Issue Date: March 28, 2016
Balancing the work-life equation
As a working chemist, a part-time graduate student in chemical engineering, and a mother of a three-year-old, Lisiane Zeni has a busy life. “It’s overwhelming,” she says of balancing her work in the formulations development group at Amvac Chemical, where she develops controlled-release technology to make pesticides safer for handlers, with the rest of her life. “The key is to take it one day at a time and prioritize what’s important today.”
But a lot of pressure is relieved, Zeni says, by the adaptable culture at her workplace. For example, at the Amvac office in greater Los Angeles where she works, many employees are granted flexible scheduling and telecommuting options to help them manage the city’s notorious traffic and long commutes. And when Zeni, who has a master’s in analytical chemistry, realized that more training in engineering would help her better contribute to several projects in her department, Amvac offered to pay her full tuition. She is now in the master’s program in chemical engineering at the University of Southern California.
Most important to Zeni in achieving a sense of balance is “the flexibility to do what I enjoy most—like picking up my daughter from school and spending the rest of the afternoon at the park. I can reconnect to my work after I put her to bed at night.”
Flexible scheduling is a key element in maintaining work-life balance for many chemists and chemical engineers, according to the results of a questionnaire C&EN recently sent out via e-mail and social media. Nearly 200 respondents working in chemistry-related jobs rated the quality of work-life balance at their workplace on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest, and provided examples of how their workplace fosters this balance.
Many respondents who rated their workplaces highly mentioned the benefit of flexible or alternative scheduling, including chemists at large firms such as BP, Dow Chemical, Ford, PPG Industries, and Procter & Gamble and those at midsized and small companies including Albemarle, Johnson Matthey, Lubrizol, Microtrace, Nalco Champion Energy Services, and TetraLogic Pharmaceuticals. Flexible hours were also cited by government employees at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Naval Research Laboratory, and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.
Amy McKenna, a research faculty member at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, has three young children who are in schools with different start and end times. She says the national lab recognizes her dilemma as a divorced parent and offers flexible scheduling so she can maximize her parenting time. She’ll occasionally respond to work e-mails while at a school event, and it’s understood that she can be working even if she’s not on-site.
Many respondents in academia highlighted the flexibility that comes with working at a college or university, including the ability to set one’s own teaching or lab schedule. “Being a teaching professor is a great job for a parent raising a family,” says Regan Silvestri, a chemistry professor at Lorain County Community College. But others noted that the sense of liberty in academic institutions can also be a trap that leads to overworking and burnout. “You have to be self-disciplined,” says Charles Cannon, a chemistry professor at Columbia College Chicago. “I’ve learned that you have to have balance in order to do your best job.”
Perhaps because of these challenges, some workplaces have instead instituted strict divisions between work and home life, an approach to achieving balance that some survey respondents praised. Leah Block, a product manager at Showa Denko America, says the company has strict nine-to-five hours and a mandatory lunch break and does not allow her to take work home. “With those specific rules that are enforced, having a full life is more than obtainable,” she says. Roselin Rosario-Meléndez, a senior chemist at L’Oréal USA, echoes this, noting that employees at certain levels of her company do not have access to the work network from home to help ensure the sanctity of their off-hours.
“Bayer goes out of its way to push an efficient work environment” by stressing an eight-hour workday and working “smarter not longer,” says Frederick Jaeger, a scientist at Bayer CropScience. When Jaeger recently experienced a death in the family, his manager and the department director gave him time off to grieve and handle the estate. “It was nice to see a company actually do what they say they will do and not just give lip service to the idea of family first.”
In fact, many respondents stressed the importance of having parental and family leave policies. According to Zeni, employees at Amvac have received up to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave; six weeks of paid family leave is required by California state law, and employees are encouraged to take it, Zeni says. Other firms noted by respondents for offering generous family leave include Albemarle, L’Oréal USA, and SC Johnson, which also has a business-run child care center.
Kayla Green, a chemistry professor at Texas Christian University, says that her school administration has policies to support maternity and family leave, and faculty and staff receive reasonable rates at several local child care centers. “I had a pregnancy with severe complications that lasted months, and everyone was more than supportive during the pregnancy and after, when we lost our baby,” she says. “They encouraged time for healing and recovery.”
As far as vacations and leave policies go, several workplaces earned high marks, including AstraZeneca, Dow, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oregon Health & Science University, and John Wiley & Sons. Illumina offers a paid week off at the end of June or in early July each year, and Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research grants mini-sabbaticals, according to respondents at these firms. Additionally, several companies provide fitness benefits or other efforts to help people recharge while at work: At Albemarle, an initiative called PeopleFuel encourages employees to take short breaks for naps or walks during the day.
Balance is hard enough to strike when your boss encourages it, but it’s even more difficult when you feel your workplace doesn’t support this goal. A field service engineer at a biotechnology firm who responded to the questionnaire is currently seeking another job because of work-life balance alone. “My partner and I have figured that if we are ever going to be able to have a family, I’m going to need to find another job first,” he says, asking to remain anonymous because of his job search.
And even being your own boss doesn’t always help. Philip Swain, a patent and trademark agent and the owner of IPSIS Inc., says, “As an entrepreneur and business owner there is little work-life balance. I foster work-life integration.”
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