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Misery Loves Company: How Your Partner's Roles Influence Your Work-Family Satisfaction

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Married couple arguing

Donna and Rhonda work at the same office and have comparable job responsibilities. Yet things are quite different at their respective homes, where they live with working partners. Donna has few responsibilities compared to her partner, Kim, who handles almost all the domestic chores and takes time off from work whenever their child is sick. Rhonda, on the other hand, often feels overwhelmed with housework and the burdens of raising four children, and so does her husband, Mark, who shares the household duties and also takes care of an aging parent.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that Donna's light duties at home enhance her work-family satisfaction, while Rhonda's heavy load diminishes hers. But new research on working couples is challenging the assumption that a family life that's less taxing and less likely to infringe on an employee's work life always produces more balance satisfaction — an employee's satisfaction in being able to fulfill both work and family responsibilities.

Indeed, having a partner who is equally burdened with housework may actually result in more satisfaction than having a light load compared to your partner. That's what research, based on surveys of 141 couples, surprisingly shows.

"For couples with similarly high levels of family-to-work conflict, the focal employee fared better, compared to when one partner had low family-to-work conflict while the other had higher family-to-work conflict," said Kelly Schwind Wilson, associate professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at Purdue University's Krannert School of Management. "This is surprising given decades of previous research that suggests low family-to-work conflict is always better for employee outcomes."

Previous research has shown that when an employee's work infringes on family life or when family life infringes on work, it lessens the employee's work-family satisfaction. And while some research has considered the partner's views of an employee's work-family conflict, the partner's own conflict has been largely ignored.

Wilson's research, in collaboration with Heidi M. Baumann of Bradley University, Fadel K. Matta of University of Georgia, Remus Ilies of The National University of Singapore, and Ellen Ernst Kossek of Purdue University, explores work-family conflict experiences at the couple or dyad level. This research examines how an employee's work-family conflict and a significant other's work-family conflict can jointly affect the employee's work-family satisfaction, which in turn influences the employee’s job satisfaction and their partner’s relationship satisfaction.

In their paper, entitled "Misery Loves Company: An Investigation of Couples' Interrole Conflict Congruence" and published online April 2018 in the Academy of Management Journal, the researchers show that when couples experience congruence (or similarity) in their family-to-work conflict, it can provide validation and comfort, resulting in higher balance satisfaction. The employee is more satisfied at work and the significant other is more satisfied with their relationship at home.

"This research suggests that it is important for both partners in a romantic couple to share family responsibilities pretty equally," Wilson said. "Couples may want to focus on clearly communicating family demands and determining whose turn it is to fulfill each, in order to facilitate congruence or similarity in family-to-work conflict."

But what about congruence in work-to-family conflict? When both members of a couple experience high levels of work-to-family conflict, does it produce more balance satisfaction than when one partner experiences less conflict than the other? The researchers were unable to find conclusive proof of this, which they suggest may be partly due to the focus on nonwork or couple dyads in this research.

"The key here is that the dyad we focused on was the romantic, dual-earner couple, and yes, our results indicate that for this type of dyad, family-to-work congruence was more informative than work-to-family congruence," Wilson said. "Family-to-work conflict originates in the family and we suggest that this may be a more important form of congruence for family dyads, whereas future research should consider work-to-family congruence in co-worker or work dyads."

Her research suggests not only that couples should strive to share family responsibilities equally, but also that employers should take steps to reduce family-to-work conflict for both employees and their partners.

"For employers, our research suggests that family benefits that can help the entire family (not just one employee or partner) would be more likely to enable congruence or balance for the couple," Wilson said. "Such benefits might include, for example, offering high-quality childcare, or referrals for house cleaning, lawn care, and grocery services or discounts. These offerings should benefit the entire family and decrease both partners’ family responsibilities (and thus lower both partners’ family-to-work conflict)."

By Melvin Durai