Health affected by work-family conflict

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Repeatedly thinking about conflicts between work and family life can have a negative impact on health, according to a recent study published in the Stress & Health journal. The research identified a direct correlation between work-family conflict, repetitive thought and six different health categories.

Conducted by Judith Gere, Kelly D. Davis and Martin J. Sliwinski, the study began with a group of 1,250 people who received a survey related to work-family stress. Of the 1,250 people, only people who lived with a romantic partner and held consistent jobs were used, which amounted to 203 individuals.

A work-family conflict refers to any kind of conflict between personal and work-related life, of which the study separates into three main categories. The first category, time-based conflict, could be an individual continuously thinking about an upcoming work presentation and his or her child’s important sporting event happening at the same time.

The second category, or a strain-based conflict, could be someone being exhausted from work and feeling as if he or she cannot tend to someone he or she cares about at home. The third category, or a behavior-based conflict, could be a person thinking about how his or her family-oriented behavior may be looked down upon by his or her colleagues and thus lead to bias in the workplace.

In terms of psychological health, these types of role conflicts have been linked in previous studies to anxiety, depressive symptoms, lower life satisfaction and psychological distress. They have also been linked to mood and substance dependence disorders, with individuals experiencing work-family conflict being 1.99 to 3.13 times more likely to develop these disorders as compared to people without these conflicts. The six health categories that this study in particular focused on were fatigue, health conditions, life satisfaction, perceived health, positive affect and negative affect. Positive and negative affect are the extent to which an individual experiences positive and negative moods. For this study there were 22 health conditions used to identify how a person’s health was affected, such as diabetes, elevated blood pressure, fatigue and stroke.

Thinking repeatedly about work-family conflicts can cause negative health effects. Photo by: Agata Poniatowski

The study, primarily led by Davis, assessed how the 203 participants were affected by work-family conflicts through the use of four different questionnaires, each measuring factors such as thought suppression, life satisfaction, fatigue, perceived health and other health problems. These questionnaires also noted other factors, such as age, gender, income, socioeconomic index and study location.

Although research into the correlation between work-family conflicts and health conditions has been conducted in the past, no study before this fully examined the mechanisms that explain the association between the two. Through the use of these questionnaires, the scientists proved that repetitive thought was a potentially large mechanism that affected the relation between negative health outcomes and role conflict.

Repetitive thoughts correlate with two other kinds of cognition: rumination, a persistent thinking of the past linked to depression, and worry, a persistent thinking into the future linked with anxiety. A technique suggested by Davis to deal with these kinds of thinking is mindfulness. She suggests paying attention to present-moment experiences such as affective states, imagery, perceptions, sensations and thoughts, all in a nonjudgmental way.

“You stay in the moment and acknowledge what you are feeling, recognize that those are real feelings, and process them, putting things in perspective,” Davis said.

To improve health for workers at home and in the workplace, Davis also advised that coping strategies be implemented at the organizational level for businesses. A business could provide mindfulness training to cultivate a more supportive culture that recognizes that employees have a life outside of work. This would also benefit the businesses since stressors heighten arousal, making it difficult to concentrate on anything other than the source of the stress.