While I was at work one day last week, my father was in a hospital more than 1,000 miles away. He was undergoing a series of tests, and I was anxious to hear the results.
My mom and sister were there with him, and I knew my sister would send me an email update as soon as she heard from the doctors. At about the time I guessed some results should be coming, I started checking my smartphone often, hoping to get good news.
When the email arrived, the news wasn't particularly good or bad. My dad will have to go back to the hospital in a few weeks for more tests. But I was relieved to have that information so I could stop worrying — at least for a while — and get back to my daily work.
As I reflected on this incident, it occurred to me that it raises an interesting work-life question.
I've written often about the impact of smartphones on my quest for balance, focusing on the fact that they make it possible to check work email and messages from home, possibly distracting from family time.
But what about the other side of that coin? Isn't it true that the same technology makes it easier for us to be distracted by our personal lives while we're at work?
According to a new survey, the answer is an emphatic "Yes!" But what that means in the world of work is worth pondering.
The national survey of working Americans was conducted by Public Policy Polling for Workplace Options, a provider of employee well-being services. The poll was completed in January and has a margin of error of 4 percent.
According to a press release about the survey, 87 percent of respondents reported at least occasionally using time during their workday to deal with personal issues, "defined as financial, legal, dependent care or daily living matters."
Furthermore, about 31 percent said they spent several of their at-work hours each week to manage their lives outside of Cubeville. Broken down by age, 50 percent of workers aged 18-29 said they spent multiple hours at work each week dealing with personal issues, compared to 32 percent of those aged 30-45, 28 percent of those aged 46-65 and 30 percent of those older than 65.
When asked which of five issues was most likely to cause distraction at work, 30 percent of respondents identified social media. That's surprising to exactly no one.
However, 20 percent of respondents identified matters associated with children and family members as the biggest cause of lost productivity, according to the press release. Another 17 percent said online research for items unrelated to work was the biggest distraction.
“Child care and daily living matters dominate much of the average employee’s attention,” Dean Debnam, CEO of Workplace Options, said in the press release about the survey. “Those are things that impact people of all races, geographies and income level.”
I must plead guilty to giving in to these distractions in my life. I already mentioned the example of waiting for news about my dad. But I've also taken a moment out of my workday on occasion to respond to questions from my wife or children, sent via text or email. I try to do this when I'm on a break, but if a matter is urgent, I will sometimes shift attention for a few moments from my work to help with a family concern.
Frankly, I think this is a good thing for me, my family and my employer. I never respond while I'm in the middle of an especially important task or meeting. And while such incidents may distract me from my job for a few minutes while I'm at the office, dealing with them quickly allows me to then shift my focus back to work without having nagging worries in the back of my mind.
Also, since I occasionally respond to work requests or needs during my "family time" on nights and weekends, it seems that turnabout is fair play. It's all part of that work-life integration I've written about during the last few weeks.
But how should companies react to these survey results? Debnam says many businesses, especially large ones, are looking at ways to more effectively support employees and help them focus on the job while they're at the office.
“But most of these efforts focus on employees’ emotional and physical well-being," he said in the press release. "It’s clear from this poll that a lot of people also need practical assistance to help them deal with things like financial, legal and dependent care issues.”
Workplace Options tries to help companies in these areas, so you can see why it sponsored the survey. But I don't think that makes the results less interesting.
When asked if their employers offered programs to help workers manage their personal lives, 68 percent said no, according to the press release. But 64 percent said that such services would be valuable to them if they were offered at no cost.
“A lot of major employers already offer some basic level of work-life or convenience service designed to help employees find this kind of help,” Debnam said in the press release. “But obviously, most companies either aren’t offering the right kind of service or aren’t communicating to employees effectively about the resources at their disposal.”
I think it would be great if companies made an effort to help their workers in this way. Anything that improves work-life balance or work-life integration should lead to employees who are happier, and thus more productive, dedicated and loyal to their employers.
At the same time, I'm sure some people say companies shouldn't have to worry about such things. They feel that workers should focus solely on their job tasks while they're at the office and deal with all personal issues on their own time. While I don't necessarily agree, I can understand that point of view.
What do you think? Do you ever deal with personal issues while you're at work? How often, and for how much time each week? Do you think your employer is OK with this? Why or why not?
Please send me an email or leave a comment online, and I'll share some of your responses in a future column.