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Any psychologist can tell you that work can have a negative impact on family life and family problems can create difficulties at work. But that doesn't mean that work and family automatically have a negative impact on each other, say experts studying the area.

In fact, a growing body of research documents the benefits work brings to family life and vice versa. A study of dual-earner couples by Rosalind Chait Barnett, PhD, at Brandeis University, for example, found that men who have positive and rewarding relationships at home are protected from the psychological distress they would otherwise experience when their jobs are problematic. Barnett also found that the more the husband is involved in child care, the better his psychological well-being and the higher his wife evaluates their marriage. "There are multiple benefits to men and women who are engaged in multiple roles," says Barnett.

"The whole work-family thing is more than managing conflict," adds Joseph Grzywacz, PhD, an assistant professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest University. "It's really important to start putting an equal emphasis on the goods that come out of the work-family arrangement."

What are the factors that contribute to a more effective work-family balance? According to psychologists' research, they include:

The number of hours you work. In research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (Vol. 5, No. 1), Grzywacz and University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Nadine Marks, PhD, found that employees who work more than 45 hours a week report more work-to-family conflict. However, participants who work less than 20 hours per week were less likely to report that their work benefited their family life.

"If you reduce work hours, you may reduce conflict, but you also may reduce the family-related benefits of employment as well as some of the possible net gains" in outcomes such as physical health and marital satisfaction, says Grzywacz.

Meanwhile, research by Barnett and her colleagues at Brandeis shows that it's not just the number of hours, but how workers feel about their schedules: In a study of part-time physicians in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (Vol. 4, No. 4), doctors were more likely to experience burnout the more their work schedules did not meet their or their family's needs. For example, physicians who wanted to work longer hours and did so reported significantly less burnout than those who worked the longer hours but preferred to work fewer.

Job autonomy. In a study of University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University business school graduates, Jeffrey Greenhaus, PhD, of Drexel University's LeBow College of Business, and Stewart Friedman, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, found that workers who felt they had autonomy at work were more satisfied with child care and had healthier children with fewer behavioral problems.

"In being able to take control at work, you learn some skills that you can apply in your family domain and you have the flexibility to be able to meet the needs of family responsibilities," explains Grzywacz.

In addition, new research in Psychosomatic Medicine (Vol. 64, No. 3) reports that workers who have high-decision latitude on the job have longer life spans than employees with few decision-making powers--even if the job with decision latitude is high stress.

Social relationships. In their book, "Work and Family--Allies or Enemies?," Friedman and Greenhaus also report that people who engaged in extensive networking on the job were more satisfied with their family life and child-care arrangements, and had children who did better in school and were healthier.

Similarly, Grzywacz has found that employees who have more social support at work are less likely to report that family interferes with work and more likely to say their family life benefits their job.

Moreover, those who decrease their social involvement outside of work to meet family demands experience more work-family conflict than couples who either increase their emotional resources or prioritize their work and family responsibilities, finds Leslie B. Hammer, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Portland State University, in her research on the "sandwiched generation"--dual-earner couples who care for both their children and parents.

Family. Not surprisingly, workers who are married or have children report more family-to-work conflict than their unmarried or childless counterparts. However, they also report that their family life has far more positive effects on work, found Grzywacz and Marks in their Occupational Health Psychology article. For example, participants with spouses or children were more likely to report that talking with someone at home helps them deal with work problems and that support at home makes them feel confident about themselves at work.

And, in unpublished research, Hammer, Margaret B. Neal, PhD, and PhD candidate Krista Brockwood have found that when a spouse uses workplace supports--such as alternative work schedules--it positively affects their spouse's job satisfaction and lessens work-family conflict.

Gender. While most studies have found that men and women report about the same levels of work-family conflict and positive spillover, there is one caveat: Women still spend significantly more time caring for family. In Hammer and Neal's research on the sandwiched generation, men averaged 7.5 hours a week caring for parents, while their wives averaged 9.5 hours.

Women were also more likely to make certain work accommodations for family, such as reducing the number of hours they work or taking more flexible jobs.

Personality. Greenhaus and Grzywacz have respectively found that people high on negative affectivity and neur-oticism experience more work-family conflict. Grzywacz has also found that extroverted individuals report less work-family conflict and significantly more positive spillover.

"What it suggests is that, to a certain extent, what we bring to a role is also important to the kind of conflict we experience, in addition to what we find in the role once we're there," explains Greenhaus.

Ellen Kossek, PhD, a professor at Michigan State University's School of Labor and Industrial Relations, agrees. "The individual is not this passive person that just experiences work-family conflict. They can set up a strategy for managing these roles," she says.

Setting work-family boundaries. Especially for professions such as psychology--in which home offices, e-mail, and thoughts about clients or students, paper drafts and grant proposals can blur the line between work and home--it's important for workers to understand how to walk that fine line.

Overall, say the experts, to find a happy balance, workers should decide which roles are the most important and will get more attention--and understand that their importance may change over time.

"You can't go 150 percent, have a baby and be a super mom, publish articles, and work 80 hours a week," explains Kossek, who became interested in work-family research after facing some tough choices as a graduate student and new mother.

Indeed, psychological research points to four strategies workers can take to manage work and family, says Michael Frone, PhD, of the State University of New York at Buffalo: they can seek out social support at work or in other environments, reduce or reorganize the time devoted to work or family demands, reduce the psychological importance of one or more roles, and find ways to reduce or better cope with stress.

Beyond these findings, however, little research has been done to tease out the ways in which couples and individuals negotiate work and family roles--let alone other life roles, such as going to school or participating in community groups.

One thing is for certain, though, says Grzywacz: Research shows that most people still say the benefits of combining work and family are far better than the challenges.

Further reading

  • Barnett, R.C., & Hyde, J.S. (2001). Women, men, work, and family: an expansionist theory. American Psychologist, 56, 781-796.

  • Friedman, S.D., & Greenhaus, J.H. (2000). Work and Family--Allies or Enemies? What Happens When Business Professionals Confront Life Choices. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Frone, M.R. (in press). Work-family balance. In J.C. Quick, & L.E. Tetrick (Eds.), Handbook of Occupational Health Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Grzywacz, J.G., & Marks, N.F. (2000). Reconceptualizing the work-family interface: an ecological perspective on the correlates of positive and negative spillover between work and family. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 5, 111-126.

  • Hammer, L.B., Colton, C.L., Caubet, S., & Brockwood, K.B. (in press). The unbalanced life: Work and family conflict. In J.C. Thomas & M. Hersen (Eds.), Handbook of mental health in the workplace. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

  • Kossek, E.E., Noe, R., & DeMarr, B. (2001). Work-family role synthesis: individual, family and organizational determinants. International Journal of Conflict Resolution, 10, 102-129.