Steve Morrison was posted in Paris a few years ago, trying to get 30 countries to accept anti-counterfeiting measures designed to protect highly creative American products, such as films and music.
Morrison, a Commerce Department foreign commercial officer, was the point man on the project, which resulted in a victory for U.S. diplomacy.
But while he was dealing with heavy issues of international trade, he also had heavy issues at home: His son, now 15, needed help.
“The problems with my boy came down at exactly the same time,” Morrison said.
The son, whom Morrison did not name for privacy reasons, is both gifted and learning disabled. With his complicated diagnosis, he needs services that are not always readily available, particularly in English, in other countries, even rich ones such as France.
Through a Foreign Service program that provides a special needs allowance to federal employees serving overseas, Morrison’s son was able to get counseling by telephone from experts in the United States while he was in France.
It was “costly but critical,” said Morrison, who now works in Baltimore. “That kind of educational expertise . . . just was not obtainable at post.”
Morrison’s is a success story. His son is doing well.
He’ll tell that story at a program about work-life balance, which the American Foreign Service Association will sponsor at its headquarters Thursday afternoon. But all of the stories Foreign Service officers can tell about that balance don’t necessarily have happy endings.
Yet the degree of grousing among people who have been posted abroad is surprisingly low. And whatever complaints they have are often countered by a telling of the many benefits Foreign Service officers and their families receive.
The demands of serving Uncle Sam in distant lands can be tough to balance. In addition to Foreign Service officers’ jammed workdays, nights can be filled with receptions and dinners for visiting dignitaries, and emergencies and diplomatic crises.
This all occurs in a place with a different language, different laws, and different customs and traditions. It can be difficult to maintain a family under those pressures. The May issue of AFSA’s magazine, the Foreign Service Journal, reported that 64 percent of survey respondents said family concerns could cause them to leave the Foreign Service. The lack of spousal employment was, by far, the problem that caused Foreign Service officers the most stress, according to the survey.
AFSA President Susan Johnson said the examination of work-life balance was organized because of a concern that “the quality of family life has deteriorated” for Foreign Service officers over the years. Greater security concerns and the need for two incomes are among the items that cause problems, she said.
“All of those things add stress,” she said, “but the nature of Foreign Service work makes it more challenging.”
The culture of the Foreign Service is also an issue. Uncle Sam provides a variety of programs to help his staffers and their families who are abroad, but the availability of programs might not be the most important thing: Work-life balance is more a function of an organization’s culture than its program offerings, said Kathleen M. Lingle, director of WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress.
Data and experience, however, can overcome culture, she said. So, for example, if the State Department wanted to encourage more telework in its embassies, it could start with a pilot program that produced measurable results.
“What changes culture is performance,” she said. “Data and performance will trump culture every time.”
For overseas employees, “the prevailing culture is you would work around the clock if need be, but . . . any leave you’d need to attend to personal issues, you would have to use annual leave,” said Margot Carrington, a Foreign Service officer who received a Una Chapman Cox Sabbatical Leave Fellowship to study work-life policies.
After 16 years abroad, returning to the United States was a critical decision for her family, particularly for her husband, who was a stay-at-home dad caring for two children who spent their early years in foreign lands. He wanted his own professional life, which meant being stateside. Carrington’s son complained about being a 12-year-old American who had never lived in America.
They’ve been back since August, and “we have issues of reentry,” she said. “Just getting resettled and getting your children in school . . . everything you have to do, you have to do all at once. It can be very difficult.”
It’s even harder for single parents, Carrington said. “I can’t even figure out how you make that happen.”