Unemployed spouse bad for your job productivity

Ignoring the stresses of an unemployed spouse's job search does not bode well for the employed spouse's job productivity or home life, says a University of Colorado Boulder professor.

Associate Professor Maw-Der Foo of CU-Boulder's Leeds School of Business studies employee workplace issues, including those related to interpersonal relationships.

Foo and lead author Professor Zhaoli Song of the National University of Singapore co-authored a paper titled "Unravelling the Stress Crossover Between the Unemployed and Their Spouses," which was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Stress on married couples

In the study they examined daily stresses experienced by married couples, in which one spouse was employed and the other unemployed, and how that stress affected each spouse.

"One of the key findings in this study is that couples are better at sharing their burden than helping alleviate it," Foo said. "If you feel bad at home there is going to be spill-over at work where you will also feel lousy. Going into the study, we thought that marital support might help alleviate the stress of unemployment on the family unit, but it didn't turn out to be the case."

Organisations should be more supportive

One of the take-home messages from the study and others Foo has conducted on the workplace is that organisations need to be more sensitive and supportive when their employees have family members - particularly a spouse - who are unemployed.

"Organisations can implement family-friendly policies to help their employees fulfil their family roles, which in turn may increase the employee's productivity," he said.

However, in difficult economic times, many organisations may elect to limit some services for their employees, such as couples counselling, due to their cost.

"Couples counselling may fall into the category of company cutbacks now, because programmes such as these usually don't affect the bottom line until some time down the road," Foo said. "Our findings call for more attention on the family as an integrated system in response to the unemployment situation."

The study

In the study, which took place in Shenyang, China, each couple turned in a daily report of their distresses. The researchers examined the interaction between the work life and family life of the employed and unemployed spouse. Since they had responses from both employed and unemployed people, they were able to compare them and draw conclusions.

"For example, the spouse experiencing job stress may reduce his or her marital support to their spouse, which then leads to more stress for the unemployed spouse, who then returns the favour and adds even more stress," Foo said.

Crossover effect

One of the unique parts of the study, Foo said, is that they studied couples' interactions daily for two weeks. In particular, they looked at what is called the crossover effect, which refers to a situation when each spouse transmits and catches the stresses of the other.

"We looked at the unemployed person's activities and their distress, but we also looked at the work experience of the employed person, and how that also spills over to the family relationship," he said.

Foo said that examining the stress and coping mechanisms among couples facing the problem of unemployment more closely may also provide some practical insights to family counsellors, psychotherapists and other practitioners, who can then develop family-focused interventions to prevent the breakdown of relationships. - (EurekAlert!, February 2011)

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