New research led by William Paterson University sociology professor Deniz Yucel paints a picture of working from home that isn’t as rosy as popular belief often conveys.
Despite its advantages—such as not having to commute and all-day access to one’s home kitchen—the study published in the journal Community, Work and Family discovered that working from home can increase, rather than decrease, feelings that work demands and family demands conflict with one another.
The new study, conducted with professor Heejung Chung of University of Kent in the UK, found this to be especially true for women, who often perform more housework and childcare when working from home versus working outside the home. When those women are mothers of children under the age of 6, feelings of work-to-family conflict are that much stronger. When taking workers’ gender role attitudes into account, women with egalitarian gender role attitudes report more work-to-family conflict when working from home than do women with traditional gender role attitudes.
On the contrary, working from home was found to reduce work-to-family conflict for men. The study suggests that this could be due to men traditionally sharing less of the housework and family-related activities or due to the differences in their work-family ideals compared to women.
“There is a lot of overlap between work and family because of the 24/7 economy we’re in,” says Yucel, who has dedicated the past four years of her research to topics centered on understanding work-family interface. “Although most families are less traditional than before, we are still finding overall gender differences in how work and family are related; the workload issues are still traditional.”
Overall, the study shows, men report more work-to-family conflict—such as an argument with a colleague affecting their mood with family. Meanwhile, women report more family-to-work conflict—such as when they have to leave work early to take a sick child to the doctor.
“The role the individual perceives they are mainly responsible for—either breadwinning or caregiving—shapes how they perceive and respond to family demands conflicting with work demands or work demands conflicting with family demands,” the study says.
“Therefore, if family already creates conflict in work for women, working from home—in the same space as the family—can have a negative effect on their wellbeing,” Yucel adds.
She points out that working from home is not, in and of itself, an indicator for an employee’s feelings of work-to-family or family-to-work conflict, though. How much power employees have in controlling the activities of their workday, how much they control their schedule, and the overall workplace culture surrounding issues of family are also important.
Yucel and Chung coincidentally undertook their study right before the COVID-19 pandemic, which thrust scores of workers internationally into having to work from home.
“Although working from home is a timely topic in most workplaces right now, having to work from home for a set amount of time per week is not always positive,” Yucel stresses. “The important thing in terms of employee wellbeing is that arrangements are flexible. Maybe one employee prefers 30 hours in the office and only 10 at home. There are lots of policy implications here for employers and stakeholders.”
Data used in the study about workers and families came from Germany. Yucel is currently exploring the effects of working from home using Census Survey data in the U.S. She suspects the negative effects on working mothers in the U.S. will be more pronounced yet due to the U.S. government providing less paid parental leave. Additionally, she points out, while the majority of working mothers in Germany work part-time, the majority of U.S. mothers are likely working fulltime and, perhaps, overtime.
Drawing on her cumulative research experience in work-family issues, Yucel adds, “The happier you are at work, the happier you are in life—salary and personal finances notwithstanding.”
Yucel and Chung say their research paper, titled “Working from home, work-family conflict, and the role of gender and gender role attitudes,” is the first of its kind in that it specifically explores how working from home impacts family-related conflict while also testing how gender role attitudes play a factor therein.
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