In Brief

Results of a new study by University of Maryland researchers confirms what working parents have long suspected: America's expanding work week is undermining family life.

In fact, the study, "Work time, work interference with family and psychological distress," published in the June issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, (Vol. 87, No. 2) concludes that long hours at work increase work-family conflict and that this conflict is in turn related to depression and other stress-related health problems, according to lead author Virginia Smith Major.

The researchers argued that academics, the media and parents have commonly assumed that work-family conflict is due in large part to parents' having "too much to do in too little time," but that little is actually known about how people use their time and how those choices affect individuals, families, and organizations. The goal of their study was to test a model of the relationships between time, conflict and psychological distress. They gathered survey data from approximately 510 employees of a Fortune 500 company. The survey featured questions about a wide range of work and family issues, such as employees' work schedules, organizational norms for time spent at work, parental demands and time-based work interference with family (WIF).

The authors identified several family- and work-related characteristics associated with employees' working longer hours. Those long hours were in turn related to increased work-family conflict and, indirectly, to psychological distress among employees. "One of the things that was most striking to us was that the relationship between work hours and work interference with family held regardless of how flexible an employee's schedule was or how much responsibility he or she had at home for child care or other family duties," Major notes.

Although most of the study's hypotheses were supported, the researchers were surprised not to find a significant relationship between parental demands and work time. "We had expected that people with children, especially young children, would spend less time at work, whether by choice or necessity," Major says. "This finding perhaps challenges some common assumptions about parents' commitment to work."

Major says the research highlights the importance of the choices that both employees and employers make about work time. "Too often, employers place a greater premium on face time and the number of hours worked than on actual productivity," she says. "Employers need to realize that it behooves them to find better ways to organize and structure work." On the other hand, she notes, "employees need to be aware of the consequences of the choices they make about how they use their time."

--N. CRAWFORD