequalities, disproportionately impacting employed mothers throughout the pandemic. 

Our paper, “Reordering Motherhood and Employment: Mobilising ‘Mums Everywhere’ during Covid-19,”, dissects the consequences of this sudden transition to mandated home-working. 

Utilising actor-network theory, where human and non-human elements coexist within fluid ‘networks,’ our qualitative study focuses on how employed mothers navigated this government-mandated shift, reordering their local networks to balance home-working, home-schooling, and childcare. 

Adapting to Unprecedented Challenges 

The findings unveil three distinct ways mothers adjusted their networks, shedding light on the influence of societal biases on this transformative process. 

Initially, many mothers clung to retentive adaptations, attempting to preserve the image of the ‘ideal worker’ despite increased family responsibilities. However, these efforts often gave way to traditional gender roles, with women managing childcare and men focusing on employment. 

Some women faced retrogressive reordering, stepping back from or leaving their jobs to prioritise caregiving, driven by the enduring force of maternal guilt. One participant shared, “I… have the most guilt about not giving my eldest daughter much home schooling. I’ve… accepted that I can’t do well at my job at the moment… I’ve reduced my hours.” 

A Fragile Balance: Overcoming Challenges and Finding Peace 

In the struggle for balance, some mothers discovered solace in the simplification of daytime activities, relieved of pre-pandemic responsibilities like transportation and childcare. Reformative reordering emerged as an alternative, with flexible schedules supported by employers playing a pivotal role. 

Yet, this newfound flexibility was often fragile, susceptible to external pressures such as deadlines or unsupportive colleagues. Ongoing breakdowns and attempts to reorder networks left many mothers feeling overwhelmed, as one participant expressed, “I’m exhausted, and I feel anxious… my mind’s a mash.” 

The Unintended Consequences: A Setback for Gender Equality 

Our study highlights how the enforced home-schooling and home-working initiatives inadvertently propelled employed mothers back into traditional gender roles. We argue that the COVID-19 response posed a significant risk to equality agendas, emphasising the need to avoid treating women as a reserve army during national mobilizations. 

The research underscores the intricate web of actors supporting maternal employment, a delicate balance often disrupted by unforeseen circumstances. To fortify maternal employment in the current societal and employment landscape, greater support is essential. 

Moving Forward: Steps Toward Inclusivity 

While broader societal shifts are imperative, organisations can take pivotal steps. Leaders can challenge existing norms on professionalism, advocating for more varied, shifting, and flexible ways of working. Vocal support for greater fluidity between home and work can pave the way for more inclusive cultures capable of supporting employees through life’s shifting circumstances. 

Join us in unpacking the multifaceted challenges faced by working mothers and envisioning a more supportive and equitable future. 

Read the full research article here: 

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-8551.12630

Find out more about the research team here: 

https://www.futurefamilieswork.org.uk/teammember/

National Single Parents Day 2023: Reflecting on Single Parents & Employment

Dr Laura Radcliffe

How can we attract, support, and retain single parents in the workplace?  

National Single Parents Day is observed on March 21st every year, recognising single parents’ hard work and dedication in our society. Single-parent households are common across OECD countries, constituting around one in four families in the UK and USA, most of which are headed by women. Although single parenthood is often a temporary state in the life course of many people, it can permanently alter single parents’ career trajectories. This is something we need to improve as a society.  

Research highlights how single parents are likely to experience greater challenges managing competing work and family requirements due to the lack of another adult within the household. This means they face additional pressures due to being the sole/main breadwinners while simultaneously being predominantly responsible for hands-on caregiving. They also lack the support systems available to couples, such as the ability to divide household chores and responsibilities, engage in childcare turn-taking, or the availability of a dual income.  

Furthermore, societal attitudes towards single mothers often perpetuate negative stereotypes and stigmatization, leading to additional pressures involved in navigating a devalued social identity. Society has often portrayed single parents as a problem because they don’t fit the traditional family model, as uncommitted employees, or as people who receive benefits and drain society’s resources. These harmful stereotypes still exist today, despite more single parents being in the UK workforce than ever before. Unfortunately, these attitudes also ignore the extra challenges that single parents often face in relation to employment.  

My research with single mothers, published in the British Journal of Management, shows that the experience and internalisation of stigma often result in still further additional work striving to avoid association with stigmatized stereotypes. They do this by striving to go the extra mile to prove they are exceptional parents and employees and can do it all independently without needing support. There is, therefore, additional pressure involved in navigating a stigmatised family identity, which further exacerbates work-family conflict, and negatively impacts well-being.  

Our research has revealed that paid employment is highly valued by single mothers, as it plays a crucial role in maintaining a positive self-image. Moreover, our findings indicate that single mothers are highly motivated to progress in their careers when they have access to extensive flexible working arrangements, encouragement, and support for career development. These factors empower single mothers to strive towards career advancement and success.  

However, where this is not the case, single mothers are likely to end up working below their skill levels, which has negative implications for individual well-being, but also for organisations and society. Yet, even for those single mothers who do progress at work, this still comes at a cost due to frequently unsustainable workloads and expectations of work primacy, leading to frequent work-family conflicts and exhaustion. Therefore, current incommensurate work and family ideals, alongside workplace cultures of overwork, always come at a particular cost to single parents.  

In conclusion, single parents face unique challenges and pressures in managing competing role requirements, making meeting the expectations of paid employment particularly challenging. However, they often strive to progress at work despite these challenges. As we celebrate National Single Parents Day, let us take a moment to appreciate and recognise the hard work of single parents in facing and overcoming unique challenges in navigating work, family, and stigma.  

Let us consider how we, as a society, as employers, or as line managers, can help challenge stigmatised stereotypes of single parents and support them in managing exacerbated work-family conflict practically. Such support might include flexible work arrangements, access to affordable childcare, and efforts to shift cultural attitudes towards single parents. By acknowledging and addressing these challenges, we can help single parents to achieve sustainable employment and progression, as well as a better work–life balance and improved well-being, and in doing so, create a more equitable society for all.  

Radcliffe, L., Cassell, C., & Malik, F. (2022). Providing, performing and protecting: the importance of work identities in negotiating conflicting work–family ideals as a single mother. British Journal of Management, 33(2), 890-905.  

Schaefer, A., Gatrell, C., & Radcliffe, L. (2020). Lone parents and blended families: Advocating flexible working to support families in transition. In Flexible Work (pp. 196-212). Routledge.