February 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA2

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Balancing Work and Family in Cooperative Extension: History, Effective Programs, and Future Directions

Balancing family and work is a continuous struggle for many Cooperative Extension faculty. In 1981 ECOP formulated a position paper recommending that managers critically examine policies and practices and their effects on the family life of Extension employees. Research findings are reported on Extension Agents' stress levels and their effects on family life from six states. Program effects are reported from four different workshops in three states. Components of effective programs are described. To reduce Extension faculty's stress and strain levels, modify organizational policies and management strategies and support faculty who take proactive steps to balance their work and family.

Robert J. Fetsch
Extension Specialist, Human Development & Family Studies
Colorado State University Cooperative Extension
Fort Collins, Colorado
Internet address: fetsch@cahs.colostate.edu

Mary S. Kennington
Extension Director & Extension Agent III
Family and Consumer Sciences
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
University of Florida
Citrus County
Inverness, Florida

Balancing work and family effectively is a continuous struggle for many Cooperative Extension faculty. Extension work often demands long working hours, including nights and weekends. Extension faculty often find themselves with conflicting demands on their time and energy by clientele and administrators' expectations, family expectations, and personal priorities.

In these times of uncertain funding, Extension faculty face increased expectations to do more with less. Many Extension faculty also face the complications of governmental partnerships between county and state governments where different superiors sometimes hold incompatible expectations and personnel policies.

How Serious Is the Problem?

Various physical illnesses and psychological problems have been associated with human stress. Stress symptoms include increased use of alcohol and other drugs, insomnia, intestinal distress, decreased concentration and memory, headaches, ulcers, nervous tics, infectious diseases, suicide, and many more (Matteson & Ivancevich, 1982; Selye, 1976). Individuals may exhibit different symptoms of stress based on personal factors such as heredity, nutrition, current health, personality, attitudes, and beliefs.

Besides taking a toll on the well-being of individuals, stress is causing problems for corporations. Some experts put the overall cost to the economy as high as $150 billion a year due to absenteeism, diminished productivity, and spiraling medical costs. In addition, Americans are filing increased numbers of stress-related workers' compensation claims, citing problems ranging from surly supervisors to unsafe offices. According to recent research, 14 percent of occupational disease workers' compensation claims were related to stress and about 15 states now make disability payments in cases where anxiety, depression, and other problems have been caused by the work place or the task at hand (Kennington, 1988; Matteson & Ivancevich, 1982).

Cooperative Extension's History with Balancing Work and Family

There are two aspects to balancing work and family in Cooperative Extension. There are steps individual faculty can take and there are steps the Cooperative Extension System can take.

In 1981 an Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) task force was established to formulate a position statement on Cooperative Extension's role in strengthening American families. ECOP's resultant position paper recommended adapting Extension employee policies to address the needs of Extension faculty: "Extension organizational managers need to critically examine policies and practices in relation to their effects upon the family life of Extension employees" (ECOP Task Force, 1981, p. 3).

While a fair amount of research has been conducted on stress and burnout with many employees, research with Cooperative Extension faculty has been spotty at best. Research has been conducted with Extension agents as it relates to stress, stressors, burnout, and balancing work and family in Ohio, Minnesota, Kentucky, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.

Research was conducted on the stress levels of 241 Extension agents in Ohio during spring, 1985 by Igodan and Newcomb (1986). Burnout has been defined as "a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do 'people work' of some kind (Maslach, 1982, p. 3). Burnout has been identified as an important occupational hazard in at least 25 different people- related fields (Maslach, 1982). Burnout symptoms include: "(1) low job performance/low job satisfaction, (2) physical exhaustion/fatigue, (3) rigidity to change/loss of flexibility, (4) decreased communication/withdrawal, (5) physical symptoms, (6) apathy/loss of concern, (7) cynicism, and (8) emotional exhaustion" (Igodan & Newcomb, 1986, p. 4). Burnout, therefore, relates directly to organizational policies and to administrative styles.

At the same time it relates to individual coping behaviors. In Ohio, Igodan and Newcomb (1986) determined that: "As a group, 4-H agents experienced the most burnout, followed by young agents and single agents. Agents who were satisfied with their jobs didn't have much of a problem with burnout, but as job satisfaction decreased, burnout increased.... Typically, burned out agents are more likely to be young (between 20-30 years of age). They are more likely to be single than married, but could be male or female. They tend to be more involved in job responsibilities that relate to 4-H/youth work as opposed to agriculture or home economics, although agriculture agents and 4- H agents have a similar self-reported workload...."

Agents with 4-H responsibility employed by Minnesota Cooperative Extension also experienced higher stress levels than agents working in other program areas. A study of Minnesota Extension employees by Patterson and McCubbin (1984) reported that agents working in the areas of Home Economics-Family Living and Home Economics-4-H experienced "the heaviest and broadest set of stressors and demands." Agents working in the joint program areas of Agriculture/4-H and 4-H also experienced numerous stressors and demands.

As a group, agriculture Extension agents experienced the narrowest set of stressors and demands. Almost 56 percent of agents reported that job stress had a negative effect on their marital relationship. This was due to some spouses not understanding the nature of Extension work and agents not having enough time to spend with their spouses. Of the agents with children, over half felt that job stress had a negative effect on their parent-child relationship. As far as job stress and its impact on the agents' ability to do their job, more married than single agents reported that stressors had a negative impact on their ability to do their job (37.5 percent to 16.7 percent). (Patterson & McCubbin, 1984).

In Kentucky, a study (Fetsch, Flashman, & Jeffiers, 1984) determined that Kentucky 4-H Extension professionals had a higher mean stress level score (M = 73.058; SD = 14.232; N = 154) than the normal adult (M = 60; SD = 9). The authors concluded that Kentucky 4-H agents who experienced prolonged exposure to such high stress levels were at risk for physiological and emotional stress-related problems.

In Illinois, 54% of Extension agent respondents, and in Minnesota 56% said that Extension work created strains on their family and/or social relationships. Clark (1983) reported that unmarried Extension agents were more likely to say that Extension work strained family and/or social relationships than did their married counterparts, which is different than was found in the Minnesota study.

St. Pierre (1984) found that Pennsylvania agents perceived their jobs to affect their family life more negatively than positively. Agricultural agents and youth agents reported that their jobs affected their family life more negatively than did home economists.

In Colorado, the major differences in stress, depression, and life satisfaction levels for Extension agents were found associated not with occupation, gender, or job site, but rather with number of years of service and marital status (Fetsch & Kennington, 1988; Kennington, 1988). The shorter the number of years of employment with Cooperative Extension in Colorado, the lower the overall life satisfaction levels with personal life, relationship with spouse, relationship with children, work life, and family life (N = 120; r = .197; p = .03).

Fetsch and Kennington were not surprised to find that the relationship between number of years of service and life satisfaction levels was a statistically significant one--a finding supported by Igodan and Newcomb's findings (1986). They were surprised, however, that the relationship's practical significance was so small--only about 4 percent of the variance was explained by this relationship. Fetsch and Kennington (1988) also found that the lower the number of years of service, the higher the agents' depression levels during the past year.

Divorced (M = 4.67) and married (M = 4.92) Extension agents tended to report significantly lower personal life stress levels (p =.034) than did agents who were never married (M = 6.50), remarried (M = 6.44), and widowed (M = 6.33). Based on a Likert scale (1 = very low, 9 = very high), divorced (M = 4.17) and separated (M = 4.00) Extension agents reported significantly lower work-related stress levels (p = .050) than did Extension agents who were married (M = 5.63), never married (M = 6.50), remarried (M = 6.56), and widowed (M = 7.00).

What Works to Relieve the Problems? Effective Balancing Work & Family Programs

Research indicates that Extension agents and others can improve their lives by practicing stress and time management strategies. Programs that contain time management strategies may reduce coronary risk factors (Bhalla, 1980; Gentry, 1978; Suinn, 1978, 1980).

Two-day stress and time management workshops in Kentucky with 154 4-H agents resulted in a significant drop in stress levels (p = .001) a month following the program (Fetsch, Flashman, & Jeffiers, 1984). Tests of probability (e.g. p = .001 which is read as "one one thousandth") raise the question that if one repeated this study, what are the chances that one would find that there are no differences between pre-test and post-test group mean scores. A p = .001 suggests that if one repeated this study in the same fashion as the authors did, that only one time out of 1,000 would the significant results be due to chance.

Significant decreases in stress levels and increases in positive coping behavior levels were found in participants of full-day stress and time management workshops in Kentucky (Fetsch & Botkin, 1984). They used Time Management for Busy People (Fetsch, 1991) to teach participants to establish life goals, prioritize daily tasks, develop problem-solving skills, use time and stress management strategies, and create a personal stress management plan.

A Colorado study with 122 Cooperative Extension agents who participated in full-day Balancing Work and Family Workshops (Fetsch & Kennington, 1988; Kennington, 1988) found a number of significant increases three months following Balancing Work and Family workshop participation in personal life satisfaction levels, satisfaction levels with spouse or significant other, satisfaction levels with children, and overall life satisfaction levels.

These changes were found even though participants' stress levels increased--probably due to seasonal increases in job demands. Participants wrote measurable, realistic goals, used "To Do Lists" daily, took personal time regularly to relax, and practiced saying "no" tactfully to low-priority expectations (Fetsch, 1991).

The program impacts of full-day Balancing Work and Family workshops with 70 Florida Cooperative Extension agents were assessed via tests of significance comparing group mean pre-test and post-test (five months later) scores (Fetsch & Pergola, 1990, 1991). Burnout levels decreased (p = .00). Depression levels decreased (p = .03). Personal life satisfaction levels increased (p = .02).

All of the above educational programs were tailored to address the identified needs of the participants. The workshops included both time and stress management research findings and practical applications.

Recommendations for Future Directions

There are at least two principal ways to reduce Balancing Work and Family stress and strain: (a) modify organizational policies and practices that contribute to high stress levels (see ECOP, 1981) and (b) implement effective Balancing Work and Family programs that increase Extension faculty's coping skills and productivity. There are steps Extension systems can take and steps individuals can take.

First, without systemic changes, individual changes may be short-lived. The following recommendations are made for changes at least at the county, district, and state level, and preferably at the national level:

  1. Invest significant resources into conducting a high- quality research study to determine which Balancing Work and Family Programs work best with whom. None of the Cooperative Extension studies cited in this paper included control groups due to insufficient research funding. Fund well-designed, quasi-experimental program evaluation studies with no-treatment or wait- list control groups of Extension faculty and with measures having acceptable psychometric norms to assess changes. Disseminate the results to all Cooperative Extension faculty in the nation.

  2. Choose educational programs that are both linked to what is already known about the problems with and solutions to Balancing Work and Family issues and that have demonstrated empirical evidence of effectiveness (Fetsch, 1986, 1989).

Second, once a system has significant administrative commitment to solve Balancing Work and Family problems at upper- and middle-management levels, then the changes individuals make to reduce stress and strain levels may be more long lasting. Recommendations for individuals include:

  1. Communicate openly with supervisors about Balancing Work and Family problems and solutions. Work together to set goals and establish mutually agreeable priorities for work activities and job performance. Especially with governmental partnerships, discuss what each party can do to reduce stress levels.

  2. Incorporate time and stress management strategies into one's daily life (see Fetsch, 1986; Fetsch, Flashman & Jeffiers, 1984).


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Clark, C. D. (1983). Stress, your job, and you. (Abstract available from author, Illinois Cooperative Extension, Urbana, IL.)

ECOP Task Force. (1981). Extension's Role: Strengthening American Families. Lincoln: University of Nebraska.

Fetsch, R. J. (1986). Juggling families and careers: Stress management programs that work. In S. V. Zandt (Ed.), Family Strengths 7: Vital Connections (pp. 331-342). Lincoln: University of Nebraska.

Fetsch, R. J. (1989). Balancing work and family program impacts in Colorado: An example of family and economic well-being initiative programming. Impact 2000 Programs - 1989. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fetsch, R. J. (1991). Time management for busy people (Bulletin 549A). Fort Collins: Colorado State University Cooperative Extension.

Fetsch, R. J., & Botkin, D. (1984). [Impacts of a stress and time management workshop]. Unpublished raw data.

Fetsch, R. J., Flashman, R., & Jeffiers, D. (1984). Up tight ain't right: Easing the pressure on county agents. Journal of Extension, 22, 23-28.

Fetsch, R. J., & Kennington, M. S. (1988, October). Research update on stress, depression, and satisfaction levels of 122 Colorado Extension professionals. Paper presented at the state meeting of Home Economists, Silverthorne, CO.

Fetsch, R. J., & Pergola, J. J. (1990). Burnout levels drop significantly for balancing personal, work and family life program participants. Impact 2000 Programs-1990. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fetsch, R. J., & Pergola, J. (1991). Effective burnout prevention program. Journal of Extension, 29, 33.

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