Sensemaking in a High-Risk Lifestyle: The Relationship Between Work and Family for Public Safety Families
Past research concerning work and family has largely been from traditional, white-collar settings and has only taken into consideration the perceptions of the employees' experiences with regard to the relationship between work and family. However, there is no doubt that employees' in non-traditional settings, particularly those employed in public safety professions (i.e. police and fire) experience the relationship between work and family differently than those in white-collar settings, especially since they put their lives on the line daily for the protection and betterment of the community, society and even the world. In addition, the experiences and perceptions of work and family will undoubtedly be different for the family members (i.e. children and spouses) of those employed in such "life-threatening" professions. This study sought to understand how public safety employees, as well as their families, make sense out of the relationship between work and family by first examining what metaphors they employ to articulate the relationship between work and family. In addition, this study sought to examine if male versus female public safety employees experience the relationship between work and family in similar or different ways, as well as if police officers and fire fighters experience the relationship similarly or differently. Using qualitative methods, the findings indicate that public safety employees and their families articulate and make sense of the relationship between work and family in both similar and different ways. Contrary to previous work-family research, dominant metaphors and constructs such as balance, conflict, segmentation, etc. did not appear at all within this study. Instead, participants likened the relationship between work and family to competition, nature, organism, change, integration, opposition, ambiguity, and destruction. Public safety employees and their families also experienced and made sense of the relationship between work and family through humor, emotion management, fear and risk assessment. Findings also indicate that both male and female public safety employees internalize risk in much the same way, as well as agree that parenthood in general, is devalued in the public safety profession. With regard to differences, findings indicate that females have a harder time negotiating a healthy relationship between work and family, have their competency levels always questioned by family or co-workers, and use different language and rhetoric from males when talking about work and family. Finally, results show that police officers and fire fighters make sense of work and family in much the same way with regard to "dirty work" and communication rules but differ in terms of coping mechanisms and job satisfaction. This study suggests a number of implications for both theory and practice. The findings also point to many necessary areas of future research which could further our understanding of the relationship between work and family, not only in professions characterized by high-risk, non-standard hours and stress, but also in standard white-collar professions as well.