I never set out to specialize in the concept of “work-life balance,” or what we now call “work-life integration.” But when I was a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, I was asked to teach a semester-long course on work and family relationships. Did I mention that I had four small children at the time? I was literally living the subject matter I was teaching, trying to be there for my kids while also making progress on my degree. I learned quickly that there are a fixed number of hours in which to get things done: an evening spent rocking a feverish toddler meant time not devoted to studying or preparing for class. Every working parent faces the tension between job and family, and in Utah, it can be argued that men are paying a high price too.
Much has been made of WalletHub’s recent ranking of Best and Worst State’s for Women’s Equality, with Utah landing 50th nationwide. In most areas examined, like wage gap, job security and political representation, the numbers favored men. Yet when it came to “largest work hours gap,” Utah men ranked last, meaning the difference in hours spent on the job between men and women who both work full time was the biggest in the nation, thus men were designated the “disadvantaged gender.” Let’s take a moment to examine the implications of what this might mean for Utahns.
At first glance this may seem like a good thing for men. We are a nation that rewards long hours, frequently in pay, but also in other ways too. Being the first one in and the last out of the office is seen as a sign of dedication; likewise working on weekends and eschewing sick days can earn an employee status and access to promotions. Women, who tend to prioritize flexibility, may walk away from dream jobs or high salaries if the demands of work are too rigid. Men in Utah do see greater professional success than women, without a doubt.
But there is more to life than money and/or prestige, and the cost of working long hours may dull its benefits. Multiple studies have shown that working long hours can impact one’s physical, emotional and social health. Long work hours are associated with chronic back pain and increased cardiac arrhythmia. Working 11 hours as opposed to 8 doubles the chance of experiencing a major depression. Long hours increase stress, reduce sleep, and have negative effects on family and social life. This is a good reminder for me as I work too many hours!
Many people think this is a fair price to maintain traditional gender roles — men work long hours so that women can stay home. Yet the studies have found that once the hours of unpaid housework and caring are accounted for, women, on average, work as many or more hours than men. Is it only “work” if it comes with a paycheck? Men aren’t the only ones who are at risk from working too much.
So what’s a state to do? After I taught the course on work-life integration, I went on to do my dissertation on the topic. I have learned through the years that it is possible to make changes that improve the lives of both men and women. We need more conversations in our homes and businesses about what work needs to be done and how to better allocate our many responsibilities. Because the simple truth is that imbalance is rarely good for anyone on either side of the scale.