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OSU researcher probes link between work-life stress, health

OSU researcher probes link between work-life stress, health

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When Kelly D. Davis, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, talks about the stress that can result as people try to balance work and family obligations, you should know this:

It's not just academic to her.

Davis, of OSU's College of Public Health and Human Sciences, has firsthand experience with the topic: She's a single mother with two daughters, ages 12 and 6.

In fact, those daughters have spent some time in Davis' office in OSU's Waldo Hall. A desk drawer in the office is filled with drawings the girls have created, and a whiteboard on a wall has been graced from time to time with their handiwork.

Davis has been studying work-family conflicts since graduate school. Now, she's the lead author on a new study suggesting that constantly worrying about conflicts between your job and your family not only isn't helpful, but could be damaging your physical and mental health. (The study was published in the journal Stress & Health.)

The study involved 203 adults ages 24 to 76; each received a random mailing and agreed to a followup survey. Each was in a romantic relationship; two-thirds of them had at least one child at home.

Work-family conflicts inevitably lead to stress, Davis noted, and stress can be a factor in mental and physical health issues.

It's natural to be worried about the inevitable conflicts between work duties and family obligations. But the type of thinking you do about those conflicts can make a difference in whether it affects your health, the study found.

In particular, the study suggests, "repetitive thought" — thinking over and over about work-family conflicts that seem intractable — is related to poorer physical and mental health. The results showed a link between repetitive thought and negative outcomes in six categories: life satisfaction, positive affect, negative affect, fatigue, perceived health and health conditions. (Positive affect is the extent to which a person experiences positive moods; negative affect is the flip side.)

This sort of repetitive thought is a common response to stressful conditions, Davis said. But the study suggests that it's not a particularly healthful response.

"You can't tell people to stop worrying," she said in an interview last week with Mid-Valley Health. "But you can help them put it into check" so that it doesn't harm their health.

The study found that the psychological process of mindfulness can be helpful to help break the connection: In mindfulness (which is harder to achieve than it sounds), participants focus on intentionally paying attention to the present-moment experience in a nonjudgmental way.

While mindfulness is helpful, Davis noted, "it is not sufficient: Obviously, you need other resources, a support team or a system. ... Work and family are both greedy institutions."

But just knowing that there are other resources available and that employers have policies that can be of assistance can be helpful, she said.

Ideally, she said, employers can do more to help employees deal with work-family conflicts. There's a strong business case to be made for those policies, she said: Employees do better-quality work and post better attendance records.

Training supervisors to be supportive of employees who are dealing with family needs is important, she said. And supervisors themselves need to be modeling those behaviors.

Flexibility in scheduling also is important, Davis said, in that it shows employees that "I have more time to take care of myself and my family."

Davis is optimistic that businesses eventually will get the message. "But I feel that there's a lot of hesitation," she said. "It's about how open and comfortable people are to change."

"Things could actually be easier."

The study was funded by Penn State University. Davis' co-authors were Judith Gere of Kent State University and Martin J. Sliwinski of Penn State.

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