2 boards showing Work and Family

The Leader’s Family: How Do We Manage Work-Family Tension?

“You can’t regain your children’s childhood; no amount of professional success can compensate for the loss of that family time. At the end of the day, if you aren’t a success at home as well, success at work probably won’t count for much.”

Michael Jenkins – Managing Director of Center for Creative Leadership

The family is in crisis. One of the greatest tests of character is the ability to balance work and family. Look at the statistics by Time magazine. It was reported that, since 1990 to 2004:

In Singapore, the number of divorces had gone up by one-third.

In Thailand, the number of divorces had doubled.

In China, the number had also doubled. In Taiwan, the number of divorces had tripled. In Japan, there was one marriage every 42 seconds, but another couple would divorce before two minutes were up.

In Korea, the divorce rate was 47 per cent and had exceeded the rate of many European countries.

Divorce Rate











Singapore reported a record 7,061 divorces in 2006 from 2,608 two decades ago – an increase of 170 per cent.3

From my personal experience in mediating divorcing couples, I had listened with a great tinge of sadness when a high-profile banker wife shared, “My husband is a millionaire many times over. He has always said, ‘I am building my business empire for you and the children so that you can live a more comfortable life.’ But now, he has the empire but not the family. We are leaving him.”

In a cover story in Fortune (1990), “Why Grade A Executives Get an F as Parents”, it was reported that children of successful parents were more likely to suffer a range of emotional and health problems than children of “less successful” parents.

Thirty-six per cent of children of successful chief executives underwent treatment for psychiatric issues or drug abuse compared to 15 per cent of children of non-executives.

In the same report, finding balance between family and work was cited as the number one priority rather than any other issue.

I suspect that this problem is even more acute today than ever before and this pressure arises from:

  • Executives working long hours, due to quarterly performance pressures;
  • Self-interests driven by greed;
  • Personal characteristics (perfectionism, impatience and efficiency);
  • Narrow focus in defining success as accomplishing organizational goals to the exclusion of personal objectives like emotional and family well-being; and
  • Over-achievement drive, resulting in juggling too many balls without achieving quality.

Boards showing Work and FamilyIndeed, the greatest test of our character is our ability to keep our family intact. Chief executives in our society need to put the family as the number one priority again. Without that, we may even lose the credibility to lead.

Gallup did a study on the relationship between work and family and concluded that, “Recognizing and understanding the emotional links between the two – and determining how workplace conditions can best promote harmony between them – can potentially improve employees’ lives at work and home.”

Here are 7 ways chief executives can strengthen their marriages:

Re-prioritize your values

Our society values economic and material benefits. I know that most chief executives don’t intend to fail in their marriages but the reality of the executive lifestyle does not regard marriage and family as priorities. We would rather work than go home. We measure priorities by the resources we give to them and by our behavior and lifestyle. I wonder how our lifestyle would change if we put the family first and gave priority to personal and family health.

Make time and effort for the marriage

Before marriage, couples create and make time for each other in spite of their hectic schedules. After marriage, we hear a different story. Building a marital relationship is like riding a bicycle on a slope; you either paddle forward or slide down. There is no stationary position. A do-nothing relationship will not do.

Rekindle and accentuate the good times in marriage

John Gottman, a marriage therapy expert, expounds on the 5:1 principle. A healthy marriage has five positive moments versus one negative moment. The 5 to 1 ratio is akin to the pH of the soil where a healthy balance of alkalinity and acidity is crucial to fertility. These moments include showing interest by active listening, demonstrating care, being kind, sharing humour and fun times, etc. Positive moments will overcome negative ones. In fact, he predicts that any marriage that falls below this ratio has a high probability of divorce.

Some negativity can spur a cycle of closeness; even distance apart can renew love and affection. Disagreement and anger are healthy in the long run when you have learnt to manage them effectively.

Continue to encourage work-family balance

Corporations should continue their efforts to promote family-work life balance. Incentives and recognition should be given to managers with such practices. Encourage a healthy work-family balance environment by:

  • Reducing prolonged overtime work for employees;
  • Allow time off once a month for employees to go home early for a family dinner;
  • Make marital enrichment a core competency of an employee;
  • Encourage employees to go on marriage enrichment retreats; and
  • Equip and train them with skills in conflict management.

Marital conflicts are inevitable. In fact, according to some studies, 68 per cent of conflicts are unresolvable. Couples must learn to manage conflicts and recover from conflicts effectively.

Have and encourage annual marital check-ups

A troubled marriage is like a cancer. Doctors often say there is a cure for cancer, provided it is discovered early. It is true for marriages as well. The sooner a couple recognizes the symptoms of a troubled marriage, the better. There are many marital assessment tools and marriage enrichment retreats available.

In fact, studies show that couples don’t seek help until their marriages have turned bad for six years. By then, it may be too late.

Be careful of workplace romances

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. It may be truer to say, absence makes the heart wander. Long hours at work, increase in the frequency of travel, prolonged absence from the spouse, and close proximity with associates, clients and secretaries of the opposite sex – these factors can lead to romances between involved parties. And before we know it, an extramarital affair has started.

Be bold: seek help when necessary

In Singapore, there are three most critical phases in a marriage where the divorce rate is higher: the first two years; after five years; and after 20 years and above. Seek help when necessary. Perhaps, we might want to consider promoting marital counselling and mediation as part and parcel of the work/life balance. This will help remove the stigma associated with these therapies. Primarily, the message must be conveyed to the men, especially in Asia, where they tend to be more concerned about face-saving.