The rise of work family conflict for fathers and what makes it worse

Photo: Naka7a. Creative Commons.

Men are getting more unhappy with the balance between their work and family life, especially fathers with children under 18.

Men are getting more unhappy with the balance between their work and family life, especially fathers with children under 18. The “new male mystique” is at work and is raising expectations about family life faster than the workplace is changing.

In 2008, 49% of employed men with families reported experiencing work family conflict, up significantly from 34% in 1977. This includes both how much work interferes with family life and how much family life interferes with work.

These figures are averages across all family men. If we look at men in dual earner couples with children under 18, the conflict is a lot higher – 60% of men experienced it in 2008.

We suggest that the increase in work-family conflict experienced by men is a symptom of the “new male mystique”—today’s male version of the “feminine mystique”. This term was coined by Betty Friedan in 1963 to describe how assumptions about women finding fulfillment in traditional domestic roles created tension and conflict for a number of women, preventing them from finding their identities and opportunities for meaningful work. The “traditional male mystique” sees men as financial providers. The “new male mystique” also encourages men to aspire to greater participation in family life.

The “ideal” man today is not only a good employee working long hours to be a successful breadwinner, but is also an involved and nurturing husband/partner, father and son. Some men struggle because they have traditional gender role values that may feel out of sync with the world of work and family today. Others struggle because society and their workplaces are out of sync with the realities of their lives. Thus, many men are caught between these old and new worlds and are bound to experience some conflict between work and family.

What are the risk factors for greater work family conflict?

Family men who work long hours are more likely to experience work family conflict: 29% of fathers who work under 40 hours a week report it, while 60% of fathers who work 50 or more hours report it.

Interestingly, there is no correlation between work family conflict and the amount of time fathers spend on childcare and housework. They are not more likely to report more conflict if they do more of these things.

We found a number of factors about the nature of men’s work that increase the chances of work family conflict:

  • If the man reports his job is very demanding.
  • If the man is contacted by work outside of his working hours, blurring the boundaries between work and home.
  • If the man feels his job is insecure.

Men who report that work are their top priority (more than caring and housework) are more likely to report work family conflict, regardless of how many hours they actually work. So are men who hold traditional gender role values, that is, strongly agree the man should earn the money and the woman should take care of the home and children. Perhaps these men, despite their work-centric attitudes, still face pressure from their families and peers to spend more time with their families – so they are caught between two conflicting ideals.

Workplace factors that reduce work family conflict

We found the following factors help to reduce work family conflict:

  • Supervisor support for managing work life balance
  • Coworker support
  • Access to schedules that fit their needs and real access to workplace flexibility (which means a culture where it really is OK to work flexibly).