Monday, 7 February 2011

Hey co-worker, your family stresses affect me, too

Kim is a little worried about her co-worker Greg. She hears all about his home issues: young kids, ill mother, and a house sale turned ugly.

You hear that his mammoth project has been stuttering recently - unsurprising.

It seems to have affected Kim a little too...

wonder how she is finding work right now?

Greg is experiencing family-work interference (FWI), where an individual struggles in the workplace, home, or in both domains, due to the conflicting demands they make. These include time demands and stresses, together with required behaviours - a workplace may expect an objective and cool style, whereas a family wants your openness and warmth. We vary in how we experience this: men are most likely to perceive the problem as family obstructing their work, rather than the reverse, and ‘Type-A’ traits are associated with more FWI. All in all, though, these clashes cause problems.

Now a new study by Lieke ten Brummelhuis and colleagues suggests that an employee’s levels of FWI affects not just themselves, but their co-workers too. They studied 1,430 pairs of employees from a Dutch policing organisation, and measured whether the FWI of one employee correlated with more sick days and stronger intention to leave the organisation for both members of the pair. They discovered it did: higher FWI produced worse outcomes on both measures for the employee themselves, and somewhat more weakly for their co-worker as well.

The team provide evidence that the negative outcomes are due to the transmission of emotional states from one co-worker to the other, a process called crossover. They measured states commonly associated with FWI: burnout, where exhaustion and doubts stack up to make daily responsibilities a struggle, and low levels of engagement, an attunement with your job, organisation, profession. The study showed that both crossed-over, and also showed that each appears to have a distinct effect. Burnout was more likely to lead to sick days, whereas lack of engagement, by eroding loyalty, increases intention to leave.

How the feelings caused by FWI cross-over isn’t fully understood. It’s likely to be a combination of negative banter, atmosphere, and displaced tasks from the overloaded employee. As such, it's premature on the basis of this research to recommend how to reduce the cross-over; some may be due to too much sharing between colleagues and some due to too little. But we can clearly see the benefit in seeking to reduce FWI for each and every employee, as the consequences can be far spreading. When Greg is feeling the strain, Kim may be feeling it, too.

Ten Brummelhuis, L.L., Bakker, A.B., Euwema, M.C. (2010). Is family-to-work interference related to co-workers' work outcomes? Journal of Vocational Behavior, 77(3), 461-469, DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2010.06.001


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