Work-Family Conflict

Work-Family ConflictWork-family conflict refers to a situation where the demands and responsibilities from work roles and family roles are mutually incompatible in some respect. In other words, participation in the work role is made more difficult by virtue of participation in the family role, and participation in the family role is made more difficult by virtue of participation in the work role. According to this definition, work-family conflict can occur in two directions: family life can interfere with work life (family-to-work conflict) and work life can interfere with family life (work-to-family conflict). For example, parents might experience family-to-work conflict when a deadline is missed because they need to take time off from work to stay home with a sick child. Alternately, a spouse or parent might experience work-to-family conflict when his or her work schedule makes it impossible to attend a family function or complete household chores. Work-family conflict also has been referred to as work-family interference, work-family tension, and negative work-family spillover.

A number of societal changes occurred over the latter half of the twentieth century that have made the issue of work-family conflict salient to employers, employees, and policymakers. The most important societal change has been growth in the proportion of households, especially those with children, that have two wage earners. Another change has been an increase in the proportion of single-parent households, and especially an increase in the proportion of single parents who are employed. A third change, due to the aging of society, is the growing proportion of working adults who are responsible for the care of elderly family members.

Although the result of these societal changes is that many working adults have more to do, does this mean that they actually experience conflict between their work and family lives? Results from several national studies conducted in the United States during the 1990s suggest that they do. Among adults between the ages of 25 and 54 who work at least 20 hours per week and have some form of immediate family (i.e., a spouse, live-in partner, or at least one child under 18 years old), roughly 40 percent report experiencing work-to-family conflict, and about 12 percent report experiencing family-to-work-conflict. A consistent finding is that work-to-family conflict is more prevalent than family-to-work conflict. Said differently, family roles appear to encounter higher levels of cross-role interference than work roles. In general, research fails to show robust and consistent differences between men and women in exposure to either type of work-family conflict or in the predictors and outcomes of work-family conflict.

The predictors of work-family conflict can be grouped into three general categories: work environment, family environment, and person characteristics. Research shows that the two categories of environmental predictors have differential relations to the two types of work-family conflict. In other words, characteristics of the work environment are causes of work-to-family conflict, whereas characteristics of the family environment are causes of family-to-work conflict. For example, higher levels of time devoted to family responsibilities, higher levels of psychological importance attributed to family, and the experience of family stressors (e.g., parental demands, marital problems) are associated with higher levels of family-to-work conflict. Also, higher levels of family-related social support are related to lower levels of family-to-work conflict. In contrast, higher levels of time devoted to work responsibilities, higher levels of psychological importance attributed to work, and the experience of work stressors (e.g., work overload, conflicting demands at work) are associated with higher levels of work-to-family conflict. Also, higher levels of work-related social support are related to lower levels of work-to-family conflict. Person characteristics are generally related to both types of work-family conflict. For example, negative affectivity, which represents a general predisposition to experience negative moods, is positively related to both work-to-family conflict and family-to-work conflict. Time-management preferences, such as the tendency to set priorities and be organized, are negatively related to both types of work-family conflict. The fact that person characteristics are common predictors of both types of work-family conflict is not surprising when one considers that they represent intrinsic characteristics that are brought with the person into both work and family settings.

The outcomes of work-family conflict can be grouped into three general categories: work outcomes, family outcomes, and personal outcomes. Research shows that work and family outcomes have differential relations with the two types of work-family conflict. In other words, work-to-family conflict is predictive of adverse family outcomes, such as lower levels of family satisfaction, family work performance, and family participation. Family-to-work conflict is predictive of adverse work outcomes, such as lower levels of job satisfaction, work performance, and work attendance. Although family-to-work conflict is generally related to poorer behavioral outcomes at work, research shows that it is work-to-family conflict that is associated with intentions to quit a job or career and actual job or career turnover. This makes sense if one views turnover as a coping mechanism. Changing jobs or careers may eliminate or reduce the extent to which work interferes with family life (i.e., work-to-family conflict). However, because one’s family situation remains unchanged, changing jobs or careers is unlikely to reduce the extent to which family interferes with work life (i.e., family-to-work conflict). Finally, because both types of work-family conflict represent stressors, they each have been predictive of adverse personal outcomes, such as poor psychological health (e.g., depression), poor physical health (e.g., somatic symptoms), and poor behavioral health (e.g., heavy alcohol use, smoking).

The management of work-family conflict can be approached through personal initiatives and organizational initiatives. The personal initiatives that individuals can invoke to manage work-family conflict include seeking out and developing appropriate social support at work and at home, reducing or reorganizing the time devoted to work or family demands, reducing the psychological importance of work or family roles, and developing strategies to reduce or better cope with the sources of stress at work and at home. However, work organizations also can help. As many as 30 to 40 organizational initiatives have been discussed in the literature, which can be classified into several general groups: flexible work arrangements, paid and unpaid leaves, dependent-care assistance, and general resource services. Although many personal and organizational initiatives can be identified, little evaluation research has attempted to determine which personal and organizational initiatives, and which combinations of them, actually reduce conflict between work and family life.

It is useful to point out that work-family conflict is a source of stress that affects more people than implied by overall prevalence rates. In other words, work-family conflict affects more than just the individuals experiencing it. It also may directly or indirectly affect family members, coworkers, supervisors, organizations, and communities. Work-family conflict often has been viewed as a problem to be resolved by the affected employees. However, given the potentially severe consequences and the broad impact of work-family conflict, it represents a social issue best tackled with collaboration from employers, employees, and governments.

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