Work-life balance in the military

Work-life balance describes the (ideally harmonious) relationship between your job responsibilities, personal pursuits, and family obligations. But it’s a balance that Warfighters don’t always find so easily. Service Members take on jobs and duties that go well beyond punching a time card from 9-to-5. And if they’re married, their spouses (who also might be balancing careers) often support the home front so they can. Enlistment is a commitment to a life dictated by your duties and responsibilities, and it’s a lifestyle devoted to honor and service. It’s a commitment your family has to make too. That’s why phrases such as “enlist a Service Member, retain a family” ring true in discussions about work-life balance in the military because your career impacts everyone. And at the end of the day, a healthy work-life balance affects performance, so it’s important to find a way forward that works for you and your family.

Work-life balance for military families

More than half of active-duty and reserve forces have family responsibilities. Whether it’s your partner, kids, or older family members, most Warfighters have people who depend on them at home. As a unit, you have to navigate separations, moves and relocations, unpredictability, and worries about safety. What’s more is that the commitment to the job is more than just by choice. Warfighters are legally bound to the military for years at a time so you all have to find a way to make it work, even when the road gets tough.

With all that, it can be challenging to find balance when the line between your career and your personal life isn’t so clear. This is especially true for dual military couples and families. Still, the desire for work-life balance continues to be highly valued by members of the force. For example, one of the top concerns reported by Service Members is the amount of time away from their families. Work-life balance is important for the military too since it’s a major factor in retention. Positive work-life balance is related to job satisfaction and commitment, while negative balance is linked to turnover intentions.

When things are going well in one area, there’s a good chance those good vibes will carry across your day, no matter where you are.

How work-life balance affects performance

What’s work-life balance? Or a better question: What does it look like when your work and personal life are in conflict? And what does “conflict” actually mean?

Work-life balance (and conflict) go both ways: What goes on at work affects what happens at home and vice versa. This is sometimes called “spillover” because the events or emotions of the day spill over into different aspects of your life. Start by thinking about work-to-family conflict. In this direction, your role in the military interferes with your family life because your work spills over into your home. Negative experiences at work and with co-workers are linked to depression and anxiety, and they can affect your relationships with loved ones.

On the flip side, family-to-work conflict occurs when family demands make it tough to fulfill work responsibilities. Family-to-work conflict is less common than work-to-family conflict, but it has significant impact on performance. For example, those who experience family-to-work conflict are less satisfied with their jobs, have more interpersonal conflicts at work, and tend to have poorer physical health.

  • Time. A time-based conflict is about not having enough hours in the day to meet the needs of both your family and your job. For example, maybe that early morning formation overlaps with family breakfast. Or your latest temporary duty assignment means you’ll miss your wedding anniversary.
  • Emotional energy. A work-life conflict in this area means that emotions (and often stresses) in one area make it hard to be present and focused in the other one. For instance, heading to work after a tense argument with your teenager might distract you, affect your mood, and impact your ability to focus while on duty.
  • Behavior. A particularly tough point for Service Members is shifting the way you act at home and at work. It can be tough to move from drills, orders, and combat training to playing on the floor with your toddler all within a few hours. And sometimes it’s not so easy to change how you act when others expect you to.

The fact is, regardless of whether the balance breakdown starts at home or at work, the spillover effect means that issues will very quickly start to pile up. You might quickly find yourself in a negative spiral trying to navigate tension in your relationships in both places.

Ways to find balance

In the private sector, strategies to find work-life balance include talk of flexible work schedules, compressed workweeks, on-site day care, telecommuting, and so on. But those aren’t always practical options for Warfighters. While the different branches have developed programs and leave policies to support military families and work-life balance, there are also some things you can focus on to move the needle yourself. (Keep in mind that “balance” doesn’t always mean you’ll spend an equal amount of time and energy at home and at work—it means you’ll find the right balance of time and energy for both you and your family.)

  1. Increase the positive spillover!

The good parts of your home life and your work life can actually enrich one another. When things are going well in one area, there’s a good chance those good vibes will carry across your day, no matter where you are. Moods, behaviors, and even skills gained at home can enrich your work and vice versa. Positive spillover is also related to job satisfaction, resilience, marital satisfaction, and mental well-being. One of the best ways to increase positive spillover is through building strong relationships with co-workers, battle buddies, and supportive family members.

  1. Focus on open communication at home.

At home, it’s important to keep your partner or spouse in the loop of what’s going on at work. Of course, sometimes there are limitations around operational security or barriers to communication during deployment. But a good way to prevent work stress from compounding at home is to let your partner know when you’re struggling. When you keep the lines of communication open, there’s less of a chance your relationship satisfaction will be negatively impacted despite challenges at work. In military families, it’s also key to share the big picture with your partner. In fact, spouses who are more involved in military culture and have more knowledge about the military tend to be more satisfied with military life despite the added pressures.

  1. Tackle issues directly at work.

In the military, you might not always have flexibility or room to set healthy work-life boundaries. That’s why when you get the chance, it’s important to use assertive communication to get support when needed. Talk to your supervisor or commanding officer directly about stressors you’re experiencing, especially if they’re getting in the way of your ability to do your job. While it’s a good skill to be able to manage and cope with your feelings (or stress), you’ll actually experience less work-family conflict if you address the problem itself. So, take a direct approach and tackle your problems head-on.

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Published on: July 24, 2020

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