What Is Work-Family Conflict?

illustrating work-family conflict with three stacks of balancing gray rocks on a beach

We are more than just our jobs. Sure, our work might be very important to us, but we have a life outside of work too. Our work makes demands on our time and attention, but so do people outside of work, most notably our families. Work-family conflict happens when we struggle to juggle these two aspects of our lives, but exactly what is work-family conflict and why is it important?

What Is Work-Family Conflict?

Work family conflict occurs when demands at work compete with demands at home. There are three main types identified by Jeffrey Greenhaus and Nicholas Beutell.

  • Time-based conflict exists when there are competing family and work demands that occur at the same time (e.g., meeting with a child’s teacher at the same time as a work meeting), or when there are not enough hours in a day to adequately address demands from both sides.
  • Strain-based conflict exists when stress from one domain interferes or “spills over” into the other. This might happen when an argument with the spouse puts you in a bad mood at work, or when frustrations at work result in an argument with your child.
  • Behavior-based conflict exists when you have a hard time switching gears from one domain to the other, sometimes treating your spouse like a coworker or a customer like your child.

All three forms of conflict can create challenges at home and at work.

Why Is Work-Family Conflict a Problem for Employees?

Work-family conflict can be stressful for employees and family members. It can lead to arguments and interpersonal conflicts with spouses, children, coworkers and supervisors when it is impossible to adequately meet all demands. People with excessive work-family conflict can experience anger/frustration, anxiety, burnout, and other forms of strain. It can undermine family satisfaction and job satisfaction, leading to general unhappiness, for both employees and family members.

Why Is Work-Family Conflict a Problem for Employers?

It goes without saying that time-based work-family conflict can create difficulties as employees juggle competing demands. Often work tasks will be compromised as employees prioritize families. However, the negative impact of work-family conflict goes beyond time conflicts. Excessive stress at work can create significant problems in the workplace. When employees are struggling to cope with stressful conditions, it affects motivation and behavior in ways that interfere with the job. Some possible outcomes include.

  • Accidents and Injuries. Stress can make it difficult to concentrate as well as lead to fatigue. Both increase the chances that someone will fail to pay attention to what they are doing, which can lead to performance errors and accidents.
  • Degraded Performance. It is difficult to perform at your best when working under stress. Difficulties in concentrating on tasks and fatigue can interfere with good job performance.
  • Employee Turnover. One way for employees to cope with excessive work-family conflict is to quit their jobs. Companies that ignore such conflicts can experience retention issues with their employees.
  • Reduced Engagement. It is difficult for employees to maintain engagement and motivation when they are experiencing conflicts between work and nonwork. One way many cope is to reduce contributions at work.
  • Service Failures. It is difficult to provide top-notch customer service when working under stressful conditions. The burnout and negative emotional reactions by stressed employees can be visible to customers and can undermine the customer experience.

Building Climates of Flexibility

There is a lot that companies can do to help their employees manage work-family conflict. Perhaps the most effective approach is to allow employees flexibility in how, when, and where they do their jobs. This is possible for many jobs where the accomplishment of at least some tasks is not restricted by place and time. This is certainly true for college professors where we must come to campus for class and meetings, but many other tasks can be done anywhere we have internet access. Allowing flexibility makes it easier for employees to structure their activities to balance work and family demands, such as making sure the doctor’s appointment for a child is at a different time from a work meeting.

A challenge for many organizations is making sure that “family-friendly” policies, designed to minimize work-family conflict, are followed by individual supervisors. Often supervisors do not embrace flexibility and refuse to allow employees to make use of such policies. Some supervisors will grudgingly allow employees to make use of policies, but then punish them later with less than stellar performance reviews, or lack of support for promotion. What is needed is the development of an organizational climate that supports family-friendly policies. As I discussed in a previous blog, such climates are built from the top down by first setting policies, and then instituting them by taking actions to be sure day-to-day practices follow. Organizations that build such climates will be more attractive places to work, which is helpful for employee engagement, recruitment, and retention. In the end this produces a win-win situation for both employees who are better able to juggle work and family demands, and organizations who have employees better able to meet the challenges of work.

Photo by Shiva Smyth from Pexels:

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