Despite any number of social change movements, men are still their family's breadwinners and survey after survey indicates that's the way we like it. But society – and doctors – are also pressuring all of us to achieve that elusive “work/life balance.” Now, in perhaps one of the greatest ironies in modern mental health history, new research from Oregon State University suggests that thinking over and over again about conflicts between your job and personal life is likely to damage both your mental and physical health.
The scientists call this dwelling repeatedly and attentively about the parts of your job and your personal life that clash with each other “repetitive thought.” Thinking that you should be at your son's baseball game while sitting in that meeting that ran late? That's repetitive thought. Worrying that you ought to be in the office working on that new client presentation when you are attending your your daughter's ballet recital? That's repetitive thought as well.
Psychologists refer to repetitive thought as a “maladaptive coping strategy.” In other words, it's a legitimate way for your mind to deal with a big conflict, but the net-net effect on you is negative.
The study data shows a link between repetitive thought and negative outcomes in the health categories of fatigue, positive affect, life satisfaction, perceived health, negative affect, and health conditions.
It gets worse: Repetitive thought can lead to the twin mental health issues of rumination and worry. The first is persistent, redundant thinking that usually looks backward and is associated with depression. Worry, of course, is also persistent, redundant thinking but tends to look forward and is typically more associated with anxious apprehension.
What can be done? We can't not work on that client presentation, right? And if we miss too many ballet recitals our daughters will grow up and write a scathing tell-all biography about us. It's a lose-lose scenario, right?
The study authors offer one possible solution: mindfulness.
"You stay in the moment and acknowledge what you are feeling, recognize that those are real feelings, and process them, putting things in perspective," said Kelly D. Davis an assistant professor in OSU's College of Public Health and Human Sciences and the study's lead author. "In the hypothetical baseball game example, the person could acknowledge the disappointment and frustration he was feeling as legitimate, honest feelings, and then also think in terms of 'these meeting conflicts don't happen that often, there are lots of games left for me to watch my child play, etc.'"
The researchers concluded with what almost sounds like a plea: "Not all of us are so fortunate to have backup plans for our family responsibilities to stop us from repetitively thinking about work-family conflict," they said. "It's the organizational support and culture that matter most. Knowing there's a policy you can use without backlash maybe is almost as beneficial as actually using the policy. It's also important for managers and executives to be modeling that too, going to family events and scheduling time to fit all of their roles."
The research has been published in the journal Stress & Health.