Work/Family Balance Myths Exploded


Harried parents shuttle kids to and from school, sports and music lessons. They rouse tired children out of warm beds and supervise homework like drill sergeants. At work, with summer over, they are faced with increasing responsibilities.

As a result, people report working more hours than they used to and feel more rushed than they did 30 years ago, say psychologists Virginia Smith Major, Katherine J. Klein and Mark G. Ehrhart. Canadians report working 50 hours a week, up from the 35-40 hour average work week four decades ago. The trend is not healthy, according Major, Klein and Ehrhart.

Working long hours makes it a struggle to balance work and home life and is related to increases in psychological distress, including depression, marital problems and worries about physical illness.

According to Major, Klein and Ehrhart, of the University of Maryland, concerns about an ever-expanding work week are well-founded. Their research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology last summer, surveyed 513 employees at a Fortune 500 company in the U.S. The study found that when work interferes with family time, people become distressed, putting employees and the company at risk.

More than half of the respondents had kids at home and worked an average of 47.14 hours per week, with 82.5 hours the most logged in one week. They generally earned over $60,000 US a year and worked in managerial, professional, technical, human resources, manufacturing and clerical positions.

The study indicated that companies that demand long hours risk poor job performance, higher rates of absenteeism and increased turnover.

Yet, the researchers observed that dangerous myths about balancing work and family persist.

Myth #1

Organizations reward long hours, so they’re worth putting in even if worker and family health suffers.

The researchers found that in fact, organizations did not appear to reward long hours. Companies seemed to take workers who put in extended hours for granted, while those who refused extra hours seemed to worry that there were perks they were missing out on. Either way, long hours did not result in significant returns to the employee.

Myth #2

People with children, especially young children, work less than other workers.

Data shows that time spent at work is unrelated to the number or ages of workers’ children. Work tends to impinge more on the family than the other way around.

Myth #3

Family- friendly company policies are the answer to work- family balance problems.

Policies, such as flexible schedules, that give employees opportunities to attend to family needs have been touted as a panacea for stressed workers. While helpful, these policies don’t always address the problem of too much time at work. The study showed that the more hours a worker puts in during the week, the more they reported that work interfered with family responsibilities.

Myth #4

Long work hours have no real effect on employee well-being or their families, but long days do boost the bottom line.

Working longer hours is related to psychological strain and employee concerns about deteriorating physical health. Couples experience increases in marital distress, individuals report more depression and anxiety, and companies find productivity declines due to a lack of worker retention and absenteeism.

Myth #5

People who have too many family obligations (e.g., people with preschoolers, elder care responsibilities, lots of housework, single parents) are stressed by family demands – not workplace responsibilities.

Employees who have too much to do in too little time or believe their supervisors expect lots of “face-time” tend to put in lots of hours. When the organizational culture impresses upon workers that long hours lead to productivity, employees tend to put in many unnecessary hours.

Reducing total hours worked may require providing employees with the right tools and resources to do the job. Streamlining by giving clearer direction, reducing meeting times – both frequency and length and learning to teach priorities, can also decrease the number of hours worked.

Encouraging frank discussions about what is a priority and negotiating reasonable timelines may help too. An organizational culture that values the appearance of busyness, face-time or arbitrary deadlines may need to rethink that culture.

At the same time, workers who, due to their commitment, chose to work long hours even though they complain about their lack of time are advised to review the physical and psychological effects of their choices: they may be working themselves toward a sickbed.


Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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