As I have in some of my previous blog articles, I will share here a small section of my doctoral research on the topic of satisfaction with distance learning (DL) experiences in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Specifically, I will share some quantitative and qualitative findings on CAF members’ perceptions related to work/life balance and their Chain of Command [employer] support in relation to their DL efforts. This research, which was defended in 2020, surveyed a sample of 368 CAF members, with 12 follow-on interviews. These participants had graduated from CAF Professional Military Education programs, both for Officers and Non-Commissioned Members, between the dates of January, 2015 and March, 2018. While CAF members represent a unique population within a unique employment context, I would venture to guess that some of these findings may be relatable in other fields where employees are either obliged or choose to shoulder the burden of continuing with their professional development while being employed full-time.
One issue related to DL satisfaction that emerged strongly in the research data was work/life balance, including DL’s effect on family and personal time, support from the Chain of Command and, specifically, the amount of time that was provided by the Chain of Command for DL studies. For example, when asked about members’ satisfaction with the support they received from the Chain of Command, 71.7% of respondents answered that they were either somewhat or very satisfied, which is quite positive. It must be noted, however, that another 15.8% reported that they were either somewhat or very dissatisfied (n = 358). In response to the following statement: “CAF members who are DL learners are often required to complete their studies while continuing to be responsible for their normal position workload” (n = 368), responses showed high levels of agreement (92.1% agreed, 72.3% strongly agreed).
Further, some members reported not being permitted to use working hours at all for DL or, in other cases, not personally being able to divorce themselves from their heavy workloads to focus on their DL. In response to a question that asked members to comment on the amount of time they were given during working hours for their DL program/course, the top three responses, based on a coding frequency analysis were: 1) time as available; 2) one day per week; and 3) no time at all. This shows that there was a range of realities for members in terms of time provided, but the concerns of those who received “no time” or not enough time, were very pronounced in the qualitative findings. These members who had to, or in some cases, chose to complete their DL on their personal time, sometimes faced difficulties that included physical or mental health issues and distress, and issues with balancing their family responsibilities. They shared with me, as responses to open-ended survey questions and interviews, their various challenges in juggling their workload, their DL studies, and their personal and family life.
This issue was illustrated by a code frequency analysis in response to a question asking members to identify their greatest dissatisfiers with DL. The 3rd most frequent response was balancing their job with DL, and the 5th most frequent response was work/life balance, including family issues. (Of additional interest, other top dissatisfiers identified included: lack of meaningful interactions, technological issues, and issues with the quality of the course design). Further, 36.9% of respondents (n = 363) either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “DL increases the chance of burn-out for CAF members.” This may indicate that some members perceive that DL can cause work/life balance issues, potentially through the difficulties that arise from juggling their work, professional development, and other life and family responsibilities. These findings were corroborated by the qualitative data, in that the phrase “burnout” and related discussions arose numerous times.
Correlation analyses between support from the Chain of Command, family, and coworkers with overall DL satisfaction indicated that support from the Chain of Command was significantly correlated with overall DL satisfaction (rs (358) = .294, p < .01). Multiple regression analysis of the support factor, which included support from the Chain of Command, family, and co-workers combined, was shown to have a significant association with overall DL satisfaction. When these three variables were separated out (i.e. support from Chain of Command, family, and coworkers), support from the Chain of Command was found to be the most significant support predictor of overall DL satisfaction.
Presently, some members make agreements with their Chain of Command prior to starting their courses regarding the time they will use during working hours to complete their DL. This could be a helpful strategy, given that 68.5% of respondents (n = 368) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Establishing Learning Contracts to be signed by CAF members and their supervisors assigning permitted hours per week for the DL course should be a requirement for all learners of DL courses.”
The qualitative data supported the quantitative findings in that some members shared their stories of working long hours between their heavy workplace commitments and DL course loads. Others shared their stories of trying to juggle their work and DL commitments and how this caused strain on their family situations. Still others suggested that perhaps time away from work duties should be a mandatory requirement to allow members to have a more focused and valuable learning experience. Further, some members suggested that if the CAF were to ensure further availability of quiet work-spaces or computer labs on all bases, away from the regular workplace, it could be beneficial and allow members to better concentrate on DL courses with fewer interruptions.
Mandating an amount of time to CAF students, outside of the normal workplace and in line with the time required for effective learning to take place during DL, could be considered for all mandatory training and education. Ensuring that the Chain of Command is made aware that a certain amount of time is required, that regular tasks may need to be delayed or be reassigned, and that it is their responsibility to encourage members to take the time required and prioritize their learning appropriately could increase student satisfaction and positive learning outcomes within DL experiences.
Balancing a full workload with various training and educational pursuits can be challenging, both in the CAF and, I suspect, in any workplace. Frank, open discussions between employee and employers and re-prioritization of time and tasks can sometimes help alleviate issues related to a heavy workload. As one research participant stated, “You can’t burn the candle at both ends.” Indeed! You may try, for a time (as I have!), but it tends not to be a sustainable way of living in the long run.
If you would like to see further details on my research, such as research methodology and full findings, please see the link below.
Once again, thank you to the survey and interview participants who took part in this research.
Jones, K.A. (2020). Satisfaction of Canadian Armed Forces Regular Fores Members with their Distance Learning Experiences [Dissertation]. Athabasca University.