Photo: Flickr/Tim Pierce
What kind of multi-tasker are you? “Bleary-eyed,” might seem like the most obvious answer, and for many who juggle multiple roles, it’s no doubt true. But a study by Tracy Hect at Montreal’s Concordia University and Julia McCarthy at the University of Toronto finds that there are actually three distinct types of multitaskers-and that some styles are definitely more healthy than others.Three ways to cope
Hect and McCarthy studied people who had three hats to wear: student, employee, and family member. How did they cope? In three ways:
Problem solvers. These folks face the problems of juggling multiple roles head-on, but, ironically, their can-do attitude can eventually get them into trouble. Problem solvers are great planners, but often fail to realise that even the best planning isn’t going to create more hours in the day. They often have trouble accepting the fact that if they keep trying to do it all, they’ll eventually burn out. The researchers say it’s better to admit at the outset that energy and time are finite, and that things are going to slip through the cracks no matter what.
Talkers. So-called talkers use venting, complaining and commiseration to help them deal with the stresses of multiple roles. As in the other two styles, this comes with both positives and negatives. On the positive side, talking to family and friends can result in new ideas about how to get things done and encourage other folks to lend a hand when possible. On the negative side, it’s very easy for commiseration to become an end in itself, reinforcing feelings of hopelessness and eating up way too much time.
Avoiders. These folks are in denial, and it’s hard to blame them. They cut back on stress by trying to avoid it, and often resort to bad habits-sleeping too much, drinking too much, using drugs-to keep them from thinking about the stress they’re under. Yet this ‘type’ has something to teach the others, too. Everyone who juggles multiple roles needs a break now and then, and healthy diversions are much-needed.
How to Cope
Writing about this study in the Vancouver Sun, Dr. Jennifer Newman gives some advice for multitaskers:
- Find areas where you can do double duty. Is there are work-related project that could also earn you class credit? If you’re looking after an elderly relative, bring your own kids along and ask them to cook dinner.
- Talk to your employer about flexible work arrangements, even if they’re only temporary.
- Give yourself a break. Dodge the stress, at least for a time, with a small indulgence-even if it’s only watching a favourite tv show.
- Let things slide. The house is going to get dirty. There’s no use fighting it.
A 2008 study cited by Dr. Heather McLean, former vice president of research at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, showed that women who juggled lots of different roles actually had better mental health than those who “only” juggled two or three. That study defined roles such as partner, student, worker, caregiver, parent and volunteer.
McLean suggests that the roles actually buffer each other a bit, so that if things are rocky at home a professional woman might find some relief by temporarily throwing herself into her work. A stay-at-home mum, on the other hand, might have a harder time escaping, even temporarily.
That study also found that the more money a woman has, the more she tends to thrive in multiple roles. That’s simple enough-more money may equal less stress, and the ability to pay for help when needed.
McLean’s advice is almost the opposite of Dr. Newman’s. She suggests that women can best juggle multiple roles by compartmentalising, rather than by trying to find synergies.
What do you think is the best way to deal with the conflicting, constant, and overlapping demands of being a spouse, parent, student, employee, and caregiver … maybe all at once?
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