New research looks at how couples deal with their partners’ job stresses at home and finds women to be more supportive than men

In Brief: The impact of work-related stress on individuals is a frequent topic of research and discussion. New research sheds light on how stress impacts working couples, a less understood issue. The findings suggest that women are better able to help husbands deal with work stresses than vice-versa. This reaction makes women’s own psychological recovery more difficult and may create more negative long-term health implications for female leaders than for their male counterparts.

Analysis: A great deal of research exists that looks at the impact of work stress on individual psychological well-being in many professions and settings. After all, one of the most significant challenges any successful professional faces is not letting problems in the workplace negatively impact family life at home. There is a related issue, however, that has not received the same level of analysis: the degree to which an employee’s work problems impact the well-being of a spouse at home. Put differently, how much do a spouse’s work challenges enable/disable someone to cope with their own? 

This is a critical problem made more so by the pandemic’s new stresses on dual-career couples suddenly dealing with childcare and education. Indeed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2019 that among married couples, both spouses are employed 48.3% of the time, and 66% of these dual‐income partners in U.S. households have children (the number is slightly higher in the European Union). Understanding how work stresses affect spouses is something that all companies need to consider, given these figures and the pandemic’s new pressures on dual-career couples suddenly dealing with childcare and education.

Fortunately, new research by Zheng Cheng and Allison Ellis begins to shed some light on this interesting and important topic. Their new paper starts by adopting something called the challenge/hindrance stressor framework model to classify the problems someone faces at work. Challenges refer to work demands that, although stress-inducing, could ultimately lead to career advancement or some other significant benefit. Hindrance stressors are problems that must be overcome to get through the day but don’t hold any intrinsic value. A challenge stressor might be learning to manage a global team. A hindrance stressor might be having to work with out-of-date technology or an unresponsive colleague.

To the ideas above, the researchers coupled the work-home resources model, which argues that the interface between work and personal life is a complex system of demands that require employees to consume personal resources (e.g., time, energy, and mood) in order to cope with problems at work and work resources to cope with problems at home. In other words, the w-hr model says that our resource pool is finite, and we sometimes take work resources to deal with home challenges and vice-versa. As the authors note:

According to the W‐HR model, job stressors drain employees’ personal energies, which influence outcomes in the home domain. Personal energies are critical daily resources that enable individuals to cope effectively with stressors and maintain personal well‐being. When personal energies are exhausted, individuals are less able to effectively meet demands and may fail to capitalize on opportunities to build other important resources. Daily personal energies may affect numerous outcomes, ranging from employee attitudes and well‐being to availability at home and quality of support provided to others (i.e., performance in the home domain). Thus, the model provides an overview of how employees’ work experiences, including their experience of workplace stressors, could influence both their own personal outcomes and, by extension, outcomes of others in their immediate home environment.

The last part of the authors’ conceptual model is called crossover theory. It states that the issues faced by one-half of working couple can and do impact the partner in the relationship. These can be both positive effects — enthusiasm and excitement at a new job — or negative ones. Crossover may seem an obvious phenomenon, but it’s an important factor in the researcher’s work because “one way crossover between married couples may occur is via the effects stressors or strain may have on the quality of interactions between both spouses.” For example, “a stressed spouse may return from work and lash out toward their partner at home, thereby transferring the stressor to their partner.” To assess both positive and negative crossover, the authors measured social support, a term that refers to how one spouse uses resources to help a partner recover from work stress. The contrary to this behavior is social undermining, whereby a spouse displays anger, dislike or blaming behaviors that tend to make things worse for the partner.

To test their ideas about w-hr and crossover, the authors obtained data from 93 married, heterosexual dual-career couples (the average age was 36). The participants completed daily surveys that measured their challenge and hindrance stressors every day, their exhaustion level, as well as the responses noted in their spouses at the end of the day. Measuring exhaustion levels was important because “the degree to which employees feel exhausted at the end of the workday will moderate the relationship between job stressors and daily interactions with one’s spouse.” 

Findings

The researcher data illustrate some interesting, and in one way disappointing, dynamics of how straight dual-career couples interact in their home lives after a stressful day at work. In general, both men and women experienced hindrance/challenge stressors, and both reached similar levels of end-of-day exhaustion. However, only men were more likely to (a) let those stresses carry on into the home space and (b) demonstrate socially undermining behavior towards their spouses. Women, on the other hand, coped with stressors and exhaustion much better. They were much more likely to demonstrate socially supportive behavior toward their husbands, even in the face of similar levels of exhaustion. As the authors note: 

Our mediation/moderated mediation results mostly supported the challenge stressor hypotheses from the direction of husband to wife. We found that husbands’ challenge stressors were negatively associated with the amount of social support received by wives, which jeopardized wives’ relaxation in the evening. Furthermore, we found that when husbands’ end‐of‐workday exhaustion was high, husbands’ challenge stressors were positively associated with wives’ social undermining received and further dampened wives’ relaxation. 

In considering why they found this inequality of response, the authors hypothesize that “even with fewer resources available, women may still be motivated to maintain “good wife” ideology and channel their energy to support and protect their family resources.” Unfortunately, they add, “gender norms may motivate women to stay prosocial and responsive to their dual‐career husbands’ needs despite their own work strain.”

An interesting finding of their analysis is that challenge stressors seem to make the trip from office to home more easily. “Hindrance stressors,” note the authors, “may be perceived as unmanageable, leading employees to avoid spending time and energy to meet the resource demands that they cannot control.” Consequently, the participants tended to feel the most stress at home from challenges that, if overcome, would provide some benefit rather than simply things that annoyed them at work. One may speculate that in addition to the inherent stress of the challenge, the risk of losing a wanted benefit only added to the worry.

Overall, the results of this new study suggest that “when faced with challenge demands, men, especially, either decrease their supportive effort or exhibit spousal undermining behaviors when experiencing higher levels of exhaustion.” Because this same behavior was not generally seen in wives, “women may be at higher risk of prolonged inability to recuperate resources not only due to their own work resource drains but by their dual‐career spouses’ job demands and exhaustion.” Of course, no one is making a universal claim on the basis of just one small study; however, I can say that a lifetime of observational evidence generally supports the authors’ conclusions.

Implications

This is an early study that focused only on heterosexual dual-career couples, and no doubt further work needs to be done to reach definitive conclusions (though research shows that same‐sex and heterosexual couples often adopt similar work–family management tactics). Nonetheless, the findings suggest that companies and HR leaders could do more to consider the issue of work-related stress not just as an individual employee phenomenon but as a challenge of the employee-spouse system. In other words, employees don’t cope with jobs — family systems do, though this is hardly how most HR systems manage things today. 

As Chen and Ellis conclude: ‘The systems view calls for the stakeholders to take a more holistic perspective of how an employee is embedded within work–nonwork systems, makes continuous exchanges with other members, moves resources, and responds to external and internal stressors.” Therefore, “organizational policies that address end‐of‐workday exhaustion may be fruitful in assisting not only their employees but also their dual‐career families to recover.” This expanded conception is even more important given the worrisome finding that women are less able to express their frustrations when dealing with similarly exhausted husbands. It’s not hard to imagine that as a consequence, troubling long-term health effects could be more common for female leaders than their male counterparts.

In summary, this paper extends the work-life balance discussion in a new and valuable way. One hopes that HR leaders everywhere will support this line in inquiry in the future to understand better how work shapes the whole of an employee’s human circle and not just the limited part that is visible on zoom or in the office.

The Research

Chen Z. and Ellis, A.M. Crossover of daily job stressors among dual-career couples: A dyadic examination. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 2021;1–16. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/job.2520

Posted by:Carlos Alvarenga