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Articles - Stress in the Family Business

Balancing act during holidays can take its toll

Thursday, December 05, 2002




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

"SHOWER - COFFEE - GO!" That's how one young husband and owner of a successful family firm starts his day. His wife of five years, however, has a much more complex morning routine.

After making her husband's coffee, she feeds the baby his bottle until he falls asleep again. Then she wakes the toddler, dresses him and gets his breakfast. After brushing the toddler's teeth, he goes off to play leaving Mom to shower and dress for work. Before the wife leaves the house she confers with the nanny about any last minute needs of the baby. Then she gathers up the toddler and leaves for work. After dropping the toddler off at day-care, she arrives at work by 9:00 am. Did she get breakfast?

By this time the factory is humming. The husband is deep into his work behind closed doors. The young wife takes the next hour to "check in" with the supervisors and foremen. She chats with the employees as she walks through the hall to her office. Once behind her desk, she works non-stop, as does her husband for the remainder of the day, which often lasts well into the evening. They rarely see each other throughout the workday except for a cursory "check-in" regarding mutual decisions. Lunch is an apple or a cup of yogurt at their desks.

The daily routine of this couple is typical of entrepreneurial couples. Not all entrepreneurial couples have young children, nor do they work in the same building. Some ride to work together. Some work out of their homes. But regardless of the physical differences the one thing these couples have in common is the hard work of balancing the two worlds of marital relationship and business partnership --- or LOVE AND WORK.

This balancing act can take its toll on a couple, the family and the business, especially at during the holiday season, with the added stress of preparing for the holiday. There are vacations to plan for, employee bonuses and Christmas parties, out of town guests, last minute "rush" orders to fill, school and community functions to attend, and so on. The research shows that generally the stress is felt most strongly by the wife, who must manage the additional holiday responsibilities along with the routine family responsibilities and her work responsibilities.

While the husband feels the pressure too, he can compensate by working longer hours at the business. Herein, lies the problems for many entrepreneurial couples. Although it is tiring to work longer hours, it is actually more tiring to have to juggle two jobs (home and work), two schedules and two different kinds of responsibilities, as any entrepreneurial wife is aware. Anyone who has worked rotating shifts knows what a toll it takes on one's health and social life.

The two worlds of Love and Work are very different really. Trying to bring them together in a family-owned business creates constant friction. The reason for this constant friction is that the purpose or the drive behind the business is competition and growth. Whereas, the purpose or drive behind a family organization is nurturing and protection of family members. The interaction of these two systems (family and business) necessitates accommodations to each system.

Add to this difficult balancing act the stresses of the holiday season and the likelihood of an "explosion" during the holidays is dramatically increased. Actually the explosion is just as likely to happen after Christmas with the post-holiday depression. Not only is business slower than before Christmas, but all of the illusions we harbor about warm family togetherness at the holidays may not have been fulfilled.

There are several things you can do to prevent the worst possible case scenario and to have a much more meaningful Family/Business holiday season. First, assess the division of responsibilities between husband and wife. Is it really necessary that the majority of the burden be carried by the wife to maintain the family? Perhaps she is better suited to the task, especially when there are young children, but it certainly takes its toll on the marriage to have the worlds of love and work so rigidly defined. With baby changing tables now being installed in the Men's room, it's not so hard for dads to assume more of these responsibilities.

Secondly, assess your expectations of the holiday season. Remember now that you both work. The typical entrepreneurial husband works 60 hours a week in the business. The typical entrepreneurial wife works 49 hours a week in the business; then she goes home and puts in another 49! Don't expect that you can attend every function or have a perfectly decorated home. Some people even eat Christmas dinner at a restaurant. In other words, look at your work and home responsibilities and decide what you can and can't reasonably be expected to accomplish.

Thirdly, along the lines of expectations, dig down deep and look at your feelings about the holidays. Many people don't have extended kin to visit at Christmas. Many people even have unpleasant memories about previous holidays.

Many people are experiencing current problems in their lives that won't go away with Christmas or New Years. Don't stick your head in the sand and pretend that wishing will make this holiday a warm, wonderful Norman Rockwell affair. Notice your feelings --- sadness, anger, grief --- and if they are intense talk to a psychologist. Dealing with your feelings now will enable you to ease through the season and prevent the explosions that come from built up stress due to unrealized expectations.

Finally use those entrepreneurial traits that set you apart from other people, such as individualism, creativity, determination, willingness to work hard. With your spouse negotiate the kind of unique relationship that works best for you. Don't rely on stereotypes to define your roles at work and home. You can set up anything you want; you're the boss.

Also Norman Rockwell Christmases are not the only kind to have. Start some new traditions that fit your lifestyle. For example, spend a quiet Christmas Eve at home. Or if you have no extended kin to visit, invite friends over. Instead of a garish display of presents under the tree for the children, take gifts to the local children's hospital. Cater dinner. Have pizza. Someday your grandchildren will think that Christmas has always been a pizza party followed by a trip to the children's hospital to sing carols.