In North America and Europe, the dual earner model is now more common than the male breadwinner model. Men and women no longer specialise in one role. Both are involved in paid work and care for children and elderly. The challenge of this juggling act is to maintain optimal performance at work and at home. Although jugglers may perform well on the core tasks required of them, the aspects of work and family life that are less urgent, compulsory, or obvious are often easier to neglect.
For instance, a parent might leave the office in time to pick up their kid from school, but then, exhausted, lack the energy to listen to their partner while fixing dinner later that night. Or, a person might manage to complete a work report by their deadline but miss out on happy hour and a chance to connect with their colleagues due to responsibilities at home. In other words, juggling multiple roles can put relationships under pressure — because we simply can’t do it all.
Or can we? We set out to discover this in a set of two studies, guided by the following research question:
How do demands and the amount of support received at work or at home affect the amount of support a person gives to their spouse or co-workers, and how does this in turn, affect the relationship of their larger family or team?
Study #1: Providing Support at Home
Our first study examined 26 heterosexual dual-earner couples, between the ages of 22 and 57, in the Netherlands. Eighty-nine percent of the couples had children, and all worked at least three days a week — men for roughly 42,8 hours and women for roughly 29,8 hours — in industries ranging from commercial services to construction. Each spouse was given a notebook and wrote two brief logs per day for five consecutive days.
The first log was completed upon returning home from work. Spouses reflected on the emotional demands of their jobs — dealing with difficult clients, projects, or deadlines — as well as on whether or not they had received emotional support from co-workers.
The second log was completed before going to bed. Spouses evaluated their time at home, assessing how much emotional support they had given to their partner by listening to problems or showing affection.
They also rated the relationships among their family members that night, noting how well everyone got along.
The results showed that the workday of each spouse had a significant impact on their relationships at home, but the impact was quite different for husbands and wives. Consider one couple from our sample (names have been changed): Tim (36) and Lisa (31), both school teachers, who are married and have three children under the age of ten. Tim works five days and 38 hours per week; Lisa works three days and 24 hours per week.
When Tim came home after emotionally draining days in the classroom, both he and Lisa reported that he was a poor listener. He seemed distracted during Lisa’s recollections about her day and showed less affection and concern for her feelings in general. Consequently, the couple rated the time they spent together as a family worse — tense and less enjoyable.
We observed this pattern throughout our sample. When husbands had stressful workdays with extensive emotional demands, they provided less support to their wives. On these days, both spouses often rated the time the family spent together poorly.
In contrast, when wives were put in the same situation, their stressful workdays did not affect how much emotional support they provided to their husbands, nor did it affect the quality of the time the family spent together. When Lisa had an emotionally taxing day at work, for example, she was still able to show up for Tim at home, and hence, the time the family spent together was not affected.
Moreover, after a rewarding workday, Lisa provided even more emotional support to Tim, and the overall quality of their family time improved — another pattern we found among the women in sample. When men had a rewarding day at work, however, they did not provide more emotional support to their wives, nor did the quality of family time improve.
These findings prompted us to replicate the study in the reverse direction.
Study #2: Providing Support at Work
In our second study, we aimed to discover if family life similarly affects how much emotional support employees give to their colleagues at work, and whether or not the gender pattern we found is consistent. We enrolled 128 employees — 64 pairs of colleagues who work closely together, ages ranging between 18 and 64 in the Netherlands. The sample included 92 females who worked roughly 30,3 hours a week, 35 males who worked roughly 39,3 hours a week, and one participant who did not reveal their sex. This time, 63 percent of the subjects had children.
Each co-worker filled in two logs per day for five consecutive days. Before work, they reflected on their morning at home and recorded any emotional demands they had experienced — arguments or tense moments with family members — as well as any appreciation or affection they had received from their spouse.
At the end of the workday, each co-worker assessed how much emotional support they had given to their focal colleague, such as listening to a problem or providing encouragement.
They also rated the quality of the relationships among the larger team that day, noting whether or not members were cooperative and enjoyed spending time together.
The results revealed the exact same gender pattern that we had found in our first study. Men who had emotionally draining mornings tended to provide less support to their colleague, resulting in an overall worse team dynamic.
Women, on the other hand, showed no change in the amount of support they provided to their colleague even after a rough morning at home. Similar to our previous finding, women who had rewarding mornings at home tended to give their focal colleague more emotional support than usual, resulting in an overall better team dynamic.
Both studies confirm a pattern whereby men seem to reduce emotional support when demands in another role become too heavy. Women provide emotional support regardless of their demands in another role, and they also “pass on” the support they receive in one role by giving more emotional support in another role, thereby boosting relationships.
There are a few. The first might be that gender norms affect pro-social behaviour. While stereotypes regarding male and female behaviour are becoming more and more outdated, research tells us that men and women are often still exposed to different expectations from a young age.
Women are often expected to be communal, which is typically reflected in caring for and nurturing others. There is more pressure on them to be “kin keepers” who manage relationships within the family and the community.
Men are traditionally expected to be more agentic from a young age — rational, strategic, and assertive — even if this results in being less cooperative and considerate. — Harvard Business Review