How Working Couples Balance Work and Family During COVID-19

mom working from home with daughter
Topic(s): gender, wellness, work-life balance
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2021)
Article: Work-Family Strategies During COVID-19: Examining Gender Dynamics Among Dual-Earner Couples With Young Children
Authors: K.M. Shockley, M.A. Clark, H. Dodd, E.B. King
Reviewed by: Josie Anker

Traditionally, dual-earning couples use “gendered” patterns of managing their family responsibilities, meaning the woman takes on more responsibility for childcare. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought drastic changes (school/daycare closures and a shift to working from home) that may have altered these traditional arrangements. For example, men who started working remotely and have children at home may be more inclined to get involved with childcare, even if they previously avoided it. 


New research (Shockley et al., 2021) surveys dual-earner couples about their work-family experiences during COVID-19. Specifically, participants included in the study were couples in which both spouses worked full time, and who had at least one child under the age of 6 whose regular daytime childcare was unavailable. 

The surveys were administered at two times: the first in March of 2020, and the second about seven weeks later. The first survey asked participating couples to explain their plan for dealing with work and childcare during the time when their normal childcare solution is disrupted. The second survey asked participants about how well they followed that plan, as well as questions about their levels of family functioning, health, and job performance.


The results of the study show that amidst childcare disruptions during the pandemic, many couples (36.6% of the sample) still used traditional gendered strategies to deal with work and family obligations. Examples of typical gendered strategies include those in which the woman works remotely and also handles all, or most, of the childcare responsibilities. 

However, there were also many couples (44.5% of the sample) who used more egalitarian strategies, such as when the man and woman alternate days working, or both spouses work remotely and take on “mini-shifts” to handle childcare. A fewer number of couples (18.9%) used strategies that were neither traditionally gendered nor egalitarian, such as when the man handles the childcare or childcare is fully outsourced.

Different strategies were associated with different outcomes. For example, couples had better relationships when using a strategy in which the woman worked remotely and did most of the childcare. On the other hand, couples using strategies in which the woman took on all of the childcare were associated with unfavorable outcomes for both spouses, including lowest family cohesion and highest relationship tension. Women using this type of strategy also had the lowest job performance. 

Additionally, couples using strategies in which spouses alternated days taking care of the children had favorable outcomes, and this is especially true for couples who were not able to work remotely. Couples using this type of strategy got the most amount of sleep, had lower psychological distress, and did not experience a reduction in job performance.


Organizational leaders should understand how their policies on work flexibility can impact both their own employees as well as their employees’ spouses. For example, say the authors, organizations may benefit from giving men more flexibility to take days off or reduce work hours, since their assistance in childcare leads to beneficial outcomes for both spouses. 

While this study was done in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers suggest that the results may extend to other situations, such as school closures due to extreme weather, caring for children who cannot attend typical childcare due to illness or disability, or even when parents cannot obtain childcare due to long waitlists at local daycares. 


Shockley, K. M., Clark, M. A., Dodd, H., & King, E. B. (2021). Work-family strategies during COVID-19: Examining gender dynamics among dual-earner couples with young children. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(1), 15-28.