Study: Receiving work-related communication at home takes greater toll on women

Mar 08, 2011

Communication technologies that help people stay connected to the workplace are often seen as solutions to balancing work and family life. However, a new study in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior suggests there may be a "dark side" to the use of these technologies for workers' health—and these effects seem to differ for women and men.

Using data from a national survey of American workers, University of Toronto researchers asked study participants how often they were contacted outside the workplace by phone, e-mail, or text about work-related matters. They found that who were contacted frequently by supervisors, coworkers, or clients reported higher levels of psychological distress. In contrast, men who received frequent work-related contact outside of normal hours were less affected by it.

"Initially, we thought women were more distressed by frequent work contact because it interfered with their responsibilities more so than men," says lead author Paul Glavin, a PhD candidate in sociology at U of T. "However, this wasn't the case. We found that women are able to juggle their work and family lives just as well as men, but they feel more guilty as a result of being contacted. This guilt seems to be at the heart of their distress."

The findings show that many women feel guilty dealing with work issues at home even when the work-related contact doesn't interfere with their family lives. Men, on the other hand, are less likely to experience guilt when responding to work-related issues at home.

Co-author Scott Schieman says the findings suggest that men and women may still encounter different expectations over the boundaries separating work and family life—and these different expectations may have unique emotional consequences.

"Guilt seems to play a pivotal role in distinguishing women's work-family experiences from men's," says Schieman, a U of T sociology professor and lead investigator of the larger study that funded this research. "While women have increasingly taken on a central role as economic providers in today's dual-earner households, strong cultural norms may still shape ideas about family responsibilities. These forces may lead some women to question or negatively evaluate their family role performance when they're trying to navigate work issues at home."

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