Integrator or Separator – what’s your style?

work life balance
rendering of a compass with a work life balance icon

How do you prefer to manage the interface between work and other aspects of your life? Psychologists place us all on a continuum with Separation at one end – which means a preference for keeping work and non-work separate – and Integration at the other.

Separators prefer not to socialise with work colleagues in their own time. They neither discuss work matters at home nor personal issues at work. Clear physical, psychological and temporal boundaries are maintained between work and home activities. This is the traditional “male” model embedded in workplace cultures during the early part of the last century and still seen as the epitome of professional behaviour in some organisations.

The upside of being a Separator is less pressure on mental resources. When at work you’re focused on work and when at home focused on home rather than constantly switching between the two – which requires considerable mental effort. We’re increasingly recognising that multi-tasking is an ineffective approach to life!  On the downside, these people are more likely to experience conflict between their work and non-work roles – particularly if they are caring for others. For example, it can be hard to focus on work when a loved one is unwell.

Integrators on the other hand prefer to blur the boundaries between work and non-work. Many working mothers will fall into this category and it does have a big upside in that they see the two roles enriching each other. Thus we’re often reminded the same self-organisation skills developed as a parent can be useful at work; while high quality negotiation skills are almost essential for navigating toddler tantrums. On the downside Integrators incur mental costs in switching and have less of a buffer if something goes wrong in one role. They can find it harder to “switch off”.

As technology becomes increasingly more intrusive we too are increasingly expected to behave as Integrators. If that’s your natural style you’ll be fine with this. And it’s undeniable that the advent of mobile phones in particular made it much easier for many mothers to combine work and home roles in ways they could control. On the downside commentators are increasingly saying technology is getting out of control. We’re developing an “always on” culture that poses challenges to our wellbeing. I’m planning on writing more about this in a future post.

For now let me ask: Are you an Integrator or a Separator? Are you happier combining the work and non-work parts of your life? Or do you prefer to keep them separate? And how do your preferences resonate with the people around you?

Professor Ellen Ernst Kossek is a leading work life balance expert whose book ‘CEO of Me considers these preferences and their impact on wellbeing. She has identified a number of “flexstyles”; concedes that compromise is often part of the equation and concludes the important thing is to feel happy and in control rather than unhappy and out of control.

So: does your working style suit you or are you feeling you make too many compromises? If you’re looking for better flexible working strategies you’ll find lots in Ellen’s book.