• October 20, 2014

Not Taking Time Off

Balancing Act Illustration #2 - Careers

Brian Taylor

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close Balancing Act Illustration #2 - Careers

Brian Taylor

In May 2010, my 39-year-old spouse contracted a rare form of bacterial meningitis. After six days in an unresponsive state, 10 days in intensive care out of 19 total days in the hospital, four weeks of home care, and three months of additional physical therapy, he was able to return to work. As I look back on that ordeal, what strikes me about my own response is that I never considered taking advantage of the paid family medical leave offered by my university.

I could have called my university's human-resources office and invoked the policy, but I didn't, even though I have spent much of my career advocating for a policy of paid family medical leaves on my campus.

Instead, when my spouse needed my care, rather than take a leave I simply tried to do everything—be a full-time caregiver, college professor, and program director—while hoping for the best. During the period when Ted was unconscious, I had supportive colleagues bring me paperwork that I signed in the ICU waiting room. It didn't even occur to me that we had a paid-leave policy that would have enabled me to hand the work off to someone else.

Apparently plenty of other faculty members don't take advantages of these policies, either. A recent article in The Chronicle on a survey of faculty members suggested that issues of work-life balance hampered their productivity and encouraged them to consider leaving the profession. The report, by Horizons Workforce Consulting, argued that faculty members are a valuable resource, and that programs such as emergency child care and family medical leave are crucial for a healthy and productive campus culture. The paper does not mention that women remain the primary caregivers for both children and the elderly, and that even with family-medical-leave policies in place, many faculty members have difficulty using those benefits during times of crisis.

My husband's illness made me realize that having a good family-leave policy in place is not enough. It also has to be easily accessible.

Nowadays the Web makes it possible for all of us to work all the time. Thanks to the hospital's Internet connection, it was possible to cancel class from the emergency room at 3 a.m. and to assign online work to my students. Between medical tests, it was possible to read and comment on students' writing. During Ted's stay in the ICU, I didn't proctor my final exams or attend graduation. But on the day when Ted, newly conscious, developed a condition known as ICU psychosis and told me that religious fanatics were kidnapping patients, I talked with his nurse, left the hospital, and spent the afternoon at home reading final portfolios and calculating grades. It was the only day I left the hospital before 10 or 11 p.m.

While I was able to continue grading and writing comments on students' papers during his hospitalizations, I don't know how effective I actually was. I could get a certain amount of work done, but clearly it wasn't my best work. (However, taking family medical leave has been found to increase employee productivity over the long term. An employee who takes advantage of a leave can be more productive in the workplace after the crisis is over. In addition, reducing an employees' stress as caregivers has long-term benefits for their health and well-being.)

This is the way we live now: We can work from almost anywhere, at anytime. But that doesn't necessarily mean we should.

About 10 years ago, during discussions about the Family and Medical Leave Act on our campus, administrators implied that tenure-track faculty members, already a drain on scarce resources, were taking advantage of the institution yet again by seeking paid leaves.

Those of us on the negotiating committee viewed faculty members as a valuable and sustainable resource. Like any resource, faculty productivity can be depleted, misused, and exhausted. Or, with effective family-friendly policies, faculty energies can be sustained over a long career.

In a 2005 article in the magazine Academe, Robert Drago and his co-authors described why faculty members so rarely take family medical leaves even when they are available. Even requesting such a leave can negatively affect a career, and so the tendency, among some faculty members, is not just to refrain from using the policy, but to avoid asking about it at all.

When asking a question can be perceived as a disadvantage, many faculty members soldier on rather than risk exposure. Drago found that institutions with a variety of family-friendly benefits—paid and unpaid—had greater numbers of participants in those benefits.

He and his colleagues also found that a department chair who encourages faculty members to take advantage of their leave opportunities can make a positive difference. Certain departments, by creating a supportive atmosphere, one that acknowledges work/life issues, have a higher rate of participants in family-leave policies.

But a department chair can do only so much to create a family-friendly workplace when he or she is working against a campus culture that values "pushing through." It is also easier to access family-leave policies when the leave is not urgent but can be planned well in advance.

When medical emergencies happen during the semester, it often falls on the faculty member or the department chair to cobble together substitutes to "fill in" for a faculty member who will be out of the office for an unknown period of time.

In my own case, no one mentioned to me that I could have called the human-resources office to seek family medical leave. Ted's illness occurred near the end of a semester, but my administrative work continued throughout the summer, and I returned for the fall semester already drained from managing his months of physical and occupational therapy and specialist appointments.

Would I have accepted a leave if it had been suggested? I don't know, but I hope so, and I would have considered it if someone had explained to me how it could happen and encouraged me to think about it.

But I was so distracted. In addition to reading my students' portfolios, I was preoccupied doing things like Googling "ICU psychosis" and calling a lawyer friend to see what power of attorney meant if Ted continued to be delusional (the condition is temporary).

Earlier that week, I had spoken with doctors about when, and how, an unconscious person gets a feeding tube. I had consulted with a neurosurgeon about what was visible on Ted's contrast MRI. After he woke up, I spoke with a long-term-rehab facility about the kind of care it could provide if Ted needed to learn to walk and talk again.

During those conversations, I was attentive and focused, but for any conversation that did not directly involve Ted's care, I was mostly incoherent. The idea of explaining what I needed to someone in HR at that time was more daunting to me than talking with Ted's doctors about the blood clot he developed from his catheter.

I may have been doing well as a care manager for Ted, but I had no energy left to navigate another bureaucracy for myself. We have paid family medical leave to help in these sorts of situations, but the policy works only if, in times of crisis, we know what options are available, and someone can make it easy for us to choose them.

Ann E. Green is a professor of English at Saint Joseph's University, in Philadelphia, and chair of the American Association of University Professors' Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession.

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