The phrase “we’re all family here” has become a modern-day workplace staple. Appealing to the need for human belonging, businesses with the best of intentions attempt to create a supportive, collaborative company culture. But the blurring of lines between personal and professional often comes at the expense of one to the other. Tasked with meeting the demands of two “families,” employees inevitably crack under pressure and may underperform in the home and/or workplace. Companies may see better results as they invest in their employees’ actual families, and here’s why:
Social Exchange Theory
Social exchange theory (SET) states that each social interaction is an exchange of material or non-material goods. With each interaction, we are seeking to maximize rewards, or “goods” received, and minimize costs. Rewards minus costs equals the outcome. When the outcome exceeds our expectations, we experience relationship satisfaction, but when a social exchange does not meet our expectations, we leave feeling dissatisfied. An employee who feels underappreciated for the work she puts in is more likely to quit her job because the cost (i.e., time and effort) falls short of the anticipated reward (e.g., salary, recognition, promotion, etc.). Similarly, if a father is highly regarded at work but feels undervalued by his wife and children, he will likely try to maximize rewards by spending more time and effort in the workplace.
Work-to-family conflict occurs when paid work disrupts life in the home, including the quality of personal relationships. Family-to-work conflict occurs when personal and family life interferes with an employee’s performance in the workplace. This strain on work and family may result in higher job burnout, lower job satisfaction, lower marital satisfaction, and greater emotional exhaustion. Women are especially vulnerable to work-family spillover; although men have become more involved in housework and childcare in recent decades, women still (on average) do more housework and childcare, even in dual-earner homes. Luckily, research has repeatedly shown that work and family life can be mutually enhancing instead of conflicting; with the proper environment, individuals can foster both work-to-family and family-to-work enrichment.
In one study, a team of Utah State University and Brigham Young University researchers led by Heather Kelley calculated the aggregate results from 82 studies dealing with work-family conflict or work-family enrichment.[i] The analysis took into account perceived partner support and perceived family support. Data from the 82 studies showed that increased familial support was associated with lower work-to-family and family-to-work conflict, and vice versa. Likewise, familial support was positively associated with work-to-family and family-to-work enrichment. Put simply, when an employee perceives their family as being supportive, it majorly benefits their work and home life. A lack of perceived support harms their performance in both domains.
Another BYU study led by Toby Driggs surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,044 different-sex, dual-earner couples.[ii] Participants were asked to complete a survey assessing their financial distress, work-family conflict, and relationship satisfaction. The survey included items such as “My financial situation is much worse this year than it was a year ago,” “Stress at work makes you irritable at home,” and “I have a warm and comfortable relationship with my partner.” Researchers found that wives’ reports of their own relationship satisfaction were directly associated with their financial distress. The same proved true for men, but to a more limited extent. For both men and women, work-family conflict directly correlated with their own lower relationship satisfaction. Also, if wives experienced work-family conflict, data showed that it had a negative effect on their husbands’ relationship satisfaction; on the other hand, husbands’ work-family spillover had no effect on their wives’ relationship satisfaction. This suggests that when an individual is having a busy time at work and their spouse is forced to pick up the slack at home, women might see this as understandable or to be expected (my husband is working on our family’s behalf), while men will more likely resent it (my wife should be doing more at home).
So, how do we as parents, spouses, and employees exchange work-family conflict for enriching careers and relationships? Work-family conflict may seem inevitable. But by managing expectations and capitalizing on family support, balance and even mutual enrichment are possible.
- Reduce negative work-family conflict by setting clear boundaries.
Schedule control is an effective way to prevent work life and home life from interfering with each other. This will look different depending on personal situations. For example, if you find yourself backlogged with work after hours, consider answering calls and emails only during certain hours of the day. You may want to send an automated response briefly explaining that you are away spending time with family. If you work from home, set aside a physical space for work and nothing else. In job interviews and when meeting with employers, be open about your desire for work-family enrichment and work together to reach a solution.
- Utilize existing support and increase family support.
Parents often ask their children about their day at school but refrain from talking about their own work life with their children. Family support is especially important for increased work satisfaction. Encourage work-family enrichment by including your family in your work life. Make it a point to ask for your spouse’s advice and input, bring a family member to a work social event, or talk about your family at work.
- Be aware of and communicate your own gender role expectations.
Relationship dissatisfaction often stems from unexpected work-family conflict. If you are in a dual-earner relationship, what do you expect your home life to look like? Discuss with your partner the division of labor (chores, childcare, meals, etc.). Consider alternating who cooks dinner and who plays with the kids in the evenings. Being on the same page and tackling your various responsibilities as a team is essential to a happy, healthy home and work life.
[i] Kelley, H. H., LeBaron-Black, A. B., Hill, E. J., & Meter, D. (2021). Perceived family and partner support and the work-family interface: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 37(3), 143–155. https://doi.org/10.5093/jwop2021a15.
[ii] Driggs, T. M., LeBaron-Black, A. B., Saxey, M. T., Hill, E. J., James, S., Yorgason, J. B., & Holmes, E. K. (2023). All’s not fair in love and work: Financial distress, work-family spillover, and relationship satisfaction in newly-married couples. Community, Work, and Family, 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/13668803.2023.2174411.