Work and life are often thought of as a zero-sum of hours in conflict but work-life balance also depends on investment in care and men’s full participation in the home.
The Covid-19 pandemic has led us to rethink radically how we live, work and combine the two. But even before the pandemic work-life conflict had come to be a key concern in European societies, in the context of the elevated employment of women, the changing nature of work, population ageing and anxieties in some quarters over low fertility.
Under the traditional, ‘male breadwinner’ model, the competing demands of work and family were managed by a division of labour between the sexes, whereby men were primarily responsible for paid work, women for caring. Increasingly, however, European citizens have to combine caring and employment roles, with consequences for work-family tension.
The central idea in work-life conflict is that meeting demands in one domain can make it difficult to meet demands in the other. Research on the work-family interface has been dominated by the idea that time and energy are not transferable. ‘Time-based conflict’ then arises when time spent on responsibilities associated with one role is not available for the other. ‘Strain-based conflict’ occurs when pressures arising in one domain make it difficult to fulfil other obligations.
Work-life conflict potentially has many negative effects. There can be impacts on personal effectiveness, physical and mental health, the ability to engage in paid work at all, intimate-partner and child-parent relationships and even child development.
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A ‘demands-resources’ perspective frames much of the research. This distinguishes demands, or role requirements—such as working hours, work pressure and responsibility—and resources, the assets used to cope with these demands. People differ in their resources: some may enjoy a challenging job with long hours; others find that very stressful. For this reason, evaluating work-life conflict typically depends on an individual’s own assessment.
Work-life conflict is closely linked to paid work demands in terms of working time, intensity and scheduling of work. Long working hours are one of the factors most strongly and consistently linked with greater work-life conflict in Europe; part-time work is consistently associated with less. Working unsocial hours (evenings, nights, weekends) is also often associated with more work-life conflict.
Forms of working-time flexibility that benefit workers, such as ‘flexitime’, allow workers to vary working hours to facilitate family demands, such as dropping off children to school, and usually reduce work-life conflict experienced. By contrast, working-time flexibility that benefits employers, such as working overtime at short notice, typically increases work-life conflict, particularly if it happens often or there is a sense that the worker is always ‘on call’. People typically value jobs that are regular but somewhat flexible.
Yet other demands from work also play a role in work-life conflict. If a job is very stressful and emotionally demanding, this may leave an individual with diminished resources to participate in their personal life. Research has consistently found that work pressure is closely linked to work-life conflict, with those in very demanding jobs often experiencing spillovers to their home life.
In terms of resources, having supportive work colleagues or a supportive boss is, not surprisingly, usually associated with reduced conflict. One might expect that having greater control over the tasks, pace and timing of work would help alleviate conflict but research findings are somewhat ambiguous: job control often does not reduce conflict for individuals, which may suggest workers are not using their control to facilitate work-life balance.
Home demands, such as having caring responsibilities for young children or dependent adults, increase work-life conflict, particularly for women. How domestic work (caring or housework) is shared within the household can also influence work-life conflict, as does how well favourable gender-role attitudes are matched by behaviour. Couples with egalitarian attitudes who have egalitarian sharing arrangements tend to experience lower work-life conflict than other groups.
Comparing countries, some authors find that ‘family-friendly’ policies, such as support for childcare, tend to alleviate work-life conflict for families. Others find however that in countries where family-friendly policies lead to high labour-market participation by women this is associated with greater interference in domestic life, though women gain financially. Labour-market policies which set upper limits on working time tend to apply to workers generally and this indirectly reduces work-life conflict.
At European level, the Working Time Directive (2003) plays an important role in limiting long working hours. The Work-life Balance Directive(2019) seeks to reduce barriers to women’s labour-market participation, by more flexible work arrangements and family leave and efforts to ensure a more equal division of care.
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As European policy-makers try to increase the proportion of the population in paid work, particularly women, to enhance competitiveness and reduce poverty, work-life conflict is important to consider. The pandemic has highlighted how much we rely on caring—paid and unpaid—for the effective functioning of society. Creative ways to combine social and individual investment in child-rearing and adult care with skills accumulation and sustained participation in paid work over the life course need to be considered.
Many European societies, and the individuals who live in them, are struggling to find employment arrangements that are economically viable and beneficial to men, women and children. If the aim is to promote work-family balance and gender equality, policy measures need to be applied to fathers as well as mothers, since paid employment and unpaid domestic labour remain unequally distributed between men and women throughout Europe.
Evidence from the last recession suggested family financial pressures and firm difficulties exacerbated work-family conflict for those most affected but the pandemic has changed work in a rather different way. Up to half of workers across the European Union are currently working from home. Homeworking, for those who can, may offer new opportunities for combining work and home life—provided workers have the ‘right to disconnect’ and long working hours do not become the norm.
See all articles of our series on the role of women in the coronavirus economic crisis
Frances McGinnity is an associate research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute and adjunct professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin. Her research focuses on labour-market inequality, work-life balance, childcare, discrimination and migrant integration, in Ireland and from a comparative perspective.