August 20, 2013

Self-Efficacy: The Foundation for Work-Life Balance

Self-Efficacy: The Foundation for Work-Life Balance
Andrew J. Smith, MA & Claire Blevins, BA
Doctoral Students in Clinical Psychology, Psychology Department, Virginia Tech

Originally published in the SSCP Newsletter (Clinical Science Vol. 15 (3): Fall, 2012 12)

Self-Efficacy Enables Resource Conservation

Life for graduate students is accompanied by an endless string of stress-inducing obstacles—when we finish overcoming one (Master’s thesis), another appears in its place (comprehensive examinations, dissertation, internship, post-doc, finding a job, etc.). With each completed step, expectations, complexity, and stress levels increase, all the while we must balance our own expectations with the expectations of others (e.g., significant others, advisors, the scientific community, family members, our dogs) with sobering implications for our future happiness.

Managing each stressor as it comes along is a difficult process. In stress and coping contexts, epidemiological and within-subjects variability research alike identifies faulty self-regulation as a profound predictor of outcomes and wellbeing (Bandura, 2005; Bandura, Caprara, Barbaranelli, Gerbino, & Pastorelli, 2003; Baumeister, Schmeichel, & Vohs, 2007; Strauman, 2002; Strauman, McCrudden, & Jones, 2010). It seems that building up one’s self-regulatory capacity may serve as a foundation for individuals to manage personal functioning in a way that provides both successful outcomes and life balance.

Self-Efficacy as a Gauge for Self-Regulation

Social cognitive theory (SCT; Bandura, 1997) provides a common foundation that can help us to understand how we as graduate students might learn to not only get by, but to self-regulate effectively, to thrive, and to achieve work-life balance in each of our unique environments. Human agency, the central tenet of SCT, suggests that we are not simply subject to the whim of uncontrollable forces (e.g., one’s clinical advisor, research advisor, and teacher simultaneously demanding all of our effort and talents). Rather, we each have the ability to personally influence our environment (Bandura, 1997). Primary to being a human agent, self-efficacy (belief in the ability to enact behaviors directed towards achieving goals) is posed as a gauge for self-regulatory capacity (Bandura, 1997). Self-efficacy appraisals influence motivational, emotional, and cognitive processes: by increasing confidence in the ability to accomplish a goal, increased effort may be placed into behaviors intended to achieve that goal, thus improving the likelihood of successful achievement.

Consider the following enabling cascade proposed by Benight and Bandura (2004) for application in stressful contexts: when one has high self-efficacy, he or she (a) appraises environmental stimuli (e.g., a research paper that is due in two weeks) as less threatening, (b) has lower physiological responsiveness based on the stimuli being benign, and (c) less cognitive and emotional preoccupation with physiological arousal. This leaves the individual with more cognitive and emotional resources to actually direct efforts towards efficiently completing a more quality research paper.

Self-Efficacy as Situational, but not Independent

Bandura (1997) refers to self-efficacy as being a situational or contextual construct. One may have high self-efficacy for one situation (e.g., finishing a homework assignment on time) while simultaneously having low self-efficacy for another (e.g., completing a preliminary exam in the allotted time or dealing with a difficult family situation). However, this is not to say that self-efficacy ratings in one domain cannot help to increase another.

We often view our graduate work dichotomously, that is, as separate from our lives, or as if graduate work is our entire life. However, our successes in each domain are interdependent: each one is equally as important to happiness and success. When something “has to give,” it is usually our social relationships and personal care, rather than research or clinical work. However, considering the suggested interdependence of our various efficacy domains, it seems that focus on self-care and balance may improve rather than detract from our professional duties.

Self-Efficacy is a Muscle that We Can Build

Merging with another area of literature, ego-depletion theory and research provides evidence that self-regulatory capacity is a finite resource that can be built or depleted, a process that unfolds through reciprocal interactions among cognitive, emotional, physiological, and environmental factors (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998; see review by Hagger, Wood, Stiff, & Chatzisarantis, 2010). These findings provide converging evidence for the explanation of self-efficacy as a state-dependent entity. Altogether, this research substantiates the potentially anxiety promoting notion that self-efficacy beliefs are deplete-able and damageable (Benight & Bandura, 2004). However, implicit within the idea that efficacy beliefs are deplete-able, we can approach overcoming obstacles as a building up of our self-efficacy beliefs perhaps in the same way that we build a muscle.

How Self-Efficacy Appraisals are Influenced

Self-efficacy appraisals are altered through four sources of information: enactive mastery experiences, vicarious modeling, verbal encouragement, and physiological/ affective states. King among them all, mastery experiences are posed as the primary means through which one can improve efficacy beliefs (Bandura, 1997). Thus, despite the increasing expectations and complexities that accompany each successful achievement in graduate school, having successfully completed each obstacle in turn provides feedback that one can achieve future tasks. In line with this logic, it is not only the knowledge accrued through preparation leading to defending a thesis, comprehensive examination, or dissertation—it is primarily the experience of having succeeded that builds upon itself in order to improve our belief in overcoming the next big hurdle.

Other sources that interact to mold self-efficacy include vicarious modeling, verbal encouragement, and appraisals of physiological/ affective states (Bandura, 1997). Watching friends succeed can help us to believe that we can make it through a tough week. Receiving a compliment from a colleague can be just the boost that we need. Finally, if we are (relatively) well-rested, we can better control our emotional states, which may provide yet more feedback to bolster our self-efficacy appraisals.

How Does this Relate to Work-Life Balance?

So, how does this help us to achieve work-life balance? For many, the first year of graduate school can be a nightmarish struggle to learn a new culture, learn how to receive critical feedback, and attempt to answer questions akin to the very natural imposter syndrome (e.g., “Do I belong here? Can I hang with these smart kids?”). There is little we can do about this except to survive! However, as we move through graduate school and our careers, we should allow our successes (i.e., mastery experiences) to inform the next project/paper/client/interpersonal interaction, etc. For those of us who practice clinical work, it is high time that we start taking the advice that we give our therapy clients: to store the compliments from our committees, colleagues, and advisors in our minds (or laptops); to push aside the competitive nature of graduate school and positively attend to peer accomplishments; to purposefully think about the last time that we overcame a big obstacle and succeeded with flying colors. The reciprocal feedback that we get through intentional thought and attention paid to others’ successes may reduce the negative valence associated with whatever obstacle we face at hand, which will in turn lower our physiological response and cognitive preoccupation with that response. Together, this process may conserve more resources that can be directed towards actually writing a much less dreaded paper (lecture, assessment report, progress note, manuscript, personal statement, etc.).

In turn, time spent efficiently at work may translate into more time that can be utilized for other activities that make our lives personally worthwhile beyond our professional passions. If we can remember that having down-time may increase our productivity later, then perhaps the guilt that follows a night off can be alleviated. Additionally, we can openly seek support from others (e.g., verbal encouragement) who are important to us and, ideally, who know what we are going through (e.g., fellow grad students, a significant other, an old mentor, a current mentor). We can discuss our past effort-contingent successes and fear associated with upcoming obstacles, all the while actually allowing ourselves to be verbally encouraged. This “kills” several birds with one stone: a) we can build domain-specific self-efficacy for whatever obstacle is being faced, b) by improving self-efficacy, we may improve our efficiency and quality of work through increased cognitive resource availability, and c) through seeking social support, we are actually addressing an important aspect of work-life balance concerns, that is, improving meaningful social relationships that are a key ingredient to a balanced and fulfilling life.

Whereas we have not covered nearly every contingency that may influence efficacy appraisals and thus, work-life balance (e.g., exercise to improve modification/ appraisals of physiological states), mastery experiences and seeking social influence are a good starting point for us all! The bottom line is that no one (especially not these authors!) is qualified to define your ideal work-life balance: your qualifications for work-life balance are unquestionably different from each other person in your environment. We definitely do not have this delicate balance figured out, but we are further along now than we were last semester or last year. Of course we have a hard time taking our own advice, and never come close to perfecting these techniques. Like good graduate students, we can only rely on empirical evidence, make our hypotheses, and test our model. Good luck with yours!

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Bandura, A., Caprara, G., Barbaranelli, C., Gerbino, M., & Pastorelli, C. (2003). Role of affective self- regulatory efficacy in diverse spheres of psychosocial functioning. Child Development, 74, 769–782. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.00567
Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active
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Strauman, T., McCrudden, M., & Jones, N. (2002). Self-regulation and psychopathology: Toward an integrative perspective. In J. Maddux & J. Tangney (Eds.), Social psychological foundations in clinical psychology (pp. 84–113). New York, NY: Guilford Press

1 comment:

  1. Work-life management tends to be a day-to-day focus, “how can I manage my work schedule and my life at home today”? This may be the wrong question to ask. Work-life management isn’t a day-to-day challenge to be conquered. You don’t “win” the work-life balance game if you manage to perfectly balance the demands of your professional, home, relational, and leisure demands yesterday. A person’s life is more than just today, more than just this week, and more than just this job position. Work-life management, or balance, should be a life-long pursuit, full of life seasons that go through various pendulum swings. It is important for organizations to recognize Source, and consider work-life management approaches that extend past the day-to-day grind and look to impact an employee’s life journey.