Work-family conflict occurs when we cannot meet the demands of work and the demands of family at the same time, and instead must choose one over the other. In this study, researchers (Dahm, Glomb, Manchester, & Leroy, 2015) specifically considered work-to-family conflict, which occurs when people attempt to meet the demands of their job and sacrifice the demands of their family. While past research has shown that this may lead to harmful outcomes, this study gives us greater insight into why this happens. Interestingly, work-to-family conflict can make employees change the way they do their jobs.
WORK-FAMILY CONFLICT AND RESOURCE DEPLETION
The researchers say that people experiencing work-to-family conflict suffer from resource depletion, which is when people simply run out of time and energy. This has implications for how they choose to spend time at work. When they feel low on time and energy, they are more likely to choose work tasks that won’t further drain their resources. They’d want to avoid particularly complex or difficult tasks, or tasks that don’t seem to offer immediate payoffs. Instead, they might gravitate toward the “easier” parts of their jobs, or things that provide instant gratification, in an effort to replenish their resources.
But there is a problem with doing too much of the “easy” work and shying away from the difficult work. Self-discrepancy theory says that we are always comparing our “actual” self with our “ideal” self. It’s the difference between what we do and what we want to do. When there is a large discrepancy, we might become depressed or overly anxious. For this reason, avoiding the “difficult” parts of the job may take a psychological toll on people, because they wouldn’t be living up to the expectations that they have for themselves as employees.
HARMFUL OUTCOMES OF WORK-FAMILY CONFLICT
The researchers found that when employees have larger discrepancies between how they want to spend their work time (their “ideal self”) versus how they actually spend their work time, they also have lower levels of work satisfaction, physical well-being, and psychological well-being. They also found that these discrepancies are the reason that work-to-family conflict causes lowered work satisfaction and well-being. Basically, work-to-family conflict makes them spend their time on things they don’t want to do, and then they suffer because of it. To top it off, employees suffering from work-to family conflict spend less time on the more challenging parts of their job, which is why they also have lower salaries.
This study highlights the challenges associated with work-family conflict. But not all hope is lost. The researchers make several recommendations: First, if people feel the need to avoid particularly complex tasks, we might want to find ways to make the tasks less complex and more gratifying. For example, we might try breaking larger tasks into smaller portions. Second, we need to be aware of how work-to-family conflict leads us to choose tasks that leave us unfulfilled, which may be the first step in avoiding these poor choices. We can also find ways to “recharge our batteries” and restore our resources. This can be as simple as taking a break during the workday, or engaging in after-work relaxation activities.
For managers, say the authors, this research has implications for how work tasks ought to be scheduled. Too much complex work might not provide time for employees to replenish resources. Instead easier and less demanding tasks could be mixed in with the more resource-demanding tasks. Also, a simple change like scheduling complex work in the morning when people may be more alert, might go a long way toward lessening the burden on those struggling with work-to-family conflict.