Finding That Work-Life Balance

Dr. Muriel Mellow studies how rural professionals find their work-life balance.

Defining boundaries can be challenging. Where does one’s job end and one’s personal life begin? How do people sort out the hazy areas around those boundaries?

These are just a few of the questions University of Lethbridge sociologist Dr. Muriel Mellow considers on a regular basis. “I’m interested in the intersection of paid work and other aspects of people’s lives,” she says. “How do people, professionals in particular, define when they are ‘at work’ and when they aren’t? That grey area can have a huge impact on how professionals do their job and maintain a quality of life outside of work.”

In some settings, the answers to these questions are less complicated than others. “In large urban centres, professionals can more easily separate work and home life,” says Muriel. “However, that separation is much more difficult in smaller communities. The ambiguity and overlap between professional time and private time can lead to stress, burnout, and, ultimately, the loss of professionals in smaller communities.”

Muriel goes on to note that not all issues related to the multiple and overlapping relationships among people in smaller communities are negative: “In initial interviews, I discovered some professionals felt that because clients knew aspects about their personal circumstances they were seen as more human and approachable. From the professional’s perspective, knowing background information about a client enabled them to see the client’s condition in a broader context.”

Muriel muses about how many professional organizations have a code of conduct that insists on objectivity, fairness, and confidentiality in dealing with clients. “There is an assumption about the way professional work is organized,” she explains. “In urban settings, once professionals leave the office they don’t often see clients or have to deal with them in other settings.”

However, life in a small town just does not work that way. The complex web of interrelated relationships commonly found in smaller centres simply does not allow for a clear separation of occupation from personal life. In an effort to determine how people make things work and balance the various roles in their lives, Muriel recently conducted a study of clergy working in communities with populations of 3,000 or less. She is now expanding that research to include physicians, nurses, teachers, lawyers, bank managers and accountants who live and work in Southern Alberta communities with populations of 10,000 or less.

“My objective is to develop an understanding about how professionals in small communities set boundaries and effectively deal with overlapping relationships,” she explains. “I want to know how professionals who live in smaller communities survive and thrive.”

She is exploring how professionals establish expectations that can be clearly understood by themselves, their families and other community members. It is easy to see several practical applications for the results of Muriel’s research. Techniques that professionals use to deal with work-life balance can be shared to help others.

“We all learn from the experiences of others,” she says. “We may be able to provide people with tools or methods to more effectively balance their lives and live comfortably in smaller communities. This would be helpful for professionals who are not originally from small communities, but who move there to work.”

Muriel explains that students could also benefit from the information gathered: “It will help us better prepare students for the challenges they’ll face in the future.” In addition, the research may be helpful to smaller communities trying to recruit and retain professionals, providing communities with a better understanding of the issues related to work/life balance.

However, before any information can be shared, Muriel must gather, collate, analyze and interpret data to develop an understanding about what is currently happening. “This research project will take several months to complete and involves interviewing as many professionals as I can find,” she says. “To develop a complex comprehensive picture of current practices, it is necessary to have in-depth interviews with a large number of people.”

Muriel plans to talk to about 60 professionals living in Southern Alberta communities with populations less than 10,000. Each interview takes between one and one and a half hours. She must also adjust and adapt the interview questions based on answers from previous interviews. “Sometimes things come out that you would never expect,” she says, adding that although she has just started the interview process she is pleased with how generous people have been. “Professionals have been amazingly kind in taking the time to talk with me,” she says. “However, I’m still looking for more.”

If you are a professional (physician, nurse, teacher, lawyer, accountant or bank manager) living and working in a Southern Alberta community with a population of less than 10,000, and are interested in assisting Muriel with her research, please call her at 403-329-2566 or visit her website for details.