Family Life for Working Parents: Is the home a haven or a source of stress?

Human beings are social by nature, and it is fascinating that the way we interact with each other has a profound impact on both psychological and physical health. Stephen Lepore & Tracey Revenson captured this sentiment well by stating that “social relationships are often a complicated brew of interactions that are at turns pleasant and supportive or aversive and hindering” (2011). In the context of a family, there are many positive and negative interactions that occur between spouses, between children, and between parents and their children, often on a daily basis. It is important to understand how these interactions affect both psychological and physical health. Recently, there has been more studies using naturalistic approaches (rather than using a controlled laboratory approach) to assess how daily family events influence both psychological and physiological indicators of stress and well-being.

One study using such an approach discussed the effects of job stress spillover into the home. In other words, they investigated whether high levels of stress at work would cause your negative mood to “spillover” or “carryover” into the home setting. The findings indicated that negative mood permeated into the home following a stressful workday for dual-earner couples such that high stress at work was associated with high anger, impatience, and criticism at home (Repetti, et al., 2011). However, they also found that a low-conflict home environment served as a protective factor against negative mood spillover following high stress days at work. In other words, if your home environment is low in conflict, aggression, or hostility, then you will be less likely to carry over your negative mood from work into the home on a stressful workday. For those with highly stressful jobs and low-conflict households, the home may be a haven and protect you from carrying over negative mood from the workplace into your family life. The implication that a supportive, low-conflict home environment can attenuate negative mood spillover from work is fascinating!

I can’t help but ask—is there any evidence that there would be positive mood spillover from the workplace into the home environment, particularly for individuals who enjoy their job? One might suspect that a parent highly satisfied with their job would have more positive mood at home after an enjoyable workday. Interestingly, no study that I could find has examined this research question (please leave a comment if there is, in fact, such a study that you know of!)  Nonetheless, I found interesting implications from other studies that answered bits and pieces of my question.

A study by Adams, King, and King from 1996 indicated that a high level of job involvement was associated with a high level of job satisfaction. However, both job involvement and job satisfaction were correlated with high levels of work interfering with family life at home! In other words, high job satisfaction was related to more conflict in the home. Although this data is correlational, one might start to think about the causal inferences: conflict in the home may rise if a parent is overly involved with his or her job, simultaneously spending less time at home and more time at work. If this is the case, would such a parent report high levels of job satisfaction because their work environment is now a place to escape the rising conflict at home? More simply, parents that live in high-conflict home environments may use their time spent at work as a much-needed break from house hold conflict.

This is precisely the trend that the sociologist Arlie Hochschild identified in her book The Time Bind (first published in 1997); home becomes work and work becomes home for parents in dual-earner families. This article from the New York Times describing how working mothers use business trips to relax and catch up on sleep further illustrates this trend of “home-work reversal”. As Repetti and colleagues indicated in their paper, a low-conflict home environment can be a haven for those with a stressful job, but is the opposite also true? Can a low-conflict work environment be a refuge for those with a stressful home?

Another trend that Hochschild discusses is the unequal proportion of housework and chores that working mothers complete compared to their spouses, a phenomenon she refers to as “the second shift” (more information on this conceptualization can be found in her other book, The Second Shift). Hochschild argues that home becomes literally becomes a second job for working wives rather than a relaxing environment. Interestingly, further results from the article I mentioned earlier by Repetti and colleagues indicated that “wives showed lower evening cortisol and a greater afternoon-to-evening cortisol drop when if their husbands devoted more time to housework” (p.291). Cortisol is a stress hormone, activated by the body’s “fight-or-flight” response system, and is generally used as a neuroendocrine biomarker of stress. What are the implications, then, both emotionally and physiologically for working wives who devote a disproportionate amount of time on housework compared to their husbands? Given that husbands show healthier physiological patterns of cortisol secretion when their wives spend less time in leisure, yet women show healthier physiological patterns of cortisol when their husbands spend more time doing housework—it is unclear who should do the chores or who gets to snore.

Back to my original question from the title of this blog post: Is the home a haven or a source of stress for working parents? It seems that it can be either (and probably both from time to time), depending on many factors. These complex relationships between (positive and negative) mood spillover, conflict at home, time spent in leisure, time spent doing housework, job satisfaction, and job involvement for dual-earner families suggest that there is more research needed to investigate emotional and physiological well-being in the context of both family and work environments. Naturalistic studies using repeated measures (e.g., daily diaries, diurnal cortisol) and direct observation (e.g., behavioral coding) may be the most effective way to assess how these factors interact with each other and ultimately relate to psychological and physiological well-being, allowing us to make generalizable claims beyond what occurs in a controlled laboratory setting.


Lepore, S. J., & Revenson, T. A. (2007). Social constraints on disclosure and adjustment to cancer. Social and Personality Psychology Compass1(1), 313-333.

Repetti, R. L., Wang, S. W., & Saxbe, D. E. (2011). Adult health in the context of everyday family life. Annals of Behavioral Medicine42(3), 285-293.

Adams, G. A., King, L. A., & King, D. W. (1996). Relationships of job and family involvement, family social support, and work–family conflict with job and life satisfaction. Journal of applied psychology81(4), 411.

Hochschild, A. (1997). The time bind. WorkingUSA1(2), 21-29.

Hochschild, A. R., & Machung, A. (1989). The second shift: Working parents and the revolution at home (pp. 464-488). New York: Viking.