It's alway fascinating to find out more about the life stories of our podcast guests, and this time is no different. A former mechanical engineer, Patty Dahm, assistant professor of management at Cal Poly University, wanted to understand how organisations and people function and thus turned to academia and research. A fellow member of the Work and Family Researchers Network, we heard Patty's super interesting research into trade-offs at the 2016 WFRN conference in Washington D.C., and had to have her on the podcast. 

One of her life defining moments came, when following the birth of her first child, as she was expressing her desire to work flexibly yet still progress in her career, a senior colleague advised her to be careful, "otherwise people may think she wants to have it all". This prompted the realisation, that her decisions not only affect her own life and that of her family, but also other people. 

Her research into major and minor trade-offs explores how the decisions we take (either after a long deliberation, or frequent spontaneous ones) affect our lives in the short and the long term. 

What are trade-offs? 

As a clarification:

- work trade-offs are decisions we take to prioritise our lives outside of work (family, health, hobbies and other commitments)

- life trade-offs are decisions we take to favour our work and sacrifice some of our non-work time and commitments (community work, sport and exercise, social events, family moments)

A major work trade-off for example could be not accepting a promotion or cutting down business travel, and major life trade-offs may include not having children or limiting the number of children one may have for the sake of a career. These are thoroughly contemplated decisions, for which the long-term consequences are more or less foreseeable. 

It is however the minor trade-offs that are really interesting. On the one hand, because we may not even be conscious about doing them, and secondly, because they may be little things, but over time, they add up and can have important impact on our lives, and the lives of people around us. 

One such regular minor trade-off we all know of is trading in sleep for work or other activities. For working mothers, it is sometimes referred to as a split-shift: picking up work once the children are asleep (which is what I am doing right now, editing the podcast and writing up the interview notes!). 

Failing to exercise regularly or not getting enough good quality sleep (at least 7 hours on most nights) have major health implications in the long run. And what's worse, media and some of the most successful people celebrate all-nighters as some kind of badge of honour. Melissa Mayer is remembered for pulling all those all-nighters at Google, simply outworking her colleagues. 

The road to success

Society correlates success with trade-offs. The road to any kind of fame and fortune is supposed to be paved with sacrifices. Success is associated with hard work and pain, it means being busy all the time and having crazy schedules. These decisions and trade-offs are also gendered. Society rewards men for making sacrifices for the benefit of their work (missing Birthdays, football matches) and women are rewarded for sacrificing their careers for their families and their children. They are practically expected to in many cultures. 

But what happens when our own priorities don’t align with the expectations of society? This is where we enter into conflict with the context around us, the culture, the norms, the behaviours that are expected from us by society, by our family and perhaps by our employer. 

Some careers come with more trade-offs than others

Usually our examples of overwork-culture usually come from legal practices and law-firms, but also the big consultancy companies are known for long working hours, networking events, client events and a lot of travel outside of regular working hours. Certain trade-offs are built in these professions and one cannot just opt out. Quite often, when young professionals are choosing their careers they may not take this into account, trade-offs that are going to be needed to advance and develop. 

Life in the 21st century

I suggest to Patty, that perhaps we just need to develop our skills and adopt some life-hacks to be able to cope with the overload of work and increasing demands on our private and family lives in the 21st century. There are new trends popping up to help us cope, like Mindfullness, the art of being truly present in whatever we have chosen to do, like watching kids play sports with the smartphone OFF, or sitting on the airplane and not feeling guilty about the all that time we will miss out on something else. Another such skill that I recently discovered is the number of health coaches offering help with food prepping (you can find many on youtube), where you spend the entire Sunday cooking nutritious meals for the whole week ahead, because who has time to do that on weekdays? 

Employers need to be aware of the kind of sacrifices and trade-offs they except of their employees. Long commutes, working in the evenings and weekends and business travel are some of the trade-offs that concern time-use, not to mention other trade-offs when we trade in some of our values and behaviour to please our employer or clients. So what can workplaces do? Support employees with true flexibility, one that is embedded in the culture, and not a policy. According to Patty, if flexible work is a policy, it means employees have to request it and this opens all sorts of doors for favouritism, stigmatisation and conflict. 

I really enjoyed the conversation, and I am sure you will too. Patty would love to hear from you via her email. You can also download the presentation she gave at the WFRN conference about trade-offs in collaboration with Dr. Yeonka Kim at the University of Wisconsin /La Crosse and Dr. Theresa Glomb at the University of Minnesota. 

Dr. Patricia Dahm is an assistant professor of management at the Orfalea College of Business. Her research interests revolve around work-life integration, social roles, and self-regulation of workplace behaviour.