Fall 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA5

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Between the Worlds of Work and Home


Joan S. Thomson
Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology/
Coordinator for Staff Development
Cooperative Extension Service
The Pennsylvania State University-University Park

Nancy-Ellen Kiernan
Instructor of Rural Sociology/Program Evaluation Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
The Pennsylvania State University-University Park

Tena L. St. Pierre
Assistant Professor of Sociology
The Pennsylvania State University-University Park

Robert B. Lewis
Professor of Extension/4-H Youth Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
The Pennsylvania State University-University Park

County Extension work...

...demands too much time.

...offers a flexible work schedule.

...requires too many night meetings.

...makes families proud of agents' work.

...requires a high level of involvement and energy.

...offers satisfaction through working with and helping people.

If you agree with these statements, your perception of county Extension work parallels that of participants in a recent Extension Work/Family Life project conducted in Pennsylvania.1 This study explored the relationship between county Extension agents' work and their family lives. Staff believed their work responsibilities affected their personal and family lives more negatively than positively.

Based on these findings, Pennsylvania Extension sought to maximize the positive aspects of work, minimize the negative, and make improvements whenever possible. One of its first responses was a conference for Extension staff addressing the interdependence between home and the workplace.

Conference Theme

Charged with developing the conference around the theme "Extension in the Future," the planning committee began with the premise that staff are Extension's most important future asset. One day of the conference was devoted to staff and their needs as identified through the Extension Work/Family Life project, the results of which had already been presented to several groups of Extension personnel.

The main objectives for the conference were to:

  • Communicate that staff are Extension's most important resource.
  • Create an awareness of the interdependence between the worlds of work and family life.
  • Provide information and strategies to help staff better manage their professional and personal/family life.
  • Propose future directions.

Effectively addressing work/family issues in Extension required an organizational climate supportive of a balanced work and family life. The project developers viewed this conference as essential in the continuing development of such a climate. Subsequent, more targeted actions by Extension would then be viewed as credible and appropriate initiatives.


To assess the extent to which conference goals were met, all participants were encouraged to complete the evaluation they received at registration and return it at the end of the conference. This assessed the staff's immediate response to the conference, as well as their interest in future activities. Among the 378 staff who registered for one of the workshops on professional and family/personal life, 71% were field-based; the balance were state staff and faculty. In all, 157 (42%) returned the evaluation questionnaire. Of these, 81% were field-based.

Keynote Address

High-level administrative support is essential to sustain an organizational initiative on work and family life. The dean of the college provided this support in his keynote address, stating his commitment to balanced professional and personal lives and expressing his support for an environment in which such issues could be addressed. He also affirmed the college's support for the effort.

In his remarks, the dean reaffirmed flexible schedules, saying professional staff are responsible for their own work schedules as an operating procedure. Furthermore, he invited each of Extension's professional associations2 to appoint representatives to plan and carry out another initiative to address work/family issues among Extension personnel - an employee/spouse educational workshop.3


Following the dean's remarks, staff members could participate in two educational workshops that provided them with strategies for dealing with the effects of work on their personal/family lives (Table 1). The Conference Planning Committee expected that 75% of those participating in each workshop would acquire knowledge or learn strategies that would help them manage their work and personal/family lives more effectively.

The workshop "Managing Our Personal and Professional Lives" was presented to all of the staff. Role-playing was used to illustrate Extension professional or personal/family situations, for example, peer pressure among agents. Following each vignette, a facilitator led audience discussion. The intent was to help Extension staff gain some understanding of themselves and their situations.

Ninety-three percent of the staff who evaluated this workshop reported better understanding themselves or their situation. Well over two-thirds said the session also helped them find new ways to deal with work or personal problems. Of these, more than 80% named at least one strategy (for example, it's all right to take responsibility for your own time, or saying "no" to some demands without feeling guilty). Many participants mentioned they developed more sensitivity to the pressures of co-workers and their personal lives, and to the importance of getting a problem out in the open and talking about it with co-workers or family members.

In addition to the session on "Managing Our Personal and Professional Lives," each staff member could attend one of the other four workshops (Table 1). In three of the four workshops, the resource persons offered strategies by which staff could manage their work and personal/family lives more effectively. The fourth workshop, "Working It Out," was a discussion of issues related to the topic.4

Two of the four workshops were selected by over two-thirds of the registrants. These workshops were "Up-Tight Ain't Right," on stress and time management5 and "Becoming a Self-Managed Professional."6

Among those responding to the evaluation for "Up-Tight Ain't Right," 83% indicated acquiring at least one technique to reduce pressure in their lives (Table 2). Ninety- three percent of these individuals named a specific strategy, with "knowing the difference between a problem and a predicament" the most frequently named. (A predicament was defined as something an individual has no control over and one should stop worrying about.) Other stress management strategies included stretching, relaxation, and breathing exercises.

Similar results were obtained for the third workshop, "Lifestyle Behaviors." Following the workshop, participants listed strategies such as taking time for self twice a day, the value of exercise for good health and stress reduction, and specific exercise and relaxation techniques.

The remaining workshops weren't well-received. In responses to open-ended questions on the "Self-Managed Professional" workshop, comments suggested that participants had a better understanding of the issues involved than the instructor anticipated; therefore, little time was spent on strategies. In "Working It Out," participants wanted to gain techniques by which to manage their work and personal lives, even though the workshop was intended only to provide a forum to discuss the issues.

Future Directions

Throughout the work/family life conference, staff also had the opportunity to identify educational programs they wanted in the future. Each of the 12 topics listed in the evaluation was selected by at least half of the respondents as a subject on which they'd like more in-depth educational programming. Topics selected by more than 60% included:

  • Reducing work stress through prioritizing and developing a realistic management plan.
  • Effectively managing Extension work schedule.
  • Developing teamwork in the office.
  • Resolving work-related conflicts.
  • Easing pressure through stress and time management.
  • Avoiding job burnout.

These topics became the focus of sessions at a subsequent staff conference and other in-service programs. Each is work-related; four address time-management issues. Staff reported the amount of time required in the Extension job as the most negative effect on their family lives.7 The multiple-and often conflicting - demands of work and family cause stress and frustration because there's not enough time to do everything.

If we can assume that those who didn't respond would have similar concerns, it's clear that Extension staff are seeking help in establishing priorities for activities within their work and family lives as well as in activities between their work and family lives. Setting priorities would help staff develop a realistic management plan that should reduce the stress associated with overload and work/family conflict.

Table 1. Extension staff conference workshops.

All staff
* Managing Our Personal and Professional Lives
Select one
* Up-Tight Ain't Right: Easing Pressure Through Stress and Time Management
* Becoming a Self-Managed Professional: Strategies for Enhancing Your Work Productivity and Performance
* Lifestyle Behaviors and Their Impact on Health: Strategies for Healthier Living-Techniques and Practices
* Working It Out: Issues People Face in Balancing Work and Family Across the Life Cycle

Table 2. Percentage of Responents who learned and named strategies by workshop.

Workshop by objective Percentage of respondents
N Learned
Managing Personal/Professional Lives 137 72% 81%
Uptight Ain't Right 53 83% 93%
Self-Managed Professional 54 52% 79%
Lifestyle Behaviors 25 80% 85%
Working It Out 39 64% 76%


The staff conference described in this article focused on Extension's own personnel and vigorously supported an organizational climate committed to a balanced work and family life. The conference also provided the groundwork for other, more specific organizational efforts. This approach is consistent with Kanter's assertion that it's the world of work that should make changes to improve the lives of its employees.8

Based on responses to the first employee/spouse workshop held following this staff conference, a second is being planned. Programs on personal/professional development topics were offered at orientation and management workshops, and at subsequent staff conferences. The initial conference, by acknowledging that work affects family life and that Extension, as an organization, can directly influence the work environment, lent credibility to work practices supporting flexible scheduling.

Factors that cause satisfaction or frustration for staff on and off the job aren't unique to Extension.9 In any organization, work affects family life.

Pennsylvania Extension believes that attending to the human needs of its personnel increases effectiveness among staff as they carry out their responsibilities. Maintaining organizational support and staff participation in programming to improve the balance between work and family life are crucial in creating an organizational norm supportive of balancing personal/professional lives.


1. T. L. St. Pierre, The Relationship Between Work and Family Life of County Extension Agents in Pennsylvania (Ph.D. Dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, 1984a).

2. Pennsylvania Association of County Agricultural Agents (PACAA), Pennsylvania Association of Extension Home Economists (PAEHE), Pennsylvania Association of Extension 4-H Agents (PAE4-HA), Extension Professors Association (EPA).

3. This workshop, "Balancing Work and Personal Life as an Extension Professional," was to be a weekend retreat for more than 50 people, including spouses of married staff participating. The planning committee for this workshop later became the Extension Work/Personal Life Advisory Committee to the associate director.

4. Patricia Voydanoff, ed., Work and Family: Changing Roles of Men and Women (Palo Alto, California: Mayfield, 1984).

5. Robert J. Fetsch, Robert Flashman, and David Jeffers, "Up-Tight Ain't Right: Easing the Pressure on County Agents," Journal of Extension, XXII (May/June 1984), 23-28.

6. Interview with Henry P. Sims, Jr., "How to Get What You Want from Your Job," XCI, U.S. News & World Report, (August 31, 1981), 66-67 and Charles C. Manz, "Improving Performance Through Self-Leadership," National Productivity Review, II (Summer 1983), 288-97.

7. T. L. St. Pierre, "Addressing Work and Family Issues Among Extension Personnel," Journal of Home Economics, LXXVI (Winter 1984b), 42-47. 8. R. M. Kanter, Work and Family in the United States: A Critical Review and Agenda for Research and Policy (New York, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1977).

9. Leo F. Hawkins, "The Delicate Balance: Work and Family," Journal of Extension, XX (September/October 1982), 38-42.