Work and home have always been seen as opposite sides of a divide. Different sides of life which shouldn’t be allowed to mix. When they do bump together there’s problems: bosses irritated by phone calls home and employees leaving early to pick up the kids; people tired of partners being late, bringing work home and never far away from their laptop.
But perhaps that’s the wrong way of looking at things. Maybe, says new research [https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2022-15372-001], a positive working environment has real benefits for relationships at home, and vice-versa.
Work routines and demands will always mean basic issues for the average working family to deal with. There are questions over how household chores are shared out. Who deserves to have the lighter duties? Who takes a day off to be with a poorly child? Who takes a lead on sorting out school admin and help with homework? The stresses and strains — and the need to have difficult conversations — obviously don’t only occur in the workplace.
Researchers at the University of Bath (alongside IESE Business School and Vrije Universiteit in the Netherlands) looked at the experiences of 260 couples where both partners were working. They had wanted to find out more about where people turned for support and advice about their work/life balance.
They were surprised to find the extent to which employees turned to their ‘work-spouses’, colleagues who they could open up and talk to about struggles at work and home, and the way in which this is part of a ‘gain spiral’ of more open conversations. This is where supportive relationships at work, a feeling of being able to have open conversations and talk about personal situations and issues, also led to improved relationships at home. At the same time, the research found that loving and supportive relationships at home led to more dedication and creativity at work. “If you’re happy at work,” say the researchers, “you’ll be happier at home, which in turn will make you better at your job.”
The conclusion is that relationships at both work and home are an important resource, and strongly influence each other. In turn, that means employers should support and encourage better quality relationships among people who work closely together — and also think about how they can help improve home relationships (limiting working hours, stopping ‘always on’ working and being more flexible about demands from home).
What’s missing in this thinking is how a positive environment of workplace relationships comes about in the first place. It’s not by accident. Evidence suggests that many workplaces aren’t necessarily filled with supportive colleagues. There isn’t always a culture of trust, openness and goodwill. And what does the ongoing, day-to-day experience of a toxic workplace do for home life and the relationships there?
In other words, good levels of conversations skills and good practices around conversations are critical to this picture. The real message should be that people need skills (such as listening, empathy, self-awareness), and having the ability to use conversation as way to deal with misunderstandings and grievances and de-fuse difficult situations is what matters. These skills, used at work and in the home, help create that positive cycle of harmonious relationships that’s so important for everyone.